'Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable': Surfer Talks Transition From Teen Athlete to Motherhood

Bethany Hamilton movie pic
Surfer Bethany Hamilton spoke with Newsweek about her new documentary, motherhood and her surfing career. Here, Hamilton is pictured in a promotional photo taken for documentary "Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable." Aaron Lieber

Surfer Bethany Hamilton famously survived a shark attack when she was 13 years old, but in Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable, she talks about one of her scariest experiences yet: motherhood.

Hamilton, now 28, was bitten by a 14-foot tiger shark while surfing in Kauai, Hawaii in 2003. She lost her left arm in the attack, but not her determination. The following year, Hamilton returned to surfing and competed in the National Surfing Championships. Ten years later, Hamilton won her first competition.

Narratives on Hamilton's life are nothing new. Before Unstoppable, two films were made about her: the 2007 documentary Heart of a Soul Surfer and 2011's Soul Surfer, where she was played by AnnaSophia Robb. The 2018 Tribeca Film Festival documentary, which is slated to debut Friday, expands on Hamilton's life, showing her as a mother-of-two and giving an inside look into her marriage to Adam Dirks.

Newsweek spoke with Hamilton about her new documentary, motherhood and her career as a professional surfer.

What took so long to bring this project to the public? Why didn't a documentary like this happen earlier in your career?

After we got married, we weren't really intending to have kids as soon as we did. Having a baby, kind of, slowed the whole process. I kept surfing after I had my first son, Tobias, and that became part of the story we wanted to share. That wasn't originally a part of the plan for the documentary, but its part of my favorite part. I love being a mom.

It definitely added an extra layer to the film, which was great. Since you come from a surfing family, do you plan on teaching Tobias how to surf?

Yeah, for sure. We live in Hawaii. I've taken him surfing and he actually likes it. He's still just a little guy, so we go to the park more than we go surfing. We go to the beach a lot too and play in the sand, but I definitely hope he likes surfing because I want to spend time surfing with him.

I know you were surfing while pregnant, and we see that in the film. Were you ever scared to do that?

Not really because surfing for me is kind of like walking. I just surfed until I felt uncomfortable, and I was like, "OK. Time to be done." I'm always working with my integrative health doctor and getting his advice. I felt good about it, and I also know my limits and my body really well. It wasn't really a big concern of mine.

What has it been like balancing your surfing career since becoming a mom?

I'm so thankful that I've been able to continue surfing. I never wanted my surf career or any career to get in the way of motherhood. It's been really cool to bring Tobias along, and now we have a second son, Wesley. We're a family unit. My husband's really involved in the behind-the-scenes stuff that we do and are working toward. We make things work.

This obviously isn't the first film on your life. You had Soul Surfer with AnnaSophia Robb as you, and little-known documentary Heart of a Soul Surfer. For those preparing to see Unstoppable this summer, what sets it apart from your previous movies?

It's completely different. I love Soul Surfer, but Unstoppable is the real me. It digs deeper into my adulthood journey. It almost carries on from the end of Soul Surfer and then life after that. It kind of touches on the earlier parts. I don't know if everyone who sees this will fully know my story or will have seen Soul Surfer. My other documentary didn't get viewed that much. It was really raw. [In Unstopppable], I'm capturing motherhood and the journey with that. It's so different from any other way my story has been told.

In the film, you talk about being labeled as "disabled" and "shark girl," and how it felt like you were being put into a box. How have you fought to overcome such labels?

I don't think about it as me overcoming those [labels]. I live my life how I see fit. Anytime I get on an airplane, I think: "Man, I should be the one opening the door for everyone." I feel like I'm really strong and super-abled. We touch on [being labeled disabled] in the film but I don't live my life thinking about how I'm going to overcome that. I live my life thinking about how I'm going to tackle my next dream or goal.

Since it's touched so minimally in the film, that just shows the whole picture of it not being a barrier to you.

Maybe someone else will see me and think [I'm] "disabled" but it's all about how we perceive our situation. I don't perceive myself as disabled. I don't live my life thinking like that. So often, we're held back by our mind and thoughts. The physical aspect of it is almost way less than that. I know some people with less limbs than me that are such amazing people and have accomplished so much. I hope [the film] will leave people thinking, "Hey, don't be held back by your mind."

Bethany, Aaron
Surfer Bethany Hamilton (R) is pictured speaking with filmmaker Aaron Lieber, who directed "Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable," on set of her documentary. Alex Munoz

You were dealing with your attack at such a young age publicly, which was a very personal and intimate situation. How did you cope with all the media attention?

I can't say I fully coped. I coped by going home and getting in the ocean. That was such a crazy, surreal time in my life—being so young and thrown into this crazy, hectic media world [and having a] really intense schedule was daunting. Once I got home, I appreciated the ocean so much. It was definitely a part of my life I wanted to share [in the documentary] because not a lot of people experience that. I really appreciate being able to share my life in different ways and being a role model for young women.

When you were a teen and dealing with your accident and surfing career, social media wasn't much of anything. What advice do you have for teen athletes growing up in the age of digital media?

Digital media is wild and has completely changed our world. [For] my next project after this film, I'm working on a young women's app to counterbalance digital media and have some light out there to encourage girls and their journey. [We need to] just be real with them. Sometimes you need to set that phone down, go be outside with your friends and take a break from those things. They're not always the most uplifting. I also have a couple of books I'm releasing.

Yes! "Unstoppable Me" and "Be Unstoppable" this June.

"Unstoppable Me" was such a fun project for my husband and I. He wrote it but I chimed in here and there. Suddenly being parents, we were so pumped to write a kids book. When you're reading a book over and over to your kid, you want it to be good. It's the worst when your kid wants to reread a book that's not your favorite and you have to suck it up.

What has pushed you to keep moving forward and to keep your surfing dreams alive all these years?

I think a lot of it is natural inside of me. I've always been a go-getter, and I just love it so much that I never wanted to stop. There's been different phases in my life where my focus was turned in different directions. Thankfully, I'm always able to come back to the ocean. It's always been my happy place. God gave me this passion for a reason. I wasn 't meant to let it go.