A quiet group of about 20 youngsters and teens from Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital patiently waits to speak to the woman with sun-streaked blond hair and one arm. They hold glossy promotional photos and DVD copies of the 2011 movie “Soul Surfer” for her to autograph; many of them, when the time comes, will throw their arms around Bethany Hamilton’s waist and hug her like she’s family.
As the special meet-and-greet draws to a close, the professional surfer who lost her arm to a shark attack at age 13 ducks into a back room to check on her nearly 1-year-old son, Tobias (with husband Adam Dirks). When asked what it means to her to spend time with children like the ones from Joe DiMaggio, especially now that she’s a parent, Hamilton doesn’t hesitate.
“Seeing those faces light up reminds me that I’m here for a reason,” she says.
Hamilton’s inspirational story of faith and perseverance—chronicled in a 2004 New York Times best-seller upon which the feature film “Soul Surfer” was based—has elevated the champion surfer into a motivational league all her own. In conjunction with Cobian’s “Every Step Matters” tour, she spent the rest of her recent South Florida visit with a gathering of rain-soaked fans at BC Surf & Sport in Fort Lauderdale, which sells her limited-edition sandal collection by Cobian.
Hamilton, 26, spoke to Lifestyle about her message and why it continues to resonate around the world.
What does the concept of “Every Step Matters” mean to you?
In life, we’re constantly choosing our next step, our next direction. I hold to my values, and that really influences my steps. But whether I’m speaking to someone of the same faith or not, I want to encourage people that they don’t have to live this way or that way to be cool or to be beautiful.
As young cancer survivors, [the children from Joe DiMaggio] have a different life than they may have imagined. But today you saw [certain children] encouraging other kids with cancer to stay hopeful and positive. I want to encourage people in their day-to-day steps to just be their own beautiful self—and stick to the things that they’re passionate about.
You seem to connect with people in a way that transcends the inherent drama of your story. Why?
I think we all go through tough times. Hearing stories about overcoming a hardship can be encouraging for all of us. In this room today, there were young children going through so much at a young age. I had the same thing. At 13, my arm was gone—and with it, I thought, my future was gone too. I’m sure some of these kids feel like their life is a constant struggle.
Just being able to be real with them, perhaps, is a reminder of hope.