On A Brazilian World Champion

SO LONG AGO, THE IDEA OF A BRAZILIAN ASP WORLD CHAMPION WAS ABOUT AS LAUGHABLE AS PICKING THE RAIDERS TO WIN THE SUPER BOWL. And then it happened. What does Brazil’s first ASP world title mean for surfing in South America’s largest country? We asked Steven Allain, a veteran surf journalist from São Paolo and international editor of Brazil’s Hardcore Magazine, for a South American perspective on the biggest shift in global surfing power since the Duke brought his board to the mainland. —Leo Maxam

WHAT DOES GABRIEL MEDINA’S WORLD TITLE MEAN FOR BRAZILIAN SURFING?
It’s huge for the Brazilian surfing community. It’s like a coming of age, a validation that we finally made it.We always considered ourselves a surfing power,especially in the last couple of decades.We’ve had XXL champions, ASP world junior champions, an ASP longboard champion. But the reality was we never had an ASP world title — and we still haven’t got it. It’s something that we’ve always wanted to prove: that we are worth it. It’s not going to change much materially, but in our minds and how we feel about our place in surfing, it’s going to be really big.

WHAT ABOUT MEDINA MAKES HIM DIFFERENT THAN BRAZILIAN SURFERS WHO HAVE COME BEFORE HIM?
Gabriel and I are from the same beach in Brazil, so I’ve known him since he was 13. We were always looking at him and saying,“That kid’s going to do big things.” But we see that with a lot of kids surfing well in Brazil. I think what changed with Medina is it’s the first time we have a complete surfer. He can surf big waves, he can do airs, he can do big turns. But I do think Medina still has to prove himself in a few specific areas. He’s not John John; he’s not Slater. He’s still evolving. We haven’t seen him do well at big Backdoor yet, for example. But he beat Slater in the final at Teahupo’o this year, and he got fifth at Pipe last year and only lost to John John, so I think it’s the first time we have a complete Brazilian surfer who can represent us well in all conditions.

WAS THERE A TIME WHEN THE IDEA OF A BRAZILIAN WORLD SURFING CHAMPION WASN’T CONCEIVABLE?
Ten or 15 years ago, it wasn’t. I remember when I first started covering the world tour and I would go to all these events, and it was almost disheartening because I knew that no Brazilian would win. It was that era when Slater was dominating completely. We had guys like Neco [Padaratz], Leo Neves, Raoni [Monteiro], Guilherme Herdy, Fabio Gouveia, all those guys. And they were good in one event here and there, but we never had that guy up there with Slater or all the other top guys. It was similar to how you guys in the U.S. watch the World Cup. You guys can do well sometimes, and you’re doing better in recent World Cups. And you wish it could happen, and maybe something miraculous could happen and blow our minds, but, realistically, deep down you know you’re not going to win it all.

THAT’S A GOOD ANALOGY.
Even a few years ago when Adriano was ranked No. 1 for the first time for a little while, a lot of people got excited. But we already knew that it would be very difficult for him to maintain the No. 1 spot. And this is why everyone is so excited in Brazil and everyone is watching the events, because for the first time it feels like we have a realistic chance. Back in the day everyone in Brazil watched Formula One because Ayrton Senna would win almost every race. Now we watch F1 and no Brazilian wins and it sucks. So watching a ‘CT event now feels like watching Formula One back in the Senna days. Every time we turn on the webcast, with guys like Filipe and Gabriel, there’s a real chance we’re going to win the event or be on the podium. F

OR A LONG TIME, THE STEREOTYPE OF BRAZILIAN SURFERS ON TOUR WAS THAT THEY EXCELLED IN SMALL, GUTLESS SURF, BUT THEY WOULD WILT AT HEAVY WAVES LIKE PIPE AND TEAHUPO’O. DID THAT KNOCK BOTHER BRAZILIAN SURFERS?
Oh yeah, for sure. And I think it bothered us because we knew it was true, at least for the competitors on tour. In Brazil we had the guys who were nuts and would go to Hawaii and stay three or four months and charge. They weren’t great surfers, but they would charge. And then we had the competitors, guys that really excelled in competition. And these guys spent their whole lives competing in mostly small surf and not focused on going to Hawaii or Tahiti and getting comfortable in good waves. They would finally go to Hawaii at the end of the year and they couldn’t train at Pipe because it was impossible to get any waves with the crowd. Some guys would never surf Pipe all year up until their heat. And it was a big criticism that we in the Brazilian media had of the Brazilian pros. People still remember when Victor Ribas didn’t catch a single wave in his heat at the Pipe Masters. He left the water with a 0.0 heat score. We were really tough on him. We ran hard on the criticism. And that guy is still bitter about it.

WHAT HAS CHANGED?
I think in the last decade or so the sponsors and everyone involved in pro surfing realized we have to bring these kids to Hawaii when they’re 14 so they get experience in heavy waves. We started to see Brazilian surfers going to Australia for a year at a young age, preparing for bigger waves. Yago Dora has been going to Hawaii every winter since he was 14. Medina has been going since he was 15. Same with Adriano and Filipe and all these new kids. It’s just logical. If they surf waves of consequence from a young age, they’ll eventually get good at it and we’ll have surfers that are more complete.

HOW BIG OF A MAINSTREAM SPORT IS SURFING IN BRAZIL?
I think there’s a misperception in the States and Australia that surfing is mainstream in Brazil. It’s not. Mainstream is soccer, Formula One, volleyball. Now that Medina is close to the title, you see the mainstream media showing more interest than before. Surfing was never on national TV, but our version of NBC just did a one-hour documentary on Medina. But if Medina walks down the street in São Paolo, no one will recognize him. Brazilians love to cheer for Brazilians. So if this guy’s gonna be world champ, then a lot of people will focus on that. We saw that with that tennis player, Gustavo Kuerten, in the early 2000s. Tennis was never a mainstream sport in Brazil, but Kuerten won the French Open three times in five years and all of a sudden everyone was watching tennis. Since he retired, tennis went back to oblivion in Brazil. So right now I think it’s more about Medina being Brazilian than surfing as a sport itself.