Less than three months ago, Bethany Hamilton was an unknown Hawaiian teenager, balancing the demands of schoolwork against her ambition to become a champion surfer. At the age of 13, she had already finished second in the US national under-18 championships and was expected to improve on that performance in the years ahead. Her parents were relatively poor - her mother worked part-time in advertising, her father at a golf course - and most of their spare money was used to fund their daughter's obsession with surfing.
Then, on the afternoon of Saturday 1 November, while Bethany was out on her surfboard, dangling her arms in the waters off the coast of her home island of Kauai, she was attacked by a tiger shark. She lost most of her left arm but survived thanks to the ingenuity of friends, who used a surfboard leash to stem the flow of blood and lead her back to shore.
I was in America when the attack happened, and the story of her remarkable survival was national news, the lead item on the rolling news networks for most of that and the following day. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to find out more about the young Hawaiian. In subsequent interviews, Bethany spoke of how she had cried only twice since the attack, of her faith ("Most of the time I was just praying to God to help me") and of how determined she was to continue surfing competitively. Her optimism and good humour were a respite from the relentless bad news from Iraq.
It was clear from all the coverage that a cult of Bethany was developing fast: the young, pretty, athletic, long-haired blonde who defied death to become an inspiration for the whole of America. People loved her not only for who she was but for what she represented.
Today Bethany is one of the most famous young people in America. She is a commodity and a brand, a veteran of the talk-show circuit, a motivational speaker, an aspirant snowboarder and, yes, a surfer who recently came fifth in her first tournament since the attack. She has a smart, wised-up agent who is negotiating the video, the book, the film deal. And this month she will open the Hawaii state legislature. Although she is having a prosthetic arm designed for her in Los Angeles, paid for by one of her supporters, Bethany continues to be photographed wearing T-shirts or in a swimming costume, the ragged stump of what was once her left arm on proud display. Once her arm is fitted, she hopes to turn professional. You wouldn't wager against her pulling it off.
What is one to make of all this? In one sense, the story of Bethany Hamilton is a story of modern America, a country endlessly seeking affirmation of its own goodness and purpose. Like Jessica Lynch, the wounded soldier who was rescued from hospital by marines during the early phase of the war in Iraq, Bethany is being sold as a symbol of the gleaming possibility of America. She is good news in a country desperately seeking a lift, a role model and an influence. "My role," her agent, Roy Hofstetter, told the Sunday Times, "is to take her 15 minutes of fame and make it productive for her. She's a beautiful little girl and is not into being a commodity, but she's always wanted to surf all over the world and she's interested in becoming a spokeswoman for her sport."
Bethany is well aware, it seems, of her own commercial worth. Her first thought, she says, in the stunned aftermath of the attack, was: "Oh no, there goes my sponsorship deal." Now she has as many sponsorship deals as she could ever wish for, and her determination to continue surfing is indeed an inspiration.
Yet there is one important dimension missing - and that's the shark. He (if indeed it was a he) is, after all, the active player; Bethany was merely his passive victim. So what is he making from all this? I hope he's got a good agent. He certainly needs one if he, like Bethany, is to take his 15 minutes and make them productive, in the modern American way.
Jason Cowley is editor of the Observer Sport Monthly. Hunter Davies is away