Addison Bethea was enjoying her last summer before her senior year of high school last June when she was bitten by a shark that took her leg while scalloping in shallow waters off the coast of Florida with her brother.
One year later, the resilient 18-year-old walked the homecoming field at graduation with her prosthetic limb, and she later went swimming in the same place where she was attacked.
To cap off a senior year filled with tragedy and triumph, the new graduate shared some surprising and thrilling news with her followers! Continue reading to learn more about this inspiring young lady!
Addison Bethea and her half-brother Rhett Willingham docked their little boat near a vast grassy sandbank off the shore of Keaton Beach in northern Florida in late June 2022.
Addison was scalloping in the dark waters around 6 feet deep when she felt something tug on her leg. In the BBC documentary Why Sharks Attack, the young woman said she “vividly” remembers that moment.
“When it latched on and [pulled] me under with my calf, I remember that,” Addison said, adding that she felt no pain until she tried to pry its massive jaws off her leg. “I thought it was Rhett, as it pulled me under because I didn’t feel any pain or anything. But then it started kind of shaking me and that’s when I knew it was something else. It started biting into my right thigh and I was gouging its eye to get it off me and then it started swimming away with me still in its mouth.”
Addison, who had learned from her shark obsession to punch it in the nose or poke its eyes, wasn’t going to let the almost 9-foot shark win without a fight.
The enormous beast, however, overwhelmed her. She yelled when she realized she was helpless, and Rhett, a firefighter and emergency medical technician (EMT), responded instantly.
“My brother was the one that heard me scream … and when he turned around, I was pulled under the water by the shark,” she shared. “I came back up and I was screaming for him. It’s almost like when you’re in a dream, and you’re trying to scream in a dream, and it feels like nothing’s coming out. That’s what I felt like at that moment, so I belted as loud as I could.”
In the documentary, Rhett, 23, describes seeing the shark thrashing in the water with his sister clasped in its mouth. He punched it several times, and when the shark eventually let Addison go, he helped her into the boat.
“I heard Addison yell and she surfaced and I immediately could see this tail, just slashing back and forth,” Rhett said. “I grabbed her and started hitting it to get it off.”
When a nearby boater heard what was going on, he rushed to aid. When the siblings arrived on the shore, they were met by rescue personnel.
Footage from a police bodycam shows Rhett on the boat, tightly holding the tourniquet he fashioned on his sister, who is resting on her side. The shark ate most of her right leg.
“Goddammit,” he is heard saying to EMTs who arrived at the scene. “that’s my F—ing sister…dude it was huge, like I had to pry it off of her.”The clip shows Addison, lying helpless on the boat, first gasping and then her heartbreaking cries, “Help me.”
And her calm big brother responds, “Addison, we’re not losing you.” Take a look at me, Addison.” Addison was airlifted to a hospital in Tallahassee. She underwent six surgeries, during which her right thigh was mostly repaired and her leg was severed above the knee, allowing her to utilize a prosthetic.
She spent the summer before her senior year in the hospital rehabilitating, and she was determined to maintain her cheerful attitude. “What my dad used to tell me in the hospital was, ‘Today is going to be a good day,’” Addison said. Even if your day isn’t great, simply find one positive thing to be grateful for to keep you going.”
Addison’s first objective was to walk, and then to walk on her own at her high school’s homecoming event in the fall.
“During homecoming week is when you walk in the fancy dresses down the football field,” she said. “That’s something I’ve always loved doing and the parade, and I wanted to be able to do that again one last time for senior year.”
The former cheerleader, who used to be sporty and active, said her hobbies aided her recovery. Addison returned to school in September, only three months after the incident, after quickly adjusting to her prosthetic leg.
Addison was named to her school’s homecoming court and then realized her ambition of marching down the football field with her prosthetic leg.
“It was different, but I was able to do it. I walked on the field with my prosthetic perfectly normal, without crutches or anything,” said Addison, who also cheered one last football game with her team.
Checking things off her list, Addison then walked alone at her high school graduation in May 2023, which was followed on July 1 by a swim with her brother–who she refers to as her “hero”–at the very same spot where she was attacked.
“I felt completely safe. It felt perfectly normal. It didn’t make me sad or anything. I didn’t get emotional. It was just like [a] back to just normal kind of thing, hop back into routine.”
Addison disclosed an unexpected milestone shortly after graduation. She found out she was pregnant and expects her first kid with her high school beau in December.
“It wasn’t something I planned, but as I’ve said, God works in mysterious ways,” Addison said. “Maybe it’s just time for me to be a mom. I’m very excited…It’s crazy to be bringing a brand new life into [the world] when mine was almost gone. It’s kind of crazy how that works.”
In addition to being a future mother, Addison is on a mission to keep people safe and fearless in the water.
“You can’t just be mad at the ocean when you’re in [sharks] territory. They know what they’re doing. They know what they want to eat. You’ve just got to be mindful of that,” she said.
Addison Bethea is a shining example of courage and perseverance, and we are honored to tell her story! We’re excited to learn more about her life as a mother and how she continues to inspire communities.