The Past And Present Of Surfing’s Future: Gabriel Medina
The boys stroll in. A team manager and a marketing director, wearing big smiles. They are bubbly because they are holding a national treasure. A celebrity, a prodigy, a tall Brazilian boy named Gabriel Medina. The tall Brazilian boy follows them and looks like a 12-year-old being forced to shop for clothes with his mother. I can only imagine. Being paraded around the industry in a foreign country, meeting people who are "so excited to meet you," talking so fast and enthused in a language you can barely understand. And all the same questions from the indistinguishable white people, their indistinguishable voices and smiles and names. So many Matts and Nates. So many. The drab buildings. And Trestles in the distance, sparkling just beyond reach, winking at you like some wonton babe. The endless How do you like Californias? And your answer, with that accent that you just can't kick: "Eats gude" (It's good).
Everyone is still all grins because it's special to be in the presence of a phenomenon, perhaps a future world champ. It's something to smile about. Plus, he'll probably win the Prime event next week. We ask him more mundane questions. Have you been to In-N-Out yet? To which he looks toward his handlers for an answer like, "Have I?" And they nod and he looks back at us and says, "Jez, eats gude." I stick out my hand and introduce myself in fluent-ish Portuguese: "I'm going to write an article about you and if you want, we can talk in your language." The room falls silent and the look on his face is a rapid time lapse of a flower in bloom. He tries to hide a smile and says, "Ta bom." (It's good.) But I can tell he's pleased with this development. I'm thinking that this is going to make the interview a lot better. I'm thinking that maybe we can get past the stock questions reserved for journalists who are leaping a language barrier to reach a surfer. I'm thinking that maybe I bit off a little more than I could chew promising Gabriel Portuguese. And finally I'm thinking that it'd be great for the story if he wins the Nike Lowers Pro next week.
In The Water
Gabs and I — I've started calling him that — walk to the sea. We trudge down a paved road with emerald grass stretching to the sand on one side and the illustrious Ritz-Carlton on the other. Ahead of us the Pacific sparkles beneath the noonday sun. Dolphins skip and whales breach between sets. On the lawn with not a blade of grass misplaced, shaggy retrievers bound for Frisbees tossed by women that look 21 from 10 yards and 50 from five. They wear collagen pouts and Chanel sweats. They throw their Frisbees and their boobs don't bounce and their booties don't jiggle. Welcome to Dana Point.
Gabs is in the water before I can get the left leg of my fullsuit on. Before I've popped my head through the neck-hole he's already lobbed two air-reverses in the sunny Salt Creek peaks. As in heats, Gabs catches a shit-ton of waves. A staggering amount. I'm trying to build rapport with the kid but find myself paddling after him like a little chick following the mother hen. There's a break in the sets and I've nearly caught up to him. "So," I huff, breathless, "what kind of questions do you usually get in these interviews?"
"The same ones every time," he says, half looking at me, half at the sea for an approaching peak. "'How was your heat?'… 'Are you from the favela (slums)?'… And, of course, 'What's it like to beat Kelly Slater?' Everyone asks me that," he says, shaking his head. I suck my teeth and shake my head as well. Those unoriginal bastards. I put myself in his shoes for a moment and imagine how old that must get — being asked the same questions, and most are about another person. But I couldn't help myself: "What is it like, then…beating Kelly?"
He lunges forward on his board and paddles past me, stalking a set. He smiles slyly and says, "Eats gude."
The following day I tag along for another sesh out at Lowers. The bleachers are up and sweaty laborers pound away on the contest scaffolding. A train clambers over the tracks and hoots madly at groms lugging boards flanked by their filmers hauling gear. Gabs is owning the lineup and ignores the crowd of contestants bulging by the hour. He treats the pack like competitors and out-paddles them for one zillion waves. He cracks a right on his backhand eight times. He ejects off lefts, twice per wave, landing every single trick. I ask him if he skateboards a lot; his balance is so extraordinary.
"I skate a little," he says. "But not like John John. He can skate. Outside of surfing, I have no balance. I'm clumsy. But in the water — everything clicks."
For the most part I'm doing all right in Portuguese, but that's not to say there aren't a few stumbles along the way.
"Do you think that being on tour so young has made you grow up fast?" I ask. "Or at least faster than most 17-year-olds?"
"Definitely. I've grown up very fast. Like, last year I was this tall, [he motions with his hand to a height just below his hairline] and now, I am this tall."
"I meant emotionally, Gabs," I say.
"What surfers do you look up to? Do you like how Dane surfs?"
"You're kidding me, right?"
"Is there another Dane?"
"I thought maybe you meant Dane Gudauskas."
Father And Son
The black Expedition carries us north from Lowers. Gabs is staying in Newport with the Rip Curl team manager, Matt Myers, until his family arrives in a few days. Myers is treating Gabs like anyone would treat a national treasure and world-title hopeful — just trying not to break him on his watch. Take him surfing. Keep him happy. Keep him fed. But Gabs eats like a teenager. He drinks a glass of chocolate milk when he wakes up in the morning and then another one before bedtime. And in between that it's plain chicken and rice and hamburgers with just the patty and buns. Seems as though Myers and Co. haven't really impressed him with American food. But most people visiting America aren't. I must enlighten him, so I steer us to the Costa Mesa Chick-fil-A. Gabs is impressed — but who wouldn't be? Chick-fil-A is amazing.
Drunk off chicken sammies and waffle fries, our spirits are high. We get back to Myers' pad and Gabs challenges me to a game of billiards. He puts $5 on it, I accept and proceed to have the best game of my life, pocketing his five bucks. He's noticeably pissed and we trade wins a couple more times and in the end break even. We talk over the table while we play. His favorite surfer is Mick Fanning. He'd be a soccer player if he weren't a surfer. At home he likes to fish for calamari. Blah, blah, bleh. I want juice. I want depth. I want — more.
"What was your childhood like?" I ask.
Gabriel pauses, and begins. "It was difficult. I didn't live in a favela…but it was difficult."
No, Gabriel Medina did not live in a favela, but in Brazil you're either rich or you're poor and Gabs was not the former. His mom, Simone, cleaned houses for rich people and she and Gabs' dad split up when he was 8 years old. For a few years, it was just her and Gabs. She would work in those homes from 8 in the morning till 10 at night, and many times, Gabs would hang out and help her.
"I wanted to help her," he tells me. "On holidays, I'd help her clean all day. And during the school year, after school she'd pick me up from the bus stop — and we'd go back to work."
This went on for a couple of years until Simone found a new job. It was at a surf shop, and managing the shop at that time was a man named Charles Rodrigues.
"So Charles isn't your real dad?" I ask.
"No, he's my stepdad — but I call him dad."
"What about your real dad?"
"He's not so cool. He didn't really beat me, but he was very abusive to my mom. He hit her. And with me, it's like, when I was nothing…he was gone. But now he wants to say he's my real dad."
Simone and Charles fell in love. Charles also took a liking to little Gabriel and took him surfing.
"Tell me about Charles," I say.
Gabriel leans back and takes a deep breath. His eyes glow and his face lightens, like a boy thinking of his father. "Charles acreditou em mim," he says proudly. "He believed in me. He was the only one. He got me to the beach, got me to contests. He got me sponsored. He did everything for me because he believed in me. I call him dad."
"Do you guys hang out a lot?"
"Yeah, a lot," he laughs. "He'll train with me, we'll run together, swim, surf, do yoga together, all because he believes in me. I can talk to him about girls, even. He's so good to my mom. He's a good friend."
Gabs looks at me and shakes his finger like he's just remembered something. "You wanted to know what they ask me in all the interviews? They ask me what my secret weapon is; if it's my family. And it is — that, and Charles."
Day At The Races
Shortly after Charles and the family arrived, Gabs left the couch in Newport to stay with his people in a proper San Clemente beach house. And of course over the next few days, the world watched him shit on the best professional surfers. And "Dane, who?" is right. He drew Dane [Reynolds] twice and smoked him both times. Sure, his air reverses got a little redundant, but he was switching them up every time — no grab, full rotation, slob, lien… Every landing was ever daring and impeccable.
I watched him tear through his heats and I also watched his younger brother run to the shoreline as Gabriel stumbled over the stones, coming in from every heat. Watched the kid literally slosh through the water, calf-deep in his Nikes to hug Gabs and cheer him in. It wasn't even the Quarters yet. I watched Charles run in after each heat, too. Watched him walk up to Gabs, put his arm around him and kiss him right on the forehead. Every time. (I also watched him get himself into trouble for cursing at the judges during the heated Simpo-Gabriel heat.) And I watched Gabriel Medina win the Nike Lowers Pro and though it was terribly predictable, it was nonetheless astounding. I watched him get carried in from the final by his brother, sister, four cousins, mother, grandmother, uncle, aunt and, of course, Charles. They carried him on their shoulders and belted Brazilian Carnival songs and clapped and shouted and chanted and sang and cried. Indeed, it was a small parade and I swear there were a few Brazilians who didn't know Gabs but joined the train behind him. They were Brazilian and that made them family.
And it was a crisp and cloudless day in San Onofre with a new swell pulsing on the Lowers peak. The sea was glistening and everyone had their backs to the leaky nuclear reactor plant. We all looked up toward Gabs, who took the golden spike and oversized check, and before they let him say his thank-yous in his mother tongue, when asked how he felt, he beamed and uttered into the mic, accented and breathless, "Ah — eats gude." —Beau Flemister