Interview by Beau Flemister with translation by Guilherme Braga.
Being an editor-at-large for SURFING, I've had the privilege to come across some truly amazing stories while on the road. Stories that may have otherwise been overlooked or unheard. I'm in Brazil right now and just came across Gilvanilta "Gil" Ferreira. Gil has one of those stories.
I'd never heard of Gil before. But then again, a few years ago, I'd never heard of Filipe Toledo. Or a year ago, Italo. Brazil sneaks up on you like that. Just ask the World Tour.
Like a lot of Brazilian pro surfers, Gil didn't come from much. In fact, she sold coconuts on the beach with her mom to make ends meet…we'll get to that. And while Gil isn't some new discovery in Brazil, over the last five years, even a lot of Brazilians have been wondering, "Where'd she go?"
Well…that's the thing. She didn't go anywhere. Until a year ago when she finally caught a break. Still at home, hucking air-reverses (and perfecting full-rotators), and waiting on that fourth pizza of the month: Meet Gil.
SURFING: I was told you had an interesting introduction to surfing. Tell me about that.
Gil Ferreira: My first contact with surfing or at least watching surfing was because I used to sell coconuts at the beach with my mom and brother. My brother started surfing before me, so for a couple years I'd just watch him because I didn't have my own board. Then when I was 9, I grabbed the top of the coconut cooler — where we'd keep the cold coconuts — and started to ride that as a board.
The lid of the coconut cooler?
Yes. Then I started breaking all the lids and my mom would get really mad at me. Finally, my brother got another board from some guy, so I used his old one and that's when I really started surfing. Right there on the same beach where I first started selling coconuts.
But my mom had a rule: I'd have to sell all my coconuts before I could go surfing. So I'd tell the customers, "Buy my coconuts so I can hurry up and surf!" [laughs]
You literally had to sell all your coconuts before you could surf. How many is that?
Yeah. At that time they were 25-50 cents each, and I had to sell 50 of them.
Yeah, but there was this incentive to sell them, so I'd always sell them quicker than my brother and get in the water before him. [laughs].
And how long did you sell coconuts on the beach for?
From age 9 to about 16.
Besides your brother, who else did you look up to as a kid surfing?
I definitely always focused on the boys' surfing, not the girls. They just inspired me more because they were so much more radical. Definitely Jadson Andre inspired me the most because he made the tour really young and is from my beach, Ponta Negra, Natal. Italo Ferreira [no relation] is also from the North like me, so I've always liked him, but my favorite surfer is Filipe Toledo. For women: Silvana Lima and Tyler Wright.
And then after coconuts what happened?
So around 16, I tried to become a professional surfer. I was 2X Brazilian national champion before that, but after a few years, I was getting older and surfing wasn't really paying the bills. Mainly, because there was a big gap in the Brazilian tour. There used to be a professional Brazilian tour, separate from the Latin American pro tour. But in 2008, they stopped this tour, so there were no more chances for me to make money in the pro events or qualify (closer to home) from the contests that they used to have.
Why did they stop the tour?
I guess no more money. It was a nice tour, too. They actually just tried to bring the tour back last year, but not for women, just for the men. Brazil is a big country though, so it was difficult for me, even if there were a few events, to travel from the north to the south…
So they stop the Brazilian tour and then what did you do?
A few years passed and last year I started working at a hotel about an hour and a half away from my house. It was the first time I ever received a paycheck and I had to wake up at 5am and come home at 10pm, so I didn't have much time to surf anymore. I'd make desserts at the hotel in the restaurant buffet.
One day, this familiar looking guy was in the restaurant with his family and I recognized him as a former Brazilian pro surfer named Sylvio Mancusi. I used to watch him in Brazilian surf movies. Then he asked me to make him a dessert and I thought, "This is my chance to change my life again," because at the time I didn't believe in myself so much anymore.
So I asked him if he was the guy in the surf movie — and he was — and then I told him, "I surf, too!" And I showed him some footage I had on my phone and he was impressed. I wasn't supposed to have my phone on the floor while working, but I hid it and it ended up changing my life.
Then we went outside and he was like, "Where've you been the past few years; you should be competing…." It got pretty emotional. Anyway, Sylvio was there with a TV crew filming for a program on a channel in Brazil and he invited me to do a surf session with him. Then the channel invited me to do a trip on a girls surfing program.
Unreal. And then what, are you back in the game?
After that show, I was invited on another show that followed some surfers who went to a QS event in Chile. I went as a replacement and got 5th place there. It was my first time in a fullsuit and I looked really stiff like Robocop or something [laughs]. But that placing made me 3rd in the WSL South America, so this year I can do the other events.
So do you have any sponsors or backing now?
Mmm…not really. At least no main sponsors. Some Brazilian surf companies give me some hats and jackets or deck-pads and leashes. Oh, and there's a pizzeria near my house that gives me four free pizzas.
Four pizzas a week…or…?
Four pizzas a month.
Wow. What's your next step?
Compete whenever there's an event. I surf a lot more on my frontside in lefts, so I definitely need to work on my backhand. I want to get on some more shows on that channel (Canal Off) in Brazil. Basically I just need a sponsor to get into the QS events around South America, or at least travel to them. Right now I teach surfing to girls at my beach and that makes me enough to eat, but not enough to travel.
Maybe I smell a wildcard in Rio this year?
[laughs] That would be nice.