NATIONALDESK | November 4, 2003, Tuesday
Late Edition - Final , Section A , Page 1 ,Column 4
By PATRICIA LEIGH BROWN (NYT) 1549 words
Surfer on Her Way Up, Brought Down by aShark
By Patricia Leigh Brown
Chris Dixon contributed reporting for this article.
November 4, 2003
HANALEI, Hawaii, Nov. 3 &emdash; She was a member of the "dawnpatrol." Every morning before sunrise, Bethany Hamilton, a13-year-old and one of the country's top female amateur surfers,would follow the pull of the turquoise water and head to a favoritereef, to defy gravity on a wave.
"She's aggressive and a really good surfer," said Alana Blanchard,also 13, her best friend and fellow champion. "She pushes me and Ipush her."
But on Friday, while the two girls were surfing with friends atTunnels Reef, a legendary surfing spot, Ms. Hamilton was bitten by ashark. She lost her left arm in the attack, believed to have beenfrom a 14- to 15-foot tiger shark, the most dangerous species inHawaii. Ms. Blanchard's father, Holt, 49, who was surfing with them,swam Ms. Hamilton to shore and fashioned a tourniquet out of hisrubber surfboard leash. Ms. Hamilton is in stable condition at alocal hospital. It was the fourth shark attack in Hawaii thisyear.
In this rainy, out-of-the-way town, Bethany Hamilton's trauma isan attack on a communal daughter. Since the early 1960's, whensurfers and hippies fled here from the crowded waves of Californiaand Oahu, the stunning reefs and bays of Kauai's north shore havenurtured some of the world's top surfers.
This is a ragtag, bohemian place where surfing is basketball,football, baseball and soccer rolled into one, where toddlers inwater wings surf tandem on their parents' boards, and some schoolssignal the end of classes not with a bell but with surfing musicpiped through loudspeakers.
Among the many girl "groms" here, as child surfers are called,people talk about Ms. Hamilton as a shoo-in for stardom. She and Ms.Blanchard, on the same competitive surf team, have already earnedsponsorships from surfwear companies. Like practically all youngsurfers here, many of them preorthodontia and prepubescent, Ms.Hamilton is the child of surfers. Most important, perhaps, sherepresents a new generation of powerful young women who joyfully meetthe challenge of taking on huge, barreling waves on a little bits offoam and fiberglass. When she surfed, friends say, she squealed withdelight.
"The personality expresses itself inside the wave, and hers wasjust blossoming," said Suzanne Bollin, 55, summing up the feelings ofmany who came here on a lark in the early 1970's and stayed. "Thatgirl has saltwater in her veins."
In a sense, Hanalei is a company town in the business of surfing.Although Kauai, the northernmost of the eight major Hawaiian islands,is less famous for its surfing beaches than Oahu, it is known amongdie-hard surfers for its wide variety of waves, from sand-bottomedbeginners' breaks like Pine Trees to more fearsome ones like theTunnels and Cannons.
Ms. Hamilton, who is a "goofy-foot" surfer &emdash; the surfingequivalent of being left-handed, pivoting with her left foot andleading with her right &emdash; could tackle them all.
She took second place this year in the National Scholastic SurfingAssociation's national championships in San Clemente, Calif., beatingwomen up to twice her age and following an impressive wave ofhomegrown world-famous surfers.
In the last decade, Kauai has become "a hotbed of surfing talent,"said Sam George, the editor of Surfer magazine. Among the local starsare Titus Kinimaka, one of the most respected all-around surfers;Keala Kennelly, 25, known for her fearlessness; and especially AndyIrons, 25, the reigning world champion. To children in and aroundHanalei, Andy Irons is the hero next door, whose presence is akin tohaving Michael Jordan to shoot hoops with after school. Among Ms.Hamilton's teammates, half of whom are still in elementary school,Mr. Irons is the target of a game they gigglingly call DDD, for"Ding-Dong Ditch," in which they ring the doorbell and then quicklyrun away, only to return five minutes later to ring again.
To Ms. Hamilton's teammates, who wear two-toned glue-onfingernails and puka-shell necklaces, becoming professional, whileadmittedly a dreamy prospect, is less important than the role surfingplays in their lives day to day, especially on this small islandwhere the one bowling alley and two movie theaters are at least anhour away.
"You get to be with your friends and catch really good waves,"said Nagé Melamed, 9, a fifth grader at Hanalei Elementaryschool. "The water is really cool, and you don't hear your teacherstelling you to do your homework."
Like parents everywhere in America, those here follow theirchildren's sporting exploits with video cameras. Unlike most soccermoms, however, surfing moms and dads here excel at their children'ssports &emdash; sometimes instantly replaying moves that needwork.
"The ocean is different every time you get into it," said JoiBonaparte, 45, the girls' coach on the Hanalei Surf Team and motherof a professional surfer, Dustin Barca, 21.
"It's such a thrill when you drop into a barrel, deep in a wave,as it comes over you in a cylinder," Ms. Bonaparte said. "Our wholecommunity feels that way."
Ms. Hamilton's own precocious trajectory, including coveted andpotentially lucrative sponsorships from Rip Curl USA and four othercompanies, mirrors the growth of the sport among young women and themarketing of its accouterments, a subculture portrayed last year inthe film "Blue Crush."
Surfing is now a billion-dollar-a-year industry, Mr. George said,fueled in part by female role models like Lisa Anderson, a four-timeworld champion. The X Games featured surfing this year for the firsttime.
Professional female surfers remain few &emdash; only about 25worldwide, compared with several hundred men &emdash; and whenpromising young stars like Ms. Hamilton and Ms. Blanchard emerge,surfwear companies eagerly supply them with clothes, surfboards andtravel expenses for competitions on other islands and on themainland.
"Bethany represented a new generation of young women who never hadto fight a stigma," Mr. George said. "Girls Bethany's age have beenempowered by the whole women's surfing movement."
Ms. Hamilton's second-place National Championship trophy isprominently displayed in her hospital room in Lihue. Speaking bytelephone from the hospital, Bethany's father, Tom, who is a waiterat the Princeville Resort hotel, said his daughter's spirits werehigh, bolstered by visits from her teammates and her North ShoreCommunity Church youth group.
On Friday, Ms. Hamilton, Ms. Blanchard and their friends wereabout 1,000 yards off the beach, in calm water on the far side of thereef. The shark broke through the surface without warning andvanished, taking Ms. Hamilton's arm just below her left shoulder andcreating a 16-inch-wide bite in her red, white and blue board.
When the shark struck, Mr. Blanchard recalled, Ms. Hamilton calmlysaid, "I got attacked by a shark," and started paddling. "It wasstrange, she just made a statement," he said. "She was the only onewho saw the shark."
Mr. Blanchard bound the wound with his Lycra T-shirt, and Ms.Hamilton, who was conscious throughout the ordeal, held on to his leguntil they reached the beach, where he fashioned the surf-leashtourniquet.
Dr. David Rovinsky, the orthopedic surgeon who has been treatingMs. Hamilton, said that had Holt Blanchard "not had the presence ofmind to make the tourniquet, she wouldn't be alive." She has about afour-inch section of upper arm bone remaining.
Losing an upper extremity is more complicated than losing a lowerone, or an arm below the elbow, Dr. Rovinsky said, and it is tooearly to tell what the options are, although that will become clearerin the coming months.
"It will be an ongoing process," he said. "She'll figure out forherself what she can do."
Which could involve surfing. On Sunday, for the first time sincethe attack, Ms. Hamilton talked about wanting to surf again. Her bestfriend expects no less.
"We're going to get her back on a short board," Ms. Blanchardsaid.
Dr. Rovinsky said that surfboards and prosthetic devices could bemodified for Ms. Hamilton, and that "she'll be able to do 95 percentof what she wants to do."
"She's an extremely strong woman," he added. "Knowing Bethany,it's not going to slow her down too much."