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‘Soul Surfer’ is a family’s story too

Imagine a family of friends you are close to becoming the subject of a Hollywood movie, with stars playing the mom and dad, sister and brothers you know so well.

That’s a reality this week for my family with the release of the movie “Soul Surfer” that opens Friday, April 8 at the Lincoln Theatre in Port Angeles and in theaters nationwide.
  Bethany Hamilton Jaws Mike Neal NealStudios.net - contributed photo
Bethany Hamilton overcoming the disadvantage of only having one arm, riding a huge wave while tow-in surfing at the break known as Jaws in Maui, Hawaii, December 2009.

“Soul Surfer” is a Tristar Pictures biopic that tells the story of Bethany Hamilton, the then 13-year-old surfer who lost her left arm in 2003 to a shark attack while surfing on the island of Kauai, Hawaii.
Our friendship with the Hamilton family goes back to the late 1970s when I moved to Kauai from the North Shore of Oahu with a crew of surfing pals. Tom and Cheri, Bethany’s mom and dad, who had already settled on Kauai, became good friends and we lived at different times in a historic beach front home set on Hanalei Bay known as the Dolphin House that was a gathering place for a nondenominational church we all attended in the scenic beach town.

Life in Hanalei for many mainland transplants like us consisted of surfing, work, surfing, church, surfing, beach barbecues and more surfing. You get the picture. The beach town, and the North Shore of Kauai, is one of the few regions in the world where professional surfing is a viable career path.

As children arrived – the Hamilton’s sons Noah, Timmy and then daughter Bethany, and our sons, Christian and Davy – we shared kids birthday parties and other family events, and my wife Evelyn and Cheri became close friends. Tom and I were roommates on a surfing-church outreach trip to the Indonesian island of Bali in 1987.

GICF circa 1992 Chris Cook photo
Tom Hamilton holds Bethany Hamilton (center top) with Cheri Hamilton to his left, in early 1990s. Noah Hamilton is in the foreground, center. Look for the family portrayed in the film ‘Soul Surfer.’ Evelyn Cook (left) holds Davy Cook.

The force-five devastation wrought by Hurricane Iniki that leveled Kauai on Sept. 11, 1992, drew us together, along with many other friends, as we fell into survival mode for weeks and months in the wake of the storm.

Halloween day 2003 started out normal for Bethany and her family. She and her best friend, Alana Blanchard, headed out to surf at Tunnels, a spectacularly scenic surf break west of Hanalei at an area known as Haena. The girls were enrolled in an online school and did their schoolwork based around a training schedule they hoped would lead to careers as pro surfers.

A tiger shark with a distinctive, ragged dorsal fin slid up to Bethany and took off her arm. If the bite had been lower, on her chest, she likely would have died on the spot. The story of the attack is well known, however it isn’t the climax of “Soul Surfer,” as the movie isn’t a Jaws type film. Rather the story focuses on how a pretty little blonde surfer girl turned what could have been a life-and-image destroying obstacle into a path to helping others overcome their disabilities and problems.

The day of the attack was one of those times when you feel like you’ve stepped out of time and reality. Amazingly Tom was lying on a hospital surgery bed, numbed up ready for knee surgery, when word came to the hospital of Bethany’s attack. It’s about an hour from Tunnels to Kauai’s main hospital in Lihue. My wife was informed of what had happened and went ahead of Cheri, who was delivering tourism publications, to Wilcox Memorial Hospital. She met the Hamilton boys with an embrace as they arrived and had called Cheri on a cell phone as the distraught mother made her way down from the North Shore not knowing exactly what had happened to her daughter, only that it was bad.

Bethany had lost over 50 percent of her blood and likely her great physical conditioning made the difference in her survival. My wife comforted Cheri as Bethany lay in the hospital bed still unconscious from shock. Coming out of shock she awoke, with all around her thankful her life had been spared. Bethany – a low-key kid with great talents –  expressed a new vision for her young life that day, one of using what happened to her to serve others, and she continues to live that out.

I was then the editor of The Garden Island newspaper, Kauai’s daily paper. Our building was located just a few blocks from the hospital. I went over and met Tom in the parking lot of the hospital. While obviously feeling distraught, he too caught the spirit that Bethany displayed that day. He asked me for help in handling the news flow of the attack. There was little need for that as the attack story exploded across the globe. A portrait of Bethany taken by our news photographer Dennis Fujimoto (the Lonnie Archibald of Kauai) went global and Sports Illustrated ranked it in the top 12 sports photos of the year.

In the days after the attack Bethany asked about learning how to be a photographer so she could continue to be connected to surfing. That soon passed and with the help of world surfing champion Andy Irons from Hanalei and others within weeks she paddled out on a surfboard and began to figure out how to adjust to surfing with just one arm.

Each major step in her recovery drew international news interest. Soon she and her dad were traveling to promotional events. Her face, name and story became known literally everywhere. Tom told me of being in Portugal to film a Volvo commercial; asking directions to a beach a Portuguese woman immediately recognized Bethany. |

Bethany Hamilton
Noah Hamilton contributed photo
Bethany Hamilton today.

The release of “Soul Surfer” culminates years of the Hamiltons negotiating with Hollywood to make sure the film was accurate and realistic in setting and in portraying surfing and Bethany’s views on life and her faith. For example, a first draft had her trying crack-cocaine to relieve the distraught of losing her arm.
They are happy with the final cut of the film. Bethany’s goal now is to qualify for the top level women’s world professional surfing tour; she’s headed to Australia with that goal in mind right after the hoopla of the movie release dies down.
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