Are You Ready For A Brazilian World Champion? Medina Doesn't Care If You're Not – Sean Doherty On...
Unthinkable as it once might have been, it’s very quickly becoming a reality and it might force a lot of Australian surfers to confront one of their last great prejudices. The best surfer in the world will soon be a 20-year-old kid from Brazil, and you’re not only going to need to come to terms with that, you might actually grow to embrace it.
We’ve been here before.
For those of you who were around and can remember back to the early ’90s when a 20-year-old Floridian kid came out of nowhere with a black and white surf movie and an air reverse and won the World Title at his first crack, the reaction from Australian surfers said a lot. Slater haters gibbered from coast to coast. Curren aside, we’d more or less owned pro surfing since we’d invented it, and the World Title was considered an Australian birthright, not something to be gifted to some kid from a coastline that had spaceships, not surf. Australian surfing, you’d say, was a little insular at that point, and the two most maligned groups at that stage were bodyboarders and Seppos, and all of a sudden a clean-living Seppo kid was the World Champion. What a joke. The fact he’d beaten an Aussie guy who’d had a party-induced meltdown was symbolic, for as much as Kelly played into our stereotype of what American surfers were like, Herro pretty much summed up what American surfers thought of us. It was an era of us and them.
But here we are over 20 years later and things are a little different in the lineup. What was once a boiling cauldron of bigots has entered a more enlightened age. Girls, grommets, boogieboarders, blow-ins and even Kelly Slater for the most have an easier time of it these days paddling out into blokey scrums at beaches around Australia. While it might be more crowded, it's certainly more civilised, as wider society has dragged surfing kicking and screaming into a millennium that started without us a while back.
But for some reason we just can’t get over the Brazilian thing.
I lived for a number of years across the road from one of the most localised pointbreaks in Australia, a wave with a take-off rock the size of a picnic table. It took me a year to get a wave out there. The suburb was popular with travelling Brazilians, students mainly, surfers mostly, and it was an intriguing anthropological study to watch the Brazilian guys paddle out on the point and navigate the complex social hierarchy that had been built up over four generations. Some Brazilian guys would paddle straight out to the take off rock, drop anchor on the inside of the biggest silverback local, then get faded mercilessly straight up onto the rocks. Then there’d be others who would respectfully work their way up the point, wait in line for their wave... and then get faded mercilessly straight up onto the rocks. They couldn’t win. Ironically, the two local boys who ran the show, the ones who gave the Brazilian guys the hardest time out there, both married Brazilian girls, much to the amusement of their crew who’d yell at them, “Here comes your brother-in-law,” every time a Brazilian guy paddled out.
Gabe Medina may become the most unifying – or divisive surfer – of all time. We’re going to know which soon enough. The virtual battlelines are already being drawn. The “Brazilian Storm” was throwing down online taunts after just one event this year when Gabe won on the Gold Coast. They’ve only got louder. Australia till now has had the mortgage on “Strayacarnt!” jingoism when it comes to surfing. We’ve been guilty of being shitty winners over the years, so we’ve got to be ready for the fact that many Brazilians – after decades of watching on as we’ve won and rubbed it in their faces – may not be good winners either. After 30 fruitless years on tour (and their football team losing to the Germans 7-1 on home soil in the World Cup) you could forgive them for jumping on the Gabe Train.
But Brazil won’t be winning this World Title.
Gabe Medina will be. Look beyond whatever line you’re running on Brazilian surfers. Look beyond the stereotype of the swarthy guy with the crab stance who snaked you in Bali. Look beyond the patronising stereotype of the kid from the favela surfing with passion and hunger. For a minute, just look at Gabe.
“I DON'T REALLY CARE. I MEAN, I WILL FIGHT FOR THIS TITLE FOR GOD...”
I’ve known four people who’ve cried after catching a wave, overcome by the moment, and Gabe is one of them.
Mind you, it was the winning wave in the final of what will be regarded as the greatest surfing contest of all time, but still, to be moved to tears signifies some deeper resonance with the ocean that transcends the bullshit edifice that pro surfing creates around it. You can wheel out the tired line about passionate, hungry Brazilian surfers coming from poor backgrounds and being motivated solely by winning, but that would ignore the fact Gabe just loves to surf. Loves it. The day after he won the Fiji contest this year, he surfed small Cloudbreak with his stepdad for three hours, and for most of it all he did was trim. He’d race from one end of the reef to the other, no turns, and it was almost as if he was suddenly re-amazed by the fact that the reef was flying by underneath him and this wave was magically propelling him along.
But in saying that, Gabe still likes to win. A lot.
Gabe shared a house with Mick Fanning in Hawaii last year, grand central in the middle of Mick’s World Title win. Mick was Gabe’s favourite surfer growing up, and suddenly his boyhood dream was playing out live under his own roof. He soaked it up. “It really inspired me,” he recalls. “We were in the same house, and I could see he was so focused and doing a little training everyday.
He was ready for it. It was that good to be there; watching pretty close.” Mick has made a sweet science out of winning and Australia loves the guy for doing just that, but it’s the same fixation we like to hang shit on Brazilian guys for. In fact everything we celebrate about Mick is there with Gabe – the strong sense of family, the blue- collar upbringing, the love of surfing, the lust for winning. Gabe just needs an alter ego that parties till dawn. But we might be closer than we think. Both countries co-opt sport as national identity, and if we spoke Portuguese there’d be an argument that Australian surfing would more resemble Brazil’s version than California’s.
When Gabe first lobbed on tour in 2011 and promptly won two events in his first month, he hardly endeared himself to the guys who’d considered the tour their personal fiefdom. The kid was a threat and was treated like one.
Fuel TV's promo for the Rip Curl Pro Portugal dives into the Gabby v the world narrative.
There was a defining moment however when that dynamic changed. It came in Fiji back in June 2012, just after Gabe had made the final of the contest in pumping surf. Gabe was staying on Namotu Island, the only Brazilian on an island full of Australian pro surfers, and the celebrations that night were suitably colonial. Gabe had hardly said a word all week but suddenly found himself marooned on an island full of Tassie Devils with no way to escape. They poured Gabe a “Skulldrag” – 11 shots with food colouring – and made him wear the ceremonial snorkel, which the drink would be poured into. It was the full ritual hazing, and at this point I wasn’t sure if Gabe had ever drunk a beer before. But yet he dropped to one knee, put the snorkel in his mouth... and drank the thing like water. The bar cheered and suddenly this Brazilian kid wasn’t so bad after all.
But the thing is, Gabe will never win you over the same way a young Occy or a snowy Mick Fanning once did. Culturally, those magic little moments that endear a surfer to a surf fan get lost in translation. With just three years of English Gabe isn’t going to verbally shadow box like Ali and win you over with a joke here, an ice-breaker there. There’s still the occasional “so hap” and “stokered”, but he’s learned to express himself more in the universal language of emotion, his interview after winning in Tahiti with tears streaming down his cheek leaving you in no doubt how much that day meant to him.
Gabe, however, doesn’t have time for charm offensives right now. He doesn’t need to win hearts; the trophy will do just nicely thanks. The reality of what’s happening is that, while it’d be great, Gabe doesn’t need our endorsement to win this Title. While we might sit here and argue over what his win might mean to who – the geopolitical significance, the Old World giving way to the New, the tectonic shifting of surfing’s superpowers, whether Australian surfers or Brazilian surfers are bigger fuckwits – Gabe will just do his thing, and we should maybe enjoy it on that level. The same shrinking planet that brought surfing to Brazil 50 years ago and will put a trophy in this kid’s hands later this year also demands we recognise him on a tiny planetary level and just listen to his story.
And anyway, a change might be nice. If we were sick of Kelly winning after one World Title, how will we feel after 12? And for pro surfing itself, well, what do they say – “Change or die”? – and there will be no bigger change than a 20-year-old Brazilian winning the World surfing Title. That’d be on par with the Socceroos winning the World Cup in Rio.
For now, Gabe’s not on a crusade to bring the surfing world together, he’s just going surfing, but by going surfing he might accidentally achieve some de´tente. Create some greater understanding. Get a Brazilian guy called into a point wave in Sydney. Cool the message boards. Who knows? When we asked Gabe how would he like to see the world react to the Title that may be his later this year, he responded in broken yet stately English, “I don’t really care. I mean, I will fight for this Title for God, my family, friends and the people who cheered for me, who wanted to see me doing good and still cheering for me, you know.” Fans sans borders. “And for the critics who talk bad things and say I lose even when I win?” He ponders for a second. “I respect the opinion of each but I don’t really need to show them nothing.”
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