It’s no secret Bethany Hamilton is one of the most philanthropically driven athletes you’ll ever meet. From working with SurfAid to being one of the Make A Wish Foundation’s most requested wish granters to her own Friends of Bethany Foundation and more, she’s a busy woman with a very big heart, to say the least. Her story is inspirational without needing much explanation: A teenage girl loses her arm in a shark attack while surfing, then not only returns to surfing but does it so well she becomes one of the sport’s best. She surfs big waves. She shows up at ‘CT events and upsets some of the Tour’s top competitors. And at 27 years old, she’s now been doing all this with one arm as long as she ever did it with two.
Professional accomplishments aside, the things that don’t make as many headlines are probably the simplest and most life-altering, like learning to tie your shoe or comb your hair with one hand, or how a woman’s perception of beauty will forever be changed when she no longer has an arm.
“When you’re faced with the loss of your limb or some other physical difference there becomes, in your mind, a real challenge to what our culture says is beautiful,” Hamilton says. “There has to be a change in your mindset when it comes to beauty, from focusing on physical appearance—which is fleeting — to thinking of the heart and attitude and even something greater.”
And so this is the focus and drive of what might be Bethany Hamilton’s most unique endeavors, a retreat called Beautifully Flawed, which brings other women together who have also lost limbs or face other life-altering physical differences and empower them. Friends of Bethany, the foundation that hosts the retreat, is actually very proactive about helping amputees after their accidents. A person from the foundation will regularly reach out to victims of accidents while they’re still in the hospital, offering support. Some of those women end up at the annual retreat, sharing their experiences with each other, finding encouragement and inspiration, and even sharing tips of how to tackle those simple everyday tasks anybody else can take for granted.
“I had a hard time just simply trying to relearn how to brush my teeth,” says Jamison Sepulveda, who attended this year’s retreat. “You don’t realize how much coordination something takes until you have to use your non-dominant side. I had to find new ways to do my makeup and how to button things or zip up my jacket. It’s everything you always did without a second thought and now you’re sitting there trying to figure out how to adapt.”
The young women who attend come back with a refreshed perspective and proof that they’re not completely alone in living life after their accidents.
“I felt like my femininity was taken from me,” says Amy Martinez, another woman at this year’s retreat. “If I had my hair and makeup done and a cute outfit on I felt amazing. Great hair and makeup was my identity. Now, my perspective has had to change. And while I still enjoy getting ready, I do it for myself and not for anyone else. I’ve noticed that inner beauty really is what counts. I have to choose every day to see this new perspective. I’d say that’s my biggest challenge. Choosing to see I’m still ‘beautiful’ despite my ‘flaws.’”
“It’s hard because you’re losing a part of yourself,” adds Sepulveda. “I had a hard time just simply accepting that this is the way I’m going to look and this is who I am. You have to realize beauty isn’t just external.”
And Bethany herself admits she struggled with those same doubts and worries about her appearance when she lost her left arm as a teenager.
“When I lost my arm, it definitely took time to adjust to my new look,” she says now. Especially being a teen and going through those awkward years at the same time — I remember being scared that it would be hard for me to find someone who would love me as I am.”
The retreat is another item to add to the long list of ways Bethany Hamilton’s used her loss of a limb as a way to help others. She was already a young girl with a strong foundation in her faith when she lost her arm, and she says it was a visit from Mike Coots that encouraged her to believe she’d be able to surf again. Years later, Bethany connected with journalist Lauren Scruggs-Kennedy after she’d lost part of her arm in an accident with an airplane propeller. Hamilton says the two “were able to relate in so many ways and encourage each other,” which led to a collaboration in planning FOB Foundation’s first ever Beautifully Flawed retreat. All that support paired with her strong faith seems to be exactly what drives the one-of-a-kind retreat. And years later, it’s still all about helping young women adapt to their circumstances and giving them a new perspective on beauty. “When I lost my arm, I already had this perspective because of my faith,” Bethany says today. “But it then became more real to me. I often think of a rose—you can pull off a few petals and it is still beautiful.”
Editor’s Note: This INSPIRED feature is supported by our good friends at Cobian, reminding us that Every Step Matters. INSPIRED is an ongoing series where we feature uplifting stories from individuals harnessing the restorative power of the ocean and outdoors.
The Beautifully Flawed Retreat is put on by Friends of Bethany, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, and is made possible by support from companies like Cobian, and people like you. If you would like to partner with me in support of events like this, please do so at www.friendsofbethany.com/donate.