December 1, 2014
By the time you read this, Gabriel Medina may have become the first Brazilian world surfing champion and may have taken the first step toward becoming the next dominant force in pro surfing. Or he may not. But the very prospect of him winning the title on the back of a breakout season—where this Brazilian beachbreak specialist won events in the classic beachbreaks of Snapper Rocks, Cloudbreak, and Teahupoo—has made the surfing world walk into the hall of mirrors and take a long, hard look at itself. For while surfing may have entered an era of unprecedented tolerance and enlightenment—where the mainstream is pariah'ed, subcultures celebrated, ancient prejudices buried—there's one big exception here. Well, maybe two if you count SUPs.
As you're probably aware, Brazil hosted the soccer World Cup in June this year and went into it as raging-hot favorites. Brazil is football. You can't tell where one stops and the other begins. But in possibly the greatest sporting boil-over of all time, the Brazilian hosts were humiliated 7–1 by the Germans in the semifinals. By halftime the cameras were singling out members of the crowd sobbing uncontrollably and breathing into paper bags, and you could see a nation's soul pouring down the drain. Now surfing in Brazil may not be as omnipotent as soccer, but the prospect of Gabriel Medina becoming world champion has resonated widely. Gabe is big in Brazil.
"I already talked to him and I hope he wins," Neymar, the golden boy of Brazilian soccer, told SURFER. "Now he has the possibility of being a world champion and I'm rooting for him to get the title. He's made such an effort, he chases his own dreams, and he knows what he wants, so he deserves it. I'm sure that he will try everything to win, and we are here cheering, especially me." If Medina were to win, you'd hear the cheering from over the horizon. The place will lose its shit, and they should. Gabe Medina will be a historic and deserved world champion.
How Brazil will react is a given, but how the rest of the world reacts is another thing altogether. For our purposes, we can define "rest of the world" as the traditional surfing superpowers, the U.S. and Australia—the nations who invented pro surfing, owned it, claimed it as their birthright, and have won pretty much every world title between them. The realpolitik here, though, is that Brazil is rising. While pro surfing has stalled everywhere else, in Brazil it has been surging ahead, economically and culturally. But it's only now, with the prospect of a champion, that this shift is being acknowledged. Regardless of the world-title outcome, the new world is challenging the old.
Brazilian surfing hasn't been misunderstood; it's more that few have ever bothered to understand it. In the decades pre-Medina, Brazilian surfers on Tour largely have been patronized—their "passion and hunger" admired, their "so hap" and "so stoke-ed" mocked, and the favela-to-the-stars narrative wheeled out at every opportunity regardless of whether the surfer actually grew up in a favela or in an affluent middle-class home. Brazilian surfers are as diverse a bunch as surfers anywhere, but for the most part they fall into a comfortably tired stereotype of being wave hungry, style starved, and terrible travelers. In all reality, there was probably only one way that stereotype was going to be broken, and that was for the best surfer in the world to be Brazilian and for the world to sit down and hear his story.
Gabe Medina carried his nation's hopes when he surfed Pipeline with the world title on the line, as he will every time he paddles out for the rest of his career. It's very possible that the next Kelly Slater will wear a Brazilian cape. But he won't surf simply for Brazil. For all the jingoism and thinly veiled xenophobia that will stir on both sides of a Gabriel Medina, all the good losers and bad winners who will buy into it, it won't be Brazil leading the surf world into the next decade; it will be a kid from Maresias, and therein lies hope.
Above all else, Gabe Medina loves to surf. He's one of four people I know to have cried while describing a wave he'd ridden, and isn't a pure love of surfing the first and most critical prerequisite for a world surfing champion? "After God and my family, it's surf," says Medina. "I don't imagine me not surfing. Surf brings me smile every day." And Medina has a story, which he'll happily tell you in broken, yet not inelegant, English. He's come a long way from the teenager who lost the final in Portugal on a controversial call two years ago and petulantly stormed offstage. He's grown up a lot and is kinda giving us no choice but to like him.
In the foyer of the Atlântico Golfe Hotel in Peniche, Portugal, having just blown a gilded chance to wrap up the world title, Medina gets a hug from his mother, Simone. It's about the 50th hug they've exchanged that afternoon. She looks him in the eye, and then, in a move only a mother could make at a time like this, pinches the cheek of the world number one like he's a naughty schoolboy. Medina smiles back warmly before kicking the soccer ball across the room with his little sister, who flicks it up and starts juggling it like Neymar.
Crowning Gabe Medina will knock pro surfing off its axis, but pro surfing needs it. "I don't really care," Medina says when asked how the rest of the world might view his title. "I mean, I will fight for this title for God, my family, friends, and people who cheered for me, who wanted to see me doing good and are still cheering for me. And for the critics who talk bad even when I win? I respect the opinion of each, but I don't really need to show them nothing."
This article appeared in our January Issue, on newsstands now.