Bethany Hamilton’s “Surfing Past Fear” Helps Kids Dream Big

Bethany Hamilton
Brad Schwartzrock

Bethany Hamilton holds many titles: professional surfer, limb loss advocate, mother, and author (many times over). Her newest release aims to help young readers learn to face their fears head-on and, instead of focusing on what could go wrong, imagine what could go right.

Hamilton grew up surfing in Hawaii, and quickly became a rising star in the sport. At age 13, she was attacked by a 14-foot tiger shark, which resulted in the loss of her left arm and nearly her life. She garnered worldwide fame when she got back on her board and, within two years, won her first national surfing title. By age 17 she was surfing professionally, and years later remains one of the top-ranked surfers in the world.

Her book, Surfing Past Fear, tells the story of Olivia the otter, who spends summer days learning to surf with her best friend, Abby the flamingo. When Olivia breaks her arm while practicing for a competition, she believes her summer of sand and sun is over, but Abby encourages her to enter the surf contest anyway. With the help of a mentor who knows just how Olivia feels, she surprises everyone (including herself) with just how capable she is.

Hamilton spoke with Verywell Family about the importance of teaching young children how to think about their fears, how she helps her own children (ages 7, 4, and 1) confront what scares them, and what she would have missed out on if she had let her fears win. 

Surfing Past Fear Book Cover

Bethany Hamilton / Brave Books

Verywell Family: What inspired you to write a children's book?

Bethany Hamilton: I’m now a mother of three and having a lot of fun with mom life, and as a surfer, I’m teaching my children how to surf. I’m very much a go-getter who jumps off the cliffs and surfs the crazy waves, but my children aren’t me. Working with them to overcome their fears and be brave in life has been really fun; I know I have to adjust how I approach them, build up their confidence, and remind them they can do it.

Of course, my children inspire me, but I care for a lot of my children beyond my own. I’m an auntie to 12 others. There are a lot of kids in my family, so it’s cool to work on this project and create a rad tool for parents to talk about fears with their children and share my story along the way as well.

VWF: How is Olivia's process of learning to surf with her broken arm similar to yours when learning to surf with one arm? It seems like Olivia is a younger you and Mobi is a grownup you.

BH: I’m kind of Olivia and kind of Mobi. The part that I hope resonates with readers is the ‘what if’ part. Olivia goes back out there and is trying to be brave but still has all these, ‘What if it goes wrong?’ thoughts, and I think we all have those moments. But then Mobi comes alongside her and reminds her, ‘What if everything goes really well?’ and shows her how it’s done. That’s been a lot of my life, just showing people what’s possible and putting myself out there to try surfing with one arm.

Bethany Hamilton

There are so many moments in my life when I was like, ‘Can I do this with one arm, like play tennis or care for my baby?’

— Bethany Hamilton

VWF: "Surfing Past Fear" is part of a larger children's book series, right?

BH: My book is part of the Brave Book of the Month Club. Each month a new book is released on a new topic, but they all take place within Brave Island. We needed to utilize characters that are part of the bigger series, and my book is specifically about them going to the beach, surfing, and overcoming fear. It’s a bigger book series with a lot of cool messages along the way, and it has some cool games at the end—Fearing Freaky Food and Cowabunga—and a special message from me.

VWF: What in your life would you have missed out on if you'd listened to your fears?

BH: Not many people thought I’d be able to surf with one arm. Once I got older, I went through a season as a teen wondering if someone would ever love me the way I hoped because I look different. There are so many moments in my life when I was like, ‘Can I do this with one arm, like play tennis or care for my baby?’ I had to not let that fear or doubt overtake me and be willing to adapt and to try.

VWF: When it comes to your own children, how do you help them address fear?

BH: I think just trying to understand where they’re at and not undermine their fear. It can be hard because sometimes one of their fears may seem really minute to us, or like it’s just not that big of a deal, but to them, it feels like a huge deal. You have to come alongside them and try to take baby steps to build their confidence.

Bethany Hamilton

I know I have to adjust how I approach them, build up their confidence, and remind them they can do it.

— Bethany Hamilton

VWF: What do you hope children take away from your book after reading it?

BH: I just hope they can see how Olivia was scared, but she was willing to get out there and try, and ended up rocking it. I think hopefully it will be something that sticks in the children’s minds and next time they’re working through a fear of their own, they’ll think, ‘OK, Olivia and Bethany can do it, so maybe I can too.’”