Making Waves: In Conversation with Big-Wave Surfer Maya Gabeira

Breaking stereotypes, waves and two world records with Brazil’s champion big-wave surfer Maya Gabeira.

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This article first appears in Vol.34: Revival.

In 2013, Maya Gabeira took on a 25m wave during a monstrous swell at Praia do Norte, Nazaré, Portugal that nearly killed her. The force of the wave pushed her underwater, facedown, for more than a minute and it snapped her right fibula in half. Three surgeries later, two of which failed, the surfer was encouraged by doctors to hang up her board for good. Not one to abandon her dreams, she persevered with an against-all-odds recovery, returning to the water five years later. Two years after that, Maya - the sole female surfing in the men's field - went on to ride the biggest wave ever surfed by a woman, and the biggest wave surfed by anyone in the 2019-20 winter season. Sealing her triumphant comeback, she had broken her own world record at the very same beach on which she'd almost drowned.

Her tale is one of grit, determination and sheer mental and physical resilience. Showing us what can happen when we confront the limits within ourselves, Maya is now hallowed as one of the best and most influential big-wave surfers in the world. Here, Maya Gabeira talks to us about rising above her injuries, challenging social norms and how her Aquaracer watch is essential in ensuring she always keeps on top of the tides.

What was your motivation for pursuing big-wave surfing as a professional career?

I fell in love with the sport as soon as I tried it at my local beach, Ipanema in Rio de Janeiro, when I was 14. I wasn't as skilled as the girls of my age who were in Australia or Hawaii, so I couldn't immediately see a path to becoming a professional - I had to learn to swim properly first! Then, when I discovered big-wave surfing in Hawaii, I knew I wanted to make it my life. I knew I had to become a professional.

What challenges did you face breaking into the industry as a female athlete?

You have to expose yourself to big risks when surfing big waves, and as a female pioneer in my field, I was often criticised for doing this. In the early days of my career bravery wasn't celebrated in women, despite the fact that it's an essential component of the sport.

How are you helping women surfers gain greater recognition within the sport?

After my first record in 2018, which was initially snubbed by the World Surf League, I decided to fight for the recognition of women's surfing. I did it publicly, with a petition, until my world record was recognised. I wanted a woman to be able to break a record in any specific category, to make it fair.

What are your memories of your devastating wipeout at Nazaré?

I was 26 when I nearly drowned that day. The experience left me traumatised because it happened while I was doing my job. It was something I was doing through choice. I had to work through whether I wanted to continue putting myself in such a dangerous position. My recovery was an intense time in my life, but it made me the person I am today and taught me lessons that I would never wish away.

What impact did the trauma have on you mentally and physically?

The full recovery took me over four years, in which time I had my surgeries, the first two of which failed. Doctors told me that I should retire after my second surgery and everyone kept telling me that I had already had a great career, but that just wasn't enough for me - I wanted more. I accepted that I could potentially die if I went back. I was scared the first time I returned to Nazaré, but I had to do it for myself because I was so drained of faith.

How do you channel fear into your performance?

You have to train your mind to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. What I like about riding big waves is that I'm immersed in the moment and I feel very connected. I channel my fear by using its energy to control my mind and remain present and calm. I tell myself that I'm prepared, that I've gathered experience, that I'm doing my best to react to what nature is throwing at me.

What about the role the TAG Heuer Aquaracer plays when you're chasing big waves?

I have to be constantly on top of time as we are tide-dependent in Nazaré. Waves change significantly in high tide, so I'll be tracking tides and thinking about when the next one is going to hit. I always have my TAG Heuer Aquaracer watch on. Besides keeping time, it also tracks my training, the time I spend in the water and my schedule as an athlete, so I never go out without wearing it.

Finally, with world records and a string of accolades under your belt, what's next for Maya Gabeira?

Right now, I'm looking forward to surfing in Indonesia and improving some technical aspects of my performance. Indonesian waves are perfect: hollow and technical, they're very different from the type I surf in Nazaré. The ideal training for transitioning to the next season, I think of them as my "summer base camp". Most of all, I'm looking forward to coming back bigger and better.

The Lowdown

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