Soul Surfer: Bethany Hamilton on Health, Happiness, and Inspiration

The surfing champ tells WebMD about her healthy lifestyle, her dreams, and what it's like seeing her story portrayed on the big screen.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on March 03, 2011

Bethany Hamilton started competing at surfing events when she was just 8 years old. After a string of impressive wins, she lost her arm when she was attacked by a 14-foot tiger shark in 2003. She was only 13. A less courageous young woman might have put her surf board away for good. But two weeks later Hamilton hit the water again and has gone on to not only win national surfing competitions but become a successful pro surfboarder. We talked with Hamilton just before the movie based on her story, Soul Surfer, came out and she told us about her recovery from the shark attack, her concerns about childhood obesity, and what she wants young people to know about following dreams despite adversity. Plus she talks about her healthy diet -- and yes, it's really healthy!

It's been more than seven years since you were attacked by a shark while surfing in your native Hawaii as a 13-year-old. Despite losing your arm, you've gone on to a career as a professional surfer, competing all over the world. Your autobiography recently hit the big screen in the movie Soul Surfer, where you're played by AnnaSophia Robb, and which also stars Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt. Did you immediately know you had to get back to surfing, or did you worry you might have ridden your last wave?

At first, my family and I were just grateful that I was even alive. It was kind of a miracle because I lost more than 60% of my blood. But I knew I wanted to try surfing again. I had a really good doctor and he encouraged me by saying, "There's a long list of things you'll be able to do, and very short list of things you won't be able to do." And it's true -- there really aren't many things I can't do. 

What was it like when you got back in the water?

I went out for the first time about two weeks after I got out of the hospital. Once I got up on the board and was riding, it came back naturally. It just took time and creativity to figure out how to paddle out with only one arm. 

You've been able to inspire people -- especially young people -- through your story. What lessons do you try to impart?

We all go through hard times and struggles, and I just try to encourage kids that they can overcome those problems. Look what happened to me, and I still continued my dream of being a professional surfer. 

What health condition would you like to see eradicated in your lifetime?
Obesity. It's an epidemic that's taking over and it leads to a lot of other diseases. I want to encourage the youth of America to eat healthier and exercise. A lot of schools are taking out PE, which is awful because it's like taking away a big part of a child's health. If you're healthy, life can be so much more adventurous and fun and successful. 

What is your best health habit?

I have a lot, but my favorite is surfing. It's a really good place to go where you can be strong and get good exercise and sunshine. 

What's your worse health habit?

I consider myself pretty healthy. Let me see…for me something unhealthy is some dark chocolate. Does that count? 

Barely! You don't ever crave a cheeseburger or French fries?

I'll have a couple fries if they're cooked in good oil. I don't eat hydrogenated oil or fast food at all. I really like chocolate pudding, but I have this recipe that I make: I'll get a packet of unsweetened acai and avocado and chocolate powder and blend that up with a little bit of honey and maybe a dash of mint. It's a really good, chocolate-y pudding that's good for you! 

What are a typical breakfast, lunch and dinner for you?

I love to cook. I start every day with a smoothie of acai, kale, almond milk, maybe some fruit. I make sure I have vegetables in every meal, but I'll eat fish, and eggs here and there. I also like goat cheese, that's kind of a treat for me. For dinner, I like to do a stir-fry, with kale and zucchini and onion and garlic, and maybe some fresh ahi or salmon, whatever's in the fridge. 

What is your favorite part of your body?

I don't know! I guess I like my smile. 

Are you excited about seeing your story on the big screen?

Yes! I just saw the final finished product and it turned out amazing. It's really inspirational and something I hope people can relate to if they're going through a hard time. And for people who haven't been around the ocean much, you really experience the power and the beauty of it. 

Other than surfing, do you do other kinds of exercise?

I'll run maybe a couple times a week for 40 minutes to get my heart rate up, and I like to go on hikes with my dog. I like to play tennis, too. I'm not that good, but I'm working on it! 

If you had to lose one sense -- sight, smell, hearing, touch, taste -- what would you choose? 

I could probably go without smell. Even though I love the smell of roses, and when you're cooking garlic. But if I had to choose… 

Do you have any physical goals you want to reach but haven't?

I'm kind of just constantly trying to better my own personal health. I'd like to have a little more flexibility. I stretch a bit, but there are certain parts of me that aren't that flexible and I'd like to work on that.  

Are you scared of sharks now?

I'm not that scared, actually. There are certain times when the water is murky or brown and no one is out on the ocean with me that it can get kind of eerie. But for the most part I'm fine.