Surfer trades in board

Shark attack survivor learns to snowboard in Steamboat

Bethany Hamilton, 13, signs a photo of herself surfing with a felt pen while standing near a lift at the Steamboat Ski Area.

She concentrates as she writes, pursing her lips, then giggles and says, "Oh, gosh," as her hand slips.

Bethany looks like a typical teenage snowboarder, wearing a turquoise Hawaiian-flowered vest, blue ski jacket and ear-flap cap.

But her long, sun-bleached blond hair and suntan show that most of her time is spent off the slopes and on the beaches -- specifically, the beaches of Princeville, Kauai, Bethany's hometown.

As of Oct. 31, Bethany was an amateur surfing champion ranked No. 8 in the world with plans for a professional surfing career.

That morning, the slim, muscled teenager lost her left arm to a 15-foot tiger shark while she was surfing off the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

During the attack, she lost more than half her blood. Her surgeon said Bethany would not have survived had it not been for her athletic condition, determination and strong faith, said Bethany's father, Tom.

One of the first things Bethany's mother, Cheri, told Bethany after the attack was, "As soon as you're well, you're going snowboarding, girl."

Bethany had always wanted to learn how to snowboard, Cheri said. It seemed even more important to try after the shark attack; snowboarding requires less arm strength than surfing because it doesn't require paddling to catch a wave, she said.

On Saturday, Bethany had her first shot at surfing the snow, and she did it in Steamboat Springs. The Hamiltons' vacation was organized and paid for with help from United Airlines, Black Diamond Express, Bear Claw Condominiums and the Steamboat Ski Area.

Bethany went from sliding down the bunny hill to carving smooth turns on intermediate slopes within a few days. Though some snowboarding motions are similar to surfing, there are some big differences, Bethany said.

"The (surfing) ride is way shorter, and you have to paddle back out," she said. With snowboarding, she continued, "it's one long run, and you take the lift back up."

Despite the shorter rides and work to paddle back, Bethany said her true love will always be surfing. She's working on a new surfing technique that enables her to get up quickly on her board, which is tough enough for people pushing with two strong arms. Paddling with one arm to catch waves also is trickier.

When she dreams, Bethany still has her arm, which in reality is now a 4-inch stub.

But her waking dreams for the future have shifted. Though she returned to surfing competitions 2 1/2 months after the attack, she may have to give up -- for now -- her plans to be a world-class surfer.

The whole family has felt that change, Cheri said. They have watched the world-champion dreams "slip away," but feel those plans have been replaced by a purpose that is "going to be bigger and better in the long-run," Cheri said.

Bethany, a Christian since she was 6 years old, said she feels the attack has a purpose. It might not be one that she understands now, but it's one she knows is there.

"For me, I just look up to God," Bethany said. "I should be grateful for what I have."

That determination and gratefulness has elicited thousands and thousands of letters and gifts of support from people across the country. Bethany is recognized almost everywhere she goes, and invariably those who see her want to get an autograph and offer a word of admiration.

David Haberneski, account executive with KFMU radio in Steamboat and former Hawaii resident, was one of the people who heard Bethany's story and wanted to do something to help.

He was listening to the radio and learned that she wanted to learn to snowboard.

"I just got these chills and I said, 'Whoa, this kid deserves to come to the 'Boat,'" Haberneski said. The family had offers from several other resorts, he said, but chose to come to Steamboat.

Bethany's father expressed thanks and gratitude to the Steamboat community for giving Bethany, her parents and two older brothers a chance to ski and relax.

Being in the spotlight and struggling with tough life changes is hard work for the 13-year-old, he said. But, he continued, Bethany and her family hope the experience will touch people's lives around the world.

"I've just been encouraged by her never-giving-up attitude," Tom said. "She's just such an inspiration. ... The whole world wants to know her story."

Now, part of that story includes giving the snow a try. And although she said Wednesday she enjoyed her time in Steamboat, she was ready to get back to the Hawaiian shores.

"It's cool doing this, but I miss the water," she said.

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-- To reach Susan Bacon, call 871-4203

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