Monday, February 14, 2011
When thirteen-year-old Bethany tossed her board into the water to catch the early morning waves at Tunnels Beach on Kauai, her best friend was right behind. Alana brought along her brother and her dad; four experienced surfers in all. The out-of-the-way beach is unattended; no lifeguards, no facilities – but a favorite for snorkelers and surfers alike. Steep mountains and giant boulders frame the two-mile long stretch of white sand near Ha’ena Beach Park on the north side of the island near Hanalei Bay. Offshore coral reefs guard deep-water caverns, home to colorful wildlife; a real life version of the worlds of Ariel (the Little Mermaid) and Nemo, too.
The waves swelled beautifully that morning in October of 2003. Bethany lived in these tropical waters since she could barely walk. She danced on those waves, sensing the rhythms and watching the swells until they formed into moving slopes when she would jump to her feet and ride. Her mastery of the rolling breakers seemed so easy, so effortless. She was one with her board, shooting the curl then snapping back and forth, up and down, playing in the white water, then paddle back to where another wave would invite her to ride again. She laughed with her friends over another great run. “Awesome!” she would squeal.
“Totally!” Alana replied.
At thirteen, Bethany already made a name for herself on the Hawaiian circuit. A natural competitor since age eight, she won several major contests along with her equally skilled friend Alana. Rip Curl picked the two of them as future champions. They signed the youngsters as their sponsor. The future looked bright.
Out beyond the reef, none of them noticed the fourteen-foot long tiger shark gliding, brooding just below the surface. As Bethany paddled back just beyond the reef to catch another wave at about 7:30 that October morning, she let her left arm hang at rest from the board as she looked back for the next swell. In one shocking moment, the shark attacked. With a quick jerk of his mighty tail, mouth gaping wide, the predator sprang up out of the shadows ingesting Bethany’s entire left arm and half her surfboard. With his powerful jaw, he bit down hard, his razor sharp teeth tearing away just below her shoulder and ripping a hole in the board. In a terrible instant, satisfied with his plunder, he swam away into the deep, a trail of red following him into the blue waters. Bethany screamed.
Alana’s dad, as the story was later told, saved her life. He whipped into action.
Because of the remote location of Tunnels Beach, extracting Bethany who bled profusely until a make-shift tourniquet was cinched up, then to the shore and out of the water, frantically up the trail to the back of the pickup and then off toward the small clinic in town all took considerable time and effort. They met the ambulance on the road, transferring Bethany to a portable gurney. In a curious coincidence, the only bed available was dedicated to her father for a knee surgery that same morning. When she arrived, sirens blaring, that surgery was postponed. Bethany got the bed. Later, doctors reported that she had lost more than sixty percent of her own blood supply. If the shark got another inch or two of her shoulder or if the transit took any more time, she would have certainly died. Later, locals caught the large shark, finding what remained of Bethany’s torn flesh.
Her family surrounded her bedside, along with the entire surfing community on Kauai and from around the world. But it was her church that led the prayer vigil. Bethany’s faith had been implanted some years before. It was about to blossom into a full-voiced message of hope, recovery and victory.
The stump that once was her arm healed rapidly. Bethany, a determined, exceptionally strong teenager, set her sights on rehabilitation. She adjusted, meeting life’s ordinary demands with a single arm; a single hand. Everything from getting dressed, doing her hair, making a sandwich, carrying her books – all of it – new. A state-of-the-art prosthesis provided by well wishers just got in the way. She discarded it. But hardest of all was getting back on the surfboard. She could not quit. She would not quit. Just thirty days after the shark tore away at her young body, she was back in the water. Paddling with one hand. Catching the wave. Getting up on her feet. Balancing across the face. All the old moves. All new.
Her parents watched through their tears.
Now Bethany is twenty years old. She competes against the best women in the world. In 2005, she took first place in the NSSA National Championships. The trophies fill a case displayed prominently in her home.
Sony’s faith-based film division, Affirm Films, took on the project. In April, they will release a full-length feature film dramatizing Bethany’s story. They call it SOUL SURFER. You will be hearing all about it. We viewed a pre-screening last week. Bethany is portrayed by AnniSophia Robb. Her parents: Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt. Her high school youth counselor is Carrie Underwood.
Bring your handkerchief. Your family. And your friends.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2011