The sign that arched over the entrance may as well have said, "Welcome to Hell." I had slipped into my own personal version of it, but I hadn't died and gone there; I was very much alive and aware of what was going on around me.
"Welcome to Universal Studios! Do you have a minute to talk about upgrading to an American Express business card?" smiled a cute sales girl, unaware of the shadow she just cast on my sunny afternoon with her credit card pitch.
The smell of California Pizza Kitchen emanated from around every corner and there was no square inch of the place that wasn't for sale. And on those corners, there were credit card sales(wo)men pitching their wares, however begrudgingly. Hell, I say.
But I wasn't at Universal Studios on the first truly warm day of spring to lose my faith in American entertainment. I was there to meet with surfing's sweetheart Bethany Hamilton and talk with her about what she's up to -- winning Pipe, her future in surfing, her new sandal model and other such things.
The irony of a girl from Lihue -- a pro surfer and a fairly quiet, sweet girl -- meeting in this obnoxious, touristy Hollywood environment made me chuckle to myself as I waited for her. I assumed she was slightly uneasy as well, which she later confirmed. Her reason for being at Universal was to sign pairs of her new Cobian sandals for a gaggle of white-knuckled youngsters waiting to meet their idol.
I was told to wait at a small café-style table outside a Wetzel's Pretzels and that "Ms. Hamilton will be with you shortly."
When she did arrive, it was with no less than a small army, which consisted of her husband, brother, a PR team, a cadre of bodyguard types, the owner of a chain of Flip Flop Shops -- the store where Bethany would later do her signing -- and others. It was slightly unnerving to have this team watch your every move and listen to every word, but she appeared unfazed and used to it, I guessed.
We got down to it and, on the heels of her win at Pipe, the topic jumpstarted our discussion. I, like many who learned of her win, was surprised. She hadn't competed more than a couple of times in the last calendar year and went on to say she doesn't plan to compete much more this year either. But after spending time on the North Shore this winter, and surfing what she deemed 10-footers at second reef Pipe, she was committed to pushing the envelope -- to surfing increasingly bigger waves. To be fair, Pipe wasn't its notorious self during the event she won, but don't let that detract too much. She was just getting back in the saddle and prepping for big things ahead. You might say it was a stepping stone.
On the horizon lies a new film project. Bethany and filmmaker Aaron Lieber will work together to showcase her high-performance surfing. "That's another reason I'm not going to do as many contests. I want to go on good surf trips. We're gonna go to Teahupo'o, Indonesia, Maldives, maybe Mexico, anywhere we see the forecasts get really good."
That she's creating a new film didn't surprise me, it's that she said she'd be surfing Teahupo'o that caught me a bit off-guard. Maybe I shouldn't have been, given that she had just won an event at Pipe, but Teahupo'o at size isn't exactly equivalent to small Pipe or waist-high Manly, the other event she entered this year. I felt an eyebrow raise when the word "Teahupo'o" was confidently uttered, but she backed it up. "A lot of people know I continued surfing, but they don't realize how well I can surf... I kinda like that kind of wave," she claimed, making a general reference towards heavy, barreling waves over shallow reef.
Big waves immediately became the topic du jour with Bethany, and I was delightfully impressed. Her face lit up as I asked her if she wanted to get into bigger waves, ones that posed serious consequences. We talked about how big the North Shore had been this past winter and if waves of that size were on her radar. "Yeah, definitely!" she responded, immediately and enthusiastically, "That's definitely a big passion of mine. It's just a matter of getting your act together, making it happen, getting the support of sponsors. Over the next few years, that'll be one of my main focuses."
As our conversation continued, I asked her about towing to which her response was equally quick and positive, "Yeah, I've towed a little bit and I want to do more. Even paddling too, because that's where the big wave scene seems to be heading. When you paddle into a big wave rather than tow, it's way heavier and more impressive."
Still on the topic of danger, I was curious to know about her encounter with the shark that stole her arm years ago. I had spoken with her lifelong friend, Mike Coots, about his shark attack that left him with a prosthetic leg when he was 18. His description had surprised me in that he was so calm through the duration of the incident. Even describing it, there was no spike in emotion or tone. I was interested to know if Bethany felt the same way about that morning at Tunnels on Kauai. When asked, she flatly replied, "I'd rather not talk about it at all, and I'd rather not deal with it," which I respected. I respected it because she seems to have moved on by not talking about it. She's no longer Bethany Hamilton: the shark-attack survivor. She's now Bethany Hamilton: the surfer, the healthy living advocate, the author and more.
Speaking of, her path of inspiration continues with a new book -- Body and Soul: A Girl's Guide to a Fit, Fun and Fabulous Life -- which aims to guide girls in a positive direction. As Bethany put it, "It's for the young girls who are going from being a girl to a woman and all the different things they face. The media has a lot of crap that tells girls that they have to be a certain way and I think it's more about being confident, healthy and believing in yourself and whatever you love to do."
At the end of the afternoon, the energy had shifted. What started as blatant cynicism on my part upon walking into Universal Studios ended up as a day of strictly positive discussion and discovery. Bethany seems to be moving in a new direction -- one that puts the shark attack most know her for in the rearview -- and has leapfrogged on to bigger and better things. Big wave surfing, book writing and inspiring those in dark places are all much more important than clearing the air with regard to an accident that was out of her control. She's a woman now and it seems maturity has turned over a new leaf for her. Soon we'll know Bethany Hamilton for her surfing -- the big wave surfing that has your heart in your throat much the same way a 14-foot shark might do -- which is exactly how she should be known.
This article was originally published on The Inertia