Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable (Lieber, 2018)

Unstoppable, a documentary sharing professional surfer Bethany Hamilton’s journey, left me mesmerized, not only by her talent but by her incredible determination to succeed. This beautifully filmed documentary shares Hamilton’s life from many perspectives–her own, her loved ones’, and her fans’ as she went from a child learning to surf to a young girl dealing with fame, to a mother still seeking to fulfill her dreams.  Unstoppable places viewers alongside Hamilton to experience her highs and lows and witness her relentless pursuit of her goals no matter the obstacles.

Although years ago, I sat with friends, snacking on popcorn, and watching Soul Surfer in theaters, I had little knowledge of Bethany Hamilton’s life as it is today.  Further, I had little knowledge of the sport of surfing. Those unfamiliarities did not keep me from deeply enjoying this documentary.  Throughout the film, I felt excitement, nervousness, and pride not because I love surfing but because I felt a connection with Bethany.  Unstoppable’s interviews, especially of Bethany’s family, offer viewers more personal insight than a simple overview of Bethany’s story.  Even interviews of other professional surfers and surfers with whom Bethany grew up helped me understand Bethany’s personality and inability to quit.

As I heard people’s perceptions of Bethany and her own words about her experience learning to surf and pursue her professional goals after the shark attack which took her arm, I felt strung along a winding journey.  I could not wait for what was to come but braced myself for inevitable defeat.  However, I was mistaken.  Although Bethany did face setbacks, she did not let them defeat her.  Bethany’s hard work to get back on her board and to remain among the top surfers of her age years after the attack inspired me and made me confident in her.  Unfortunately, Bethany doubted herself after taking different paths than her friends who went pro and fulfilling her own obligations to the ever demanding media.  After she gave birth to their son, Bethany’s husband became a great source of support for her as she decided to surf with the pros again.  Throughout Unstoppable, Bethany’s family clearly offered a great support system, one, as a viewer, I wanted to be among as I held my breath when watching her compete and felt my heart race when she took on the breathtakingly, fear inducing surf break, Jaws.

I not only felt a connection to Bethany through her captivating journey, but through the authentic tone of the many interviews.  For instance, when discussing her reaction to her daughter’s nearly fatal injury, Bethany’s mother confesses she did not believe Bethany would surf again.  Adam, Bethany’s husband, also offers an incredibly genuine voice through his comments, especially those about his challenges as a husband.  Bethany’s own words shared this authenticity as she did not generalize her internal battles, but vulnerably shared her self doubt in her surfing, future, and motherhood.  Bethany shared that, despite looking forward to one day having children of her own, she felt unready to be a mother when she learned she was pregnant.  Still, viewers see Bethany learning to navigate motherhood with one arm and the stress of competing among world champion surfers, through shots of her changing her son’s diaper with one hand and even breastfeeding between competition heats.

When considering transparency, I initially would have liked to hear more of Bethany’s thoughts and feelings on her decision to withdraw her ESPY nomination for Best Female Athlete With Disability and her difficulty with being labeled “disabled” or “shark girl.”  Bethany said, “[being] in a disabled category… didn’t really seem fitting,” and reflected on feeling like people have wanted to put her in a specific box since her attack.  However, by the end of the documentary, I better understood Bethany’s insistence on not letting having only one arm hold her back from surfing among the best and, overall, remaining true to herself.

At times, I could not believe Bethany’s endurance and the ease with which it appeared she navigated her new life.  In one shot, Bethany held her son with a scraped and, what looked to be slightly bleeding elbow in between heats as a wild card surfer in the 2016 World Surf League Fiji Women’s Pro.  Meanwhile, I was still questioning how she so easily put on a shirt with one hand.  Inspired, I appreciated hearing others’ awe at Bethany.  Carissa Moore, three times Women’s World Tour Champion, said Bethany’s example made her recognize she didn’t have to wait until her surfing career ended to have kids of her own, since doing both was not impossible. 

My greatest moment of inspiration came when Bethany’s story came full circle to where the documentary began, among the waters of Jaws.  I must admit at the beginning of the documentary, I naively acknowledged Jaw’s waves were large, but after watching many clips of Bethany surf among lesser or more normal surfing conditions, I had a clearer perspective of the daunting nature of Jaws and of Bethany’s bravery knowing that surfing Jaws had great risks.

Despite my ignorance of big waves and swells, I found Unstoppable captivating for any audience looking for a motivational story of hope or adventure, no matter their age or surfing knowledge.  The documentary involved very little surfer lingo and, in the end, left me not only inspired by Hamilton but fascinated by the sport, rewinding to see Bethany’s performance and the stunning aerial shots again.  Unstoppable’s beautiful picture of the ocean and many islands, paired with music that helped tell Bethany’s story, kept me excited to see the next wave and destination.  Even so, Unstoppable tells more than a story of a girl learning to surf again or a young woman becoming a mother. It tells a story of self confidence, determination, faith, and resilience despite physical limitations and the expectations of others.

Jordan Hobgood is a freelance writer, experienced in journalism and marketing, who enjoys sharing fresh perspective with readers. You can most likely find her hidden in a local bookstore with coffee in hand.

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