In a world that can be tiresome and suffocating, there are those among us who have discovered how to live with exuberance, unleashed and fully alive. Bethany Hamilton is one of these people. When she lost her arm to a shark she was more fearful of never surfing again than of another attack. From an outside perspective, it might appear that losing a limb was Bethany’s greatest challenge. Since working with her, however, I’ve witnessed her ability to overcome more challenging attacks than a tiger shark with peace and courage.
At thirteen, Bethany was ripped from her peaceful life of homeschooling and surfing in Kauai. She was hurled into Hollywood and the media’s attention at a meteoric pace, and through it all she did not lose herself. Let me repeat that—she never lost herself. She stayed centered, steady inher faith and values, and never became narcissistic or indulged in self-grandeur. She still valued the simple things. I watched her say “no” to the almighty dollar in favor of higher priorities.
I’m not the only Bethany fan out there. In fact, The Joy Agency receives around 20 inquiries each month from groups all over the world requesting to hear Bethany’s message. Between her fitness program, surf regimen, demands from sponsors, movie filming—plus the time she gives to God and her family—we were challenged to find margin for Bethany to speak to these groups.
After months of back-and-forth and playing calendar roulette, the idea for a speaking tour was born. If we can get Bethany off the island to endure a long flight, we thought, let’s have her speak to five groups instead of one!By the time the flight to and from Hawaii was factored in, the investment was not much greater than booking a single event.
Bethany loved the idea and we booked her first speaking tour in spring of 2014. Since then we’ve seen huge success. We’ve sold out of tickets, been in trouble with fire marshals thanks to venues exceeding occupancy, helped groups like Fellowship of Christian Athletes host record fundraisers, watched dads connect with their daughters in new ways,and empowered hosts to make a difference in their community. We realized we are making an impact—and it feels awesome. Today The Joy Agency coordinates bi-annual tours with Bethany, one in the spring and one in the fall.
In October, Bethany’s five-city tour was approaching and The Joy Agency office was abuzz. Emails flew and phones rang. Groups needed help securing last minute sponsorsand everyone wanted to know Bethany’s airline flight number, meal preferences, and departure times. Like a woman before childbirth, we felt a palpable suspense and eagerness for the day to arrive. Soon Bethany would embark on a speaking tour in Palo Alto, California; Santa Cruz, California; Walled Lake, Michigan; Ocean City, New Jersey; Moutain View, California; and Santa Rosa,California.
In the midst of all the preparation, we received a humblingcall. Three children had been in a head-on car collision. The youngest was a fourteen-year-old boy named Manuel. His arm was pinched in the accident—he had lost movement and would likely lose the arm. Manual was depressed and had given up on his favorite sport, soccer. His parents wanted him to hear Bethany speak. As soon as I got their call, we issued sponsored tickets to Manuel and his whole family.
Manuel was just one of the 4,000 people who needed to hear Bethany speak that October. Whether it’s a car accident, getting let go from a job, or ending a relationship, we all face “shark attacks” in our life. The beauty of Bethany’s story, though, is not about the attack. It’s about the “So what? What’s next?” that follows. Bethany’s message is one of gratitude, becoming stronger, and becoming more. Obstacles like Manuel’s and Bethany’s are really just opportunities to embrace life in a new way.
On October 15 in Palo Alto, we pulled Manuel from the audience and brought him backstage. He walked into the room in a black hoodie sweatshirt, the sleeves pulled down to conceal his paralyzed arm. His mood was somber, his voice slow, and his eyes cast down.
The first thing Bethany said to him after some cordial exchanges was, “Who tied your shoes today?”
“My mom.” Manuel kept his eyes down.
“That has to stop. You can tie your own shoes. Here, let me show you.”
As I watched, Bethany proceeded to show Manuel how to tie shoes with one hand. In that moment, she taught both Manuel and me a lesson about not making excuses. As Bethany and Manuel said goodbye she added, “Oh yeah, and be grateful. Look at you…you’re alive! You ARE alive. You have the gift of life. By the way…you can still play soccer with one arm.”
She walked away and into another room where her five-month-old son Tobias was crying from hunger. Bethany scooped him up, threw him on her lap and her nursing cover on, and with one arm fed and nurtured her son.
Bethany’s challenges aren’t over. And neither are Manual’s. And neither are mine or yours.
I’ve seen how Bethany’s loss hasn’t made her less but has made her more. She stands out. She can connect with anyone over the shared experience of adversity. Her circumstances allow her to relate to humanity in a way she didn’t before as a surf star in a petite bikini. Losing her arm gave her a story of triumph to share in community. It gave her a new identity: she is an overcomer, an unstoppable warrior. The Joy Agency has scheduled events in city Orlando, FL, Pensacola, FL, Kalamazoo, MI, Sioux Falls, SD, ColombusOH, Colombia, MI in April. We are currently accepting groups for October 2016. The Joy Agency is humbled to represent Bethany—it’s a gift we delight in daily and don’t take for granted.