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Bethany Hamilton

Lessons in Greatness

It was a warm morning, perfect for the beach, when 13-year-old surfing champion Bethany Hamilton paddled out on her board to catch some waves with her friends. Already one of the most talked-about young surfers in Hawaii, Bethany had a score of championships to her name and was well on her way to living her dream of becoming a professional.

But something happened in the water on the morning of October 31, 2003, that threatened to end Bethany’s dream forever: A 14-foot tiger shark swiftly approached and bit off her left arm only two inches below her shoulder. Bethany’s incredible story has been turned into a movie, Soul Surfer, and was released in theatres last weekend.

From the moment she was attacked, Bethany showed the GREATNESS that was within her. As she was pulled to shore, she refused to allow her body to succumb to the pain or shock; instead of crying out or panicking she turned to her faith.

“If she would have cried or screamed when she came across that reef, she would have bled out — but she was just praying to God to save her,” Tom Hamilton, Bethany’s father told me in a conversation last week, the day after the movie was previewed in Los Angeles. “She lost 60 percent of her blood. The doctor said it was remarkable that she was alive. That was a miracle in itself.”

After spending seven days in the hospital for surgery, Bethany was released to return home — but no one expected her to return to surfing. “The first few days in the hospital, we were all in shock. We just saw her dreams die,” Tom said. “Not just that she wouldn’t be able to
hamilton2surf again, but that she wouldn’t be able to compete again.” But Bethany was committed to making a full recovery. She trained relentlessly, doing calisthenics and weight exercises to rebuild her strength, and using athletic devices like the Indo Board to relearn balance and maneuvering. She refused to let something even as severe as the loss of an arm stop her.

Less than one month after the shark attack, she was back in the ocean. Whereas most people might have been too afraid to ever venture near the beach again, Bethany knew that the only way to really live was for her to continue to chase her dream. She wouldn’t let fear stand in her way. “As soon as she told me she wanted to go back in the water, I thought, ‘Thank you, God,'” Tom remembered. “That will bring some normalcy back into our lives. We’re water people: her two brothers surf, my wife and I surf, but she is the most gifted one of all in terms of natural ability. Getting back in the water was what she needed…but it wasn’t going to be easy.”

“I don’t need easy,” Bethany told her father back then. “I just need possible.”

Like many truly GREAT winners, Bethany exhibits so many characteristics of GREATNESS that it is difficult to narrow her story enough to highlight just one. She relied on her faith; she overcame incredible adversity; and she had ice in her veins as she took the risk to swim back out into the open ocean after her accident. She has also accepted the spotlight now that everyone is watching: “She can’t walk anywhere without people recognizing her,” Tom said, laughing a bit at how his daughter has been recognized everywhere from Brazil to Australia. “She’ll never turn a kid down for an autograph. She doesn’t crave the attention or the fame, but she knows she’s a role model.”

In one of the movie’s most compelling scenes, Bethany comes into a room where her brother is sorting a mound of mail. She asked who the mail was from and he let her know they were letters from people around the world who had been inspired by her story and astounded by her perseverance. Each writer detailed how they were touched by Bethany…and she was touched by each writer.

"There are countless ways of attaining greatness, but any road to reaching one's maximum potential must be built on a bedrock of respect for the individual, a commitment to excellence, and a rejection of mediocrity." -Buck Rodgers (American Baseball Player. b. 1938)Now, at the age of 21, Bethany is not only competing — and winning — on the professional surfing circuit, she is doing so against some of the most talented and fully-able-bodied athletes in the world. And it was all because at the age of 13, she was already determined to be GREAT.

Tips from the GREAT Ones

Bethany’s story is exceptional, but her reaction to her circumstances doesn’t have to be. What if we all approached life with the same attitude and determination that this brave young woman showed? What could we accomplish? What could we overcome? What could we share?

hamilton4Think about your own reaction to any sudden change of situation in your life. Is your immediate response to panic or to pray? Bethany’s choice to stay calm and rely on her faith was the very thing that kept her alive.

And consider, too, how unsinkable her spirit was that she began training right away to pursue her dream again. Do you allow challenges to keep you down, or do you jump right back up to go another round?

Apply this Characteristic: Take some time today to read a bit about the life of someone you consider to be truly GREAT and make a list of each of the characteristics of GREAT winners that you are able to identify in their story. How can that person's story of GREATNESS influence your approach to life tomorrow?What about the steel nerves Bethany showed when she chose to return to the very place she nearly lost her life — do you have the courage to take risks if they are the only way to get what you’re after?

If you are willing to approach life each day with the same kind of GREAT thinking that Bethany Hamilton showed, you will be a role model, as well. Your story may not make the national news or play in movie theatres around the world, but it is sure to impact the lives of your family, your co-workers, and the people in your community.

GREATNESS is more than just a good choice here and there, it is a way of life. Make it yours today.

Do you know a story of true Greatness from your community? I’d love to hear it! Please write to to share it.

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About Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), longtime Associate Editor for Sports Illustrated, 11-time New York Times best-selling author, leadership expert and executive coach.

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