Outside of his home country of Brazil, Gabriel Medina has become a polarizing figure. With his incredible aerial prowess, he quickly established himself as one of the most exciting surfers to watch on the World Tour, winning an unprecedented two events during his rookie season. But he’s also proven himself a very emotional competitor, occasionally falling to pieces in the wake of his losses. When he lost a controversial final against Julian Wilson in Portugal, Medina took to the podium in tears, telling the Portuguese crowd that the judges had made a huge mistake.
We expect our athletes to swallow the bitter pill of defeat, put on a fake smile, and pop the ceremonial bottle of champagne in the name of sportsmanship. But we forget that Medina is only 20 years old and part of a minority of Portuguese-speaking competitors on a mostly English-speaking Tour. Rather than struggle to explain himself in a second language, Medina tends to keep the media at arm’s length, which only alienates him further from the English-speaking audience. With that in mind, we gave this year’s Hot 100 winner the freedom to discuss life on his own terms, in his native tongue. —Steven Allain
Is being on Tour different from what you imagined as a kid?
It is and it isn’t. I always dreamt about being a pro surfer like my idols — Kelly, Mick, Bruce and Andy. That was my dream, to compete against the best surfers in the best waves. But as a kid it all seemed so unattainable. It was this big dream, but deep down I never thought it could really happen. But my parents always believed I could do it and they helped me get through all the stages and take all the right steps. Then it all kinda happened suddenly. It wasn’t forced or anything. Things just happened really fast. Now that I’m here, it feels like a great responsibility. I feel I have a responsibility to my country and to all the people who helped me along the way.
When did you realize you reached the same level as the top guys?
When I won my first event on Tour. Up until that point I wasn’t sure how I’d measure up against those guys. When I won, I realized I might have the potential to really surf well against the best. I thought to myself that if I played it smart and caught the best waves, things could go my way. That was a huge confidence boost. And it carried me through my second win, in San Francisco. After that one, I thought, “Wow, I can really go head to head with the top guys.”
How did things change for you after winning those two events?
Well, it was a shock to have to deal with all the attention and the media. That was something I’d never experienced. It was so intense because no one had ever won two comps straight off the bat in that way. But it didn’t change me at all. It felt so natural, and just like in any other contest, the high of winning felt the same. It didn’t matter if I beat Kelly or whoever; it felt oddly the same as the victories I had as a grom.
What have you learned since then?
That competition is very complex. There are so many variables besides your surfing that have to be right. The waves have to come in your heat; you have to learn to be patient, to adapt your strategy to the conditions and to have your head in the right place. Sometimes you surf well and still don’t win. It happens to everyone. You learn that one big score doesn’t mean much if you don’t have a backup. I guess every rookie learns that as time goes by. I took some big lessons from my losses.
After you won those World Tour events, many put their money on you to be the first to bring the world title to Brazil. How did you deal with that?
Brazil is very “needy” of champions. It’s even more so with surfing, because we’ve never won the title. I mean, to have people believe you can be a world champion is awesome. It comes from a great place, and I feel it and I understand it. But when you don’t deliver, it can be difficult too. Last year, for example, my results were very inconsistent, and I was widely criticized for it. But that’s how Brazilians are. We all place great expectations on our athletes and idols. I’m like that too. So I understand it and therefore don’t pay too much attention to the harsh critics. Especially because I love what I do and I surf every single heat to win. A lot of times you lose, and that’s the nature of competition, but I always give it my best.
How do you keep criticism or praise from having too much of an effect on you?
Win or lose, I always like to get back to my friends and family. They keep me grounded. When I’m home with my friends, I’m always the same Gabriel. I’m no better or worse in their eyes because of my results. It’s good to be with your true friends. It always reminds me of where I’m from and who I am.
You travel to most events with your entire family, which is not the norm for most competitors. Does having them there help?
I’m almost never home, so I get really lonely traveling by myself. When they come along on these trips, I don’t feel lonely, and they get to spend time with me, too. It makes everyone happy. And my mom also cooks when we’re on the road, so it’s great to be able to eat Brazilian food wherever I go. It’s just fun to take my family, and sometimes friends, to events. I get to laugh with them, and I end up only really thinking about the contest when it’s time for my heat.
What’s the best thing about being on the Tour?
Getting to surf some of the best waves in the world with just one other guy out. And when that guy is one of the best surfers in the world, it’s even better, because I’m really competitive. Even if it’s a friend, I want to beat him. When you beat the top guys in great waves, there’s nothing like it.
And the worst?
Don’t take this the wrong way, but we travel too much. I’m not complaining, and I wouldn’t want to do anything else, but if I had to point out one thing that does get old, it would be all the traveling. Believe me, we’re not on vacation when we’re at these events. The Tour’s a marathon and we work hard all year to get to the end and hopefully be happy with the results.
What’s your relationship with other young guys on Tour, like John Florence or Kolohe Andino?
It’s good. I talk to all of them, but I don’t really hang out with most guys on Tour. Not even with the Brazilians. I guess in Fiji we hang out more and get to know each other better because we’re all on an island together. But usually I only really see the other guys at contests.
What about Julian Wilson?
Well, we had that thing in Portugal, and a couple instances after that where we didn’t see eye to eye. But it’s all in the past. He came up to me in California and we talked about it. We’re cool now. I apologized to him for acting the way I did in Portugal. I was really upset and didn’t know how to react to that situation. He also apologized for whatever misunderstandings we had afterwards, and now we’re friends again. Julian’s a great guy.
Do you think that sometimes you’re misunderstood by the English-speaking public?
Definitely. I mean, I can speak a little English, but my vocabulary is limited. A lot of times you wanna say something, but just don’t know how. Unfortunately, when you’re speaking in your second language, sometimes whatever you’re trying to say comes out wrong or gets taken the wrong way. Even if you look things up in a dictionary, a lot of Portuguese words have very different meanings when you translate them into English.
Can you remember a specific instance where you were misunderstood?
To be honest, when I watch my interviews it seems like I’m watching someone else on the screen answering those questions. It just doesn’t sound like me. Those aren’t the sorts of answers I would give if I could respond in Portuguese and express myself fully. It’s so weird. That’s why sometimes I hold back a little if I have to speak in English. It can be very frustrating. But it’s also one of the challenges of being on Tour. It’s all about trying to understand and accept people’s differences.
Who do you consider the best surfer in the world today?
Kelly, hands down. He’s a freak.
And who inspires you the most?
Dane Reynolds. He’s a little crazy [laughs], but he’s amazing. He’s at the forefront of performance surfing. Nobody can touch him when it comes to maneuvers. He always does stuff as radical as it can be done.
ZoSea is taking over the ASP this year. What would be good changes to the Tour, in your opinion?
There’s always room for improvement. From what I hear from the older guys, the prize money and judging have improved a lot in the last years. In all aspects, I believe the Tour has always evolved and improved, and I hope it continues that way. I’m pretty confident it’ll only get better.
Who are your biggest rivals on Tour?
Everyone, really. When I first made the Tour there were a couple of guys that I considered easier to beat. But today, everyone’s a threat. Anyone can win an event on their day, so you can’t underestimate any of them. Just look at last year: there were a bunch of different winners and the lead changed a lot of times. Of course there are those who have that little extra, like Kelly, Mick, John John, Julian, Parko, and Jordy. But there are so many good guys, you know? Michel Bourez is always a threat as well. I guess the guys who worry me the most when I get them in a heat are Kelly, John John, and Julian.
It seems like there’s an underlying rivalry between you and Adriano de Souza. The public seems divided as to who’s the No. 1 Brazilian on Tour.
For my part, and I believe it’s the same for him, there is no rivalry. Of course the fans and the media like to compare us and discuss who’s the best or whatever, but between us there’s none of that. He’s actually the guy on Tour I talk to most.
Who do you think will win SURFER’s Hot 100 this year?
John John, for sure. Even when I won two Tour events and a few Primes, they still gave it to him [laughs]. Now that I had my worst year, I know they won’t give it to me. And you can tell them I said that, too [laughs].