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Shark-Attack Survivor Inspires Other Surfers With Her Courage

Teenager is back in the water after losing an arm 8 months ago off Kauai. This week she's competing in the Southland.

June 26, 2004|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

All surfers have a worst moment, but few are like Bethany Hamilton's: In October 2003, she was attacked by a shark.

The 14-year-old Hawaiian surfer is visiting Southern California to chat with her sponsors and compete at Trestles, one of Southern California's famed surfing breaks.

Though she's not expected to win, the teenager -- whose now-familiar face has been seen on "Good Morning America," "Inside Edition," and "Oprah" -- causes quite a buzz on the beach.

Spectators and competitors immediately applauded her after each wave she rode Friday at the amateur event sponsored by the National Scholastic Surfing Assn.

"I think she's very brave to go back in the water after it happened," said Monica Ghesquiere, a 15-year-old surfer who was watching Hamilton's heat.

Hamilton's bravery and carefree spirit also have earned her macho points.

"She makes you realize that no matter what condition you're in, it's your mind and how you handle things that's important," said Marshall Alberga, 16, from Florida. "She's impressed everybody."

Hamilton, who has surfed since she was 8, was off Kauai's north shore with a girlfriend and the friend's father when a 15-foot tiger shark grabbed her arm as she paddled.

Calmly, her friends recalled, she told them she'd been attacked by a shark. They swam her to shore and applied a tourniquet to stop the bleeding.

Hamilton lost her left arm about four inches above the elbow, but she was back in the water surfing within months. She surfs without a prosthetic, which she doesn't like to wear in the water or -- for that matter -- anywhere at all.

At Trestles, just south of the Orange County line, the Hamilton family asked reporters to talk to her agent, Roy Hofstetter, who has kept the teenager away from the news media because of a book deal the Hamilton family has signed.

"She's on a comeback," said Hofstetter, ticking off the teenager's full schedule, which will take her to South America, Hawaii, then to Los Angeles for the ESPY awards, then Team Choice and X-Games awards -- all between now and Aug. 8.

But she's trying to focus on surfing.

"Surfing brings me the vibe ... it's all good," Hamilton said in a statement passed along by her agent. She said the break at Trestles is one of her favorite waves.

Unlike Tuesday's competition, when she failed to win her heat, Hamilton advanced Friday to the open semifinals that begin at 9 a.m. today. For spectators like Monique Kehoe of Santa Monica, Hamilton's return to the ocean is an example of the human spirit.

"It shows how adaptable she can be and she also shows us a lot of courageousness," said Kehoe, whose daughter, Kirra, 10, surfs competitively. "She's amazing."

During Hamilton's heat Friday, Kehoe and her daughter sat on the shore, their eyes focused on the one-armed surfer, one of five young girls waiting to ride the waves.

The loss of her limb has prompted a change in Hamilton's surfing strategy, said Cherie Hamilton, Bethany's mother. Rather than try to quickly paddle to catch a building wave, she waits for the wave to crest before taking off.

Family members sometimes help Bethany to pull on her jersey and get prepared. Her mother usually videotapes the competition.

What the Hamiltons seem proudest of is that their daughter has chosen, at least for now, to continue competitive surfing. As her mother looked out at the girls in the heat, she said: "They don't treat her special. They all want to win. It's very competitive."

Kirra Kehoe said she recently met Hamilton at a Santa Monica surf shop. Later, Hamilton invited Kehoe to join her and a few other young surfers at Sunset Beach.

"She's inspirational. She told me when I surf to paddle hard and always have high hopes. Then we all tried to paddle with one arm like her to see how it was," she said.

"It was hard."

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