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FAIR GAME PETE THOMAS

After shark attack, a fighting spirit

November 11, 2003|PETE THOMAS

Shock and horror on Halloween, the day a tiger shark attacked Bethany Hamilton while she paddled her surfboard, gave way to sadness.

But now, Hamilton, 13, a promising young athlete who lost her left arm in the attack off Kauai, Hawaii, is smiling again, friends say.

A week ago, she wandered from her hospital room for the first time. She visited a young patient suffering with a tumor, to see if she could lift her spirits. She also met a blind man and expressed a desire to help him.

Her well-wishers have numbered in the thousands, in part because the standout surfer -- nationally ranked as an amateur and seemingly on her way to a pro career -- has performed just as admirably, if not more so, as a human being.

"I haven't spoken to her yet because there's been so much going on," said Rochelle Ballard, a top pro and, like Hamilton, a product of Kauai. "But I heard she has been praising God that she's alive and OK, and that she has been telling people she's glad it wasn't her friend [who got attacked]."

Ballard, ranked No. 8 in the world and now living on Oahu's North Shore, has inspired thousands of aspiring young surfers, largely through her popular surf camps, to develop goals and stick with them. A camp regular, Hamilton has excelled enough to attract Rip Curl as a primary sponsor.

"She's one of the very reasons why I started the camps, to help these kids and give them encouragement, to help them develop goals and to have fun," Ballard added. "That's why it's so sad. For anyone at her age and at her level of surfing, with all that potential and all of her dreams and goals -- it's amazing that she has such a great attitude right now."

Ballard said she would not be amazed to see Hamilton pick up where she left off, eventually. "There will be a way and she will find a way."

State shark experts have been watching for large sharks in the area since the attack but have no plans to hunt and kill any, as some have suggested.

"In the past, after a serious incident, we have selectively removed an animal or two mostly to reassure the public, but also to keep fishermen from going out and killing a lot more," said John Naughton, a biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "But we have known all along that this is not the way to go. It's an archaic way of managing fishery resources."

Hawaii averages about four attacks per year. In most cases, experts say, the sharks mistake surfers and bodyboarders silhouetted against the surface for sea turtles, a favorite prey for tiger sharks.

Hamilton left the hospital late last week and is resting at home, away from the media spotlight. Her father, Tom Hamilton, posted a statement on a Web site established for his daughter (www.bethanyhamilton.com), saying: "She's getting stronger and doing well. She walked the length of the hallway today, her complexion is looking good, she's more talkative, and much more alert."

Friends have said that Bethany has already talked about getting back into the water.

In an article Wednesday in the Honolulu Advertiser, Hokuanu Aki, who lost his left leg in a shark attack off Kauai last year, urged Hamilton to return as soon as possible. "It gets your mind off everything else," he said. "The water can make you feel whole again."

To e-mail Pete Thomas or read his previous Fair Game columns, go to www.latimes.com/petethomas.

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