A Surfer and a Phenom at Her Very CoreBy JEN MURPHY
Since Bethany Hamilton lost her left arm in a shark attack in 2003, the surfing champion has changed her life and her training dramatically.
Prior to the attack, Ms. Hamilton had made a name for herself at local junior surf competitions and had hopes of becoming a professional surfer. Then barely a teenager, her workout largely revolved around surfing as much as possible and watching videos of her surfing so she could improve her technique.
Regaining strength and balance were key to Ms. Hamilton's return to the surfing circuit. The sport requires endurance, a strong core and tremendous upper-body strength for paddling. She increased her workouts on land, focusing on leg, core and upper body strength and working out nearly twice as hard as before. If she was in the water, she was surfing. "Extra swimming would just exhaust my arm," she says.
Ms. Hamilton's first few months back in the water required adjustments to compensate for having only one arm. She started riding a custom-made board that had a handle to help her duck under the waves. The board was also longer and thicker, which made it easier to paddle. She had to start using her legs more to make up for her slower paddling speed. "Kicking more efficiently with my legs became really important to help me get out past the waves and into the lineup with the other surfers," Ms. Hamilton says.
After the accident, she began working with a personal trainer, in addition to going to physical therapy. About two years ago, she started to focus on postural poses that helped to realign her spine, which X-rays showed had curved toward her now stronger right side.
The 21-year-old still surfs competitively, usually entering eight to 12 contests a year. In 2005, she took first place in the National Scholastic Surfing Association National Championships, and in 2008, she began competing full-time on the Association of Surfing Professionals World Qualifying Series. "Soul Surfer," a film about Ms. Hamilton's comeback starring Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid hit theaters last week. Ms. Hamilton says the hoopla that came along with the movie has been a distraction to her surfing this year. "I still plan to compete in all of the events I normally do, but I don't have super high expectations," she says. "I have a lot on my plate."
For the past 2½ years, Ms. Hamilton has been working with postural alignment specialist Dustin Dillberg. They train at least two days a week for an hour and use Skype to work out together when Ms. Hamilton is on the road.
Ms. Hamilton practices custom exercises to address the imbalance caused by her missing left arm. Mr. Dillberg analyzed Ms. Hamilton's posture and movement patterns to help design her workout. "Dealing with the loss of a limb, she's always going to be slightly off balance because she will have underuse on one side," he says. "This throws off her center of gravity."
Mr. Dillberg introduced her to the Egoscue Method, a therapy technique that strengthens specific muscles to help realign the body. Ms. Hamilton has a menu of postural therapy exercises that she does almost daily. One exercise is a "wall sit" where she puts her back flat against a wall, with knees bent at a 90-degree angle and weight aimed at the heels. The pose is held for two minutes.
The postural work is often followed by exercises using the TRX Suspension Trainer, a piece of equipment made up of nylon straps that pits body weight against gravity to work the body in different planes of resistance. Ms. Hamilton can loop the TRX cradle around the stump of her left arm to more easily perform movements like one-arm push ups.
In one pose, she puts her feet into the strap with one hand on the ground and her left shoulder balanced on a foam roller. "We use the foam roller almost like a prosthetic arm to perform exercises," Mr. Dillberg says.
Or she might do power pulls, where she grabs the handle and leans back at a 45-degree angle, rotating her entire body toward the ground. She then sits back up while reaching to the ceiling. The exercise is meant to work the obliques and improve hip stability.
"My TRX training has really improved my balance and has built up my confidence in the water," says Ms. Hamilton. "It's been exciting to be able to do so many new exercises with the help of the straps."
She gets in most of her swimming practice when she's surfing. "I mostly focus on kicking because I don't like to use my arm too much, and kicking is important for me in surfing to help catch waves," she says.
At least once a week she runs about two miles on the beach or will take her dog on a hike. When the waves are good, Ms. Hamilton skips her workout and spends two to eight hours surfing.
When in her late teens, Ms. Hamilton started eating an almost all organic diet. She usually starts her mornings making a smoothie with açaí, a purple South American fruit loaded with antioxidants. While many athletes focus on protein, Ms. Hamilton is more concerned about eating her vegetables. "I think it's more important to eat the right amount of protein and not go overboard," she says.
She likes to cook what she calls a "reverse omelet" for breakfast, using one egg and adding extra onion, zucchini or asparagus to the pan. She tries to fuel herself with healthy food every three to four hours. One of her favorite snacks is homemade kale chips.
Ms. Hamilton gets most of her surfing gear courtesy of sponsors like Channel Islands and Epoxy surfboards, Rip Curl and Future Fins. She estimates she has around 20 surfboards and more bathing suits than she can count. A TRX Suspension Training kit costs about $190 and comes with an instructional DVD.
"It's important to have variety. Find other stuff you enjoy. I love working out and love surfing, but sometimes I need a change so I'll do something different, like play tennis."
When short on time, Ms. Hamilton will do a postural exercise that takes 30 minutes to perform. She lays on her back with one leg extended straight up in the air and the other straight out flat on the floor, forming a 90-degree angle for 15 minutes, and then switches to the other side. The exercise helps release her lower back and hips. "My hips had been rebelling. They were so tight and it was preventing me from having proper positioning on my board," she says.
Ms. Hamilton's iPod is loaded with hip hop and techno, as well as some "calmer" music which she plays while stretching or performing her postural exercises.—Write to Jen Murphy at