Originally meant to be a 6-12-minute mini doc of Bethany surfing, “Unstoppable”, Bethany Hamilton’s new documentary evolved into a tribute to perseverance, and strength. Synonymous with inspiration, courage and determination, the new feature highlights her ambition to compete at the highest level of the sport, riding some of the most dangerous waves in the world.
The story of Bethany Hamilton is one well told and documented in her autobiography and the subsequent film adaptation, Soul Surfer. After a terrible incident on the morning of Halloween 2003 while surfing with her best friend, Alana Blanchard, Bethany lost her left arm to a tiger shark attack off the coast of Kauai at a break called ‘Tunnels’. Alana’s father, Holt, saved her life by getting her ashore and tying a tourniquet around her wound to stop the bleeding. It was nothing short of a miracle she survived.
In the hospital, Bethany was a pillar of strength to those around her, telling her family and friends, ‘it’s going to be ok’ with a brave smile plastered across her face between a few moments when you see a young girl trying to come to terms with what’s just happened. But then a visit from Mike Coots would change everything. Coots, a surfer himself and pro photographer who lost his leg to a tiger shark in 1997, visits Bethany in the hospital and tells her how he thinks surfing with one arm is totally possible and in fact, he had tried it that morning – and you see the lights go off in her eyes. “He was surfing with one leg, and I was in awe of him. You see a lightbulb go off in my eyes, laying there in my hospital bed, thinking ‘wait I can surf with one arm’ and then it was a matter of just waiting to give it a go and try.”
“That’s the moment of community that really matters,” Bethany continues “Sometimes we can’t see the light and we need someone there to remind us, or to be our encourager, our backbone, when we’re just not there. Mike Coots was definitely a key person in my life, in my journey and then from there my family and friends, and then just me having raw drive to just adapt and figure it out and get back to my normal life.”
Normal life to Bethany was surfing at the top of her game and competing with the upper echelon of surfing. The rest of the documentary tells that story: just shy of 4 weeks after the accident, Bethany was back out there, putting time into the ocean and the sport she was so passionate about, learning to surf her first waves with one arm.
“Realizing she would need to adapt and reinvent herself from a surfing perspective with new balance and training required, her father fashioned a handle on her surfboard that would enable her to duck dive out to the lineup, Hamilton entered her first contest – and made the finals – just two months after the incident.”
The film then shifts to Bethany as she is today at 29 years old, following her journey as she evolved as a surfer and as a mother. A montage of her fitness regimen and her training techniques as the absolute epic athlete that she is (running underwater carrying a boulder, adaptive pushups, rolling back and forth for core work on a balance ball), to deciding she would learn aerial surf, the woman proves that she can accomplish anything she sets her mind to. Just a few months after giving birth to her first son, we see Bethany enter the Fiji Women’s Pro in Fiji as a wild card, and beat out Stephanie Gilmour, who at the time was the 6-time world champion and beating out the top female surfer in the world at the time, Tyler Wright, and then head back to her boat to breast feed her young baby in between sets, while maintaining her laser like focus.
“I just visualize what I want to do on a wave and then I just do it. It’s almost like I’m never satisfied, I’m good for a minute and then I’m like, ok, off to the next.”
Next for her was Pe’ahi, otherwise known as ‘Jaws’, a big wave surf break off the coast of Maui, that can reach upwards of 80 feet and one of the pinnacles of world surfing.
Bethany takes a tow in and surfs the thunderous wall of water as well as you’d expect from an athlete of her stature. But she isn’t satisfied until she paddles into it herself – which she does – and the imagery is breathtaking: cascading down the mammoth a wave, she tucks into the barrel, leaving the viewer wondering if she’ll come out the other end. The woman is truly unstoppable and a powerhouse of focus, strength and ability unlike any other athlete of our time.
What’s next for Bethany? “I really want to go to Namibia, and Desert Point in Indonesia. Both are barrels. I’m not in a rush, I think I’ll be surfing really good until I’m at least 50, and I’ll still be surfing after that. I think I only have another 20 years where I can go get barrels.”
Unstoppable is playing in select theatres: https://bethanyhamilton.com/events/unstoppable-film/
In Canada: Opens July 26th in Toronto and August 2nd in Vancouver.