December 01, 2003 12:00 PM

On her patio on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, 13-year-old Bethany Hamilton steps onto a balancing board, a piece of wood that teeters on a plastic tube like a small seesaw. It’s a gift from a family friend to help her get back into the sport she loves to the point of obsession: surfing. “Oh, cool!” she says airily. But negotiating the board is harder than it looks. “I’m bad at this,” Hamilton says, giggling as she wobbles, then jumps off. Mounting again she lasts three seconds. Then 10. Then 15. Finally a full minute. “I’m not sad or mad,” she says. “But I thought I’d be back in the water by now.”

Less than a month after a tiger shark tore off her left arm, Hamilton talks of little but riding her next wave. It’s the kind of resolve that made her a highly ranked amateur surfer and contributed to her speedy recovery. Says orthopedic surgeon David Rovinsky, who treated Hamilton after the attack: “She has a great attitude. She’s fearless.”

Certainly she has no qualms about recounting her terrifying ordeal. It was 7:30 a.m. on Oct. 31, a clear, sunny morning, when Hamilton and her best friend, Alana Blanchard, 13, paddled into calm water a few hundred yards off Kauai’s north shore. In the water nearby were Blanchard’s father, Holt, 49, and brother Byran, 16. “As I was lying on my board, the shark kind of came out of nowhere,” says Hamilton. Adds Alana: “I caught something out of the corner of my eye, but I didn’t think anything of it.”

What happened next, Hamilton describes matter-of-factly: “You know how when you eat steak you kind of have to rip it, because it’s kind of tough?” she asks. “The shark jerked me back and forth like that, but he never pulled me under. I looked down and it was all red in the water. And then I was like, T got attacked by a shark.’ ” Alana, who never saw the actual attack, recalls seeing Hamilton paddle over to her father. “I noticed her arm was gone,” Alana says, “I was in shock and started crying.” Hamilton held on to Holt Blanchard’s trunks and prayed as he frantically paddled her toward shore. Amazingly, she says she felt no pain, while incongruous concerns played out in her mind. “One thought that went through my head was I wonder if I’m going to lose my sponsors?’ ” she says with a giggle. (“As long as she’s involved in surfing, we’ll have her,” says Steve Cranston of surf-wear firm Rip Curl, her main sponsor.)

On the beach, Blanchard used a surfboard leash as a tourniquet, which probably saved her life. Blacking out, Hamilton awoke to see paramedics. “One of the ambulance guys whispered in my ear, ‘God will never leave you nor forsake you,’ ” she says. Hamilton was rushed 35 miles to Wilcox Memorial Hospital in Lihue. There, in an eerie coincidence, her father, Tom, 55, a waiter, was about to undergo knee surgery. Minutes before the operation, an ER doctor rushed in. “He said, ‘There’s a shark-attack victim on the way, and we’re going to need this operating room,’ ” Tom recalls.” ‘We don’t have a name, but it’s a 13-year-old girl.’ ”

He dreaded the worst, and Rovinsky confirmed his fears. “The hardest news I’ve ever had to give somebody,” the doctor says. “I was crying.” Hamilton immediately underwent an operation to clean the wound and sever the exposed nerves. What remained was covered with a skin flap in a second surgery three days later. Hamilton was released after just eight days, much to the relief of her mother, Cheri. “I said, As soon as you’re well, we’ll take you snowboarding,’ ” Cheri, 50, recalls. “She has always wanted to go to the snow.”

Surfing at the professional level will be a challenge. Right now, “there really isn’t enough arm left to power a prosthesis,” says Rovinsky, who may consider an operation to extend the bone with implants that could be attached to a prosthesis in a year or so. “The list of things she’ll have to do differently is long, but the list of things she’ll be unable to do is short.” This much is certain: Bethany Hamilton will ride the waves again, and soon. “To stop something you love so much,” she explains, “is like stopping your life.”


Michael Fleeman and Jeannie McCabe in Kauai

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