Four Steps From The Third World

All Photos: Tom Carey

Carlos Muñoz, 20-years-old and from Costa Rica, is a developing talent from a developing nation. In Central America, there is no blueprint to follow in order to become a professional surfer -- you've got to carve your own way out of the jungle. And instead of letting all his skill wither away, Carlos is hacking a machete trail toward the dream. We learn that Carlos' path to success starts with four steps...although he'll probably end up going the extra mile.

by Nathan Myers

Step 1

Start low, aim high

A one-room apartment in San Jose, Costa Rica. Goats and chickens in the yard. Laundry swinging in the breeze. This is where Carlos Muñoz comes from.

We love to preach that surfing is free, but our First World's finest grow up in beachfront houses with cars to cruise the coast and parents to pay their contest entry fees. Third World groms are borne of hand-me-down boards and no school to skip. Carlos moved from the city to the coast when he was 10. He showed promise in the water, and the local hotels would cover his entry fees into contests. He won the national title on a borrowed board and the prayers of a new generation.

He came from " nothing," but he's headed toward something with hurtling speed. Trophies. Ten-point rides. A board (that he owns) covered in stickers and gear piled up in his apartment. In Ecuador, he was named Best Latin American Surfer in History.

Just 20 years old. He stares at the lineup and rubs his hands. Scruffy hair and clunky English. Rice and beans. Cocky and coy. He smiles a lot. And he should. The world is his to lose.

Step 2

Go to Hawaii, perfectly

On the North Shore, people ask him, "Costa Rica? Is that part of Brazil?"

He paddled out at Pipe for the first time and there were Kelly and Sunny, Bruce and Andy, Mick and Parko. Like paddling into his own dream. "That was one of the best sessions of my life," he says. "And I didn't even catch a wave."

The Volcom Pipe House forges wide-eyed neophytes into tube-charging warriors. Pumping iron in The Dungeon. Beneath the wings of Kaiborg and veteran teammates. Carlos thinks of them like a second family, but when Pipe gets big, few can call it home. During his first Volcom Pipeline Pro, the sets were solid. "I had no business being out there," he recalls. "I thought I was going to die that day."

He says this, and then he describes his first 10-point ride. Late and out of position. Air-dropping down the face. Hanging on for his life. Spit out. The roar of a crowd from the beach. "I heard that and I knew I'd done something amazing," he says. "That's a wave I'll never forget."

In the next heat, he got another.

Step 3

Fall, get back up

"El Gringo -- oh my god -- just thinking about that one gives me nightmares."

Not you, gringo. He's talking about the wave in Chile. The deathly ledge-box where they held The Search comp in '07 that Andy Irons dominated. That wave gives a lot of people nightmares, but Carlos' are special. He'd surfed it big for a few days already, and the swell was down by the time the contest started. His first heat he caught a little closeout and was just paddling back out. He remembers duckdiving, and that was all. Everything went black.

"I woke up and I couldn't see," he says. "I couldn't breathe either. I thought I was dead."

His hand found the fin of his board and he clung to it enough to wash back over the jagged rocks. As his vision returned he saw blood. So much blood, pouring down onto the rocks.

He spent two days in the hospital getting more stitches than he could count. Getting new teeth. He spent two months on the couch snapping records in Playstation soccer. Doctors told him not to exercise, so the next time he surfed was in a heat in J-Bay, nervous that all his surfing dreams had passed him by.

First wave of the heat he pulls into a little barrel, then a bigger one down the line, and then another gnarly one at the end. A 9-point ride and he was back. Carlos won the next event in France, and hasn't slowed down since.

The scars of El Gringo remain, along with the lessons: Sometimes your face gets ripped off your skull, but surfing goes on.

Step 4

Always leave, always remember

He misses flights. He loses passports. He calls his mother every day. It's not easy on the road. A life of perpetual motion. With a trail of breadcrumbs across the terminal floor.

"I make a lot of mistakes," he admits. "I get so excited about where I'm going, I forget where I am."

Yes, there is the problem with our prodigies on the road, rushing from Norway to Margies to Fernando de Noronha. We claim "future WCTer" and " next big thing" and forget the obligation of living in the present. Surviving on the road. Taking it one heat at a time. Flying high above the waves or locked behind the lip, Carlos tries to keep some perspective on this dream he's chasing.

Make the drop. Hang on tight. Wait for the crowd to roar...

"I'm a very competitive person," he says. "So in my mind my goal is to make the World Tour. But in my heart and in my soul, my dream is to open the door for the next generation of Costa Rican surfers."

His passport is their passport. So when he accidentally left his on the airplane last trip, you've never seen anyone run so fast. The airplane doors were already locked. Carlos begged, but they'd already cleaned the plane. Carlos begged some more. They let him look. His passport was there in his chair. Right where he left it.
"I feel very lucky to be here," he says. "And not just because I made it through customs."