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Maya Gabeira: Big Wave Bonanza

Maya Gabeira is a record-breaking big wave surfer from Brazil. She surfs waves taller than a four story building! After a massive wipe out nearly ended her career, she came back with passion, power, and perseverance.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Haley Dapkus with sound design and mixing by Bianca Gan. It was written by Megan Bagala. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Nadia Calembe. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi . Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

 

Maya Gabeira is fourteen years old when she steps into the ocean for her first attempt at surfing. The cool water laps at her toes as she clutches the new surfboard that her dad got her. She’s not sure about this whole surfing idea, to be honest. She’s always been a land girl until now. 

In her home of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, she is surrounded by street festivals and dancing, music and fashion. With so much to do, sports have never been her thing, especially since she’s had severe asthma since she was a little girl. 

But as she steps into the water, her toes sinking into the wet sand, something opens up inside Maya. Her breath becomes calmer and deeper. She shivers a little as the water reaches her ankles, her knees, and then her hips and belly. When she is chest deep, a small wave lifts her feet off the sandy ocean floor, and she feels weightless, suspended. 

Maybe this is why her dad wanted her to try surfing so much — so she could let go of all her worries and anxieties. First her asthma, then her parents’ divorce. Maya has had a hard time finding calm lately. But here, out on the ocean, with the horizon stretching in every direction and the sun sparkling on the water, Maya feels a strength she never knew she had.  

She lays her body on the board and paddles out to where the waves are just past their breaking point. Then, she scans the swells and picks her first wave. She’s never done this solo before. It feels terrifying and fantastic all at once. 

She steadies the board, then pops up into a staggered stance, just like her instructor taught her. She adjusts her feet and breathes through her gut, trying to find her balance as the water rolls under her. The sun blazes overhead and for a moment, everything in the world feels magical, shimmering with excitement.

Then, the wave she was going after rocks her board, flipping her over and dumping her into the ocean. For a split second, Maya can’t tell which way is up! But then she sees the sunlight pouring through the water’s surface like beams of hope, and she swims towards the brightest spot. She breaks through the surface of the water and pulls a strand of seaweed out of her hair with a smile. 

WowYeah, she thinks as she hauls herself back up onto the board. Let’s try that again.

So Maya tries it again. And again. And again. She spends the next three years chasing new waves to surf. She even goes to Australia on a student exchange program to surf there too…

But these waves are different. They’re HUGE!

Maya has a lot to learn if she’s going to tackle these monster waves. First of all, in order for a wave to be called a “big wave,” it has to be over 20 feet tall. Imagine that! Some of them can be even taller than a four story building! She finds out that waves come in “sets,” or groups and, a lot of times, the seventh wave in the set is the biggest and most powerful. Maya realizes that if she’s gonna ride the big ones she needs to do a lot of training first. Big wave surfing is not something you can pick up overnight. It takes practice, patience, and courage. 

So, Maya does a lot of work on her lungs, her core, and her mind. Pilates and yoga, strength and breath training are all key. She has to study the tides, currents and weather patterns so she knows when it’s the right time to go. 

Then…it’s time to surf. 

Maya trains hard and learns the ins and outs of big wave surfing – but more waves beckon. And her journey continues..

When she turns 17 years old, Maya moves to Hawaii, a series of islands where the big waves are known to be amazing. She gets a job as a waitress to support herself and spends every second she can practicing her skills and studying the gigantic swells of Waimea Bay, dreaming of the moment when she will surf a big wave. 

On February 6th, 2006, Maya borrows a 10 foot, 4 inch long orange and white big wave board from a friend and enters a surfing competition at Waimea. She’s surfed here before, but never on the big waves. 

When she gets to the beach that day, there’s a crowd gathered, buzzing with excitement. Maya’s mind is racing, her heart beatingfluttering fast. What if she miscalculates and gets dumped under a whole set of waves? What if she gets caught in the undertow and runs out of air? What if? What if? But she can’t let herself get caught up in a tide of self-doubt and fear. 

She takes a deep breath of ocean air and thinks about her first surfing teacher’s favorite piece of wisdom:

The ocean is always changing. So be prepared to change with it.

It’s true. Just a few years ago, she was angry and depressed, caught in a loop of self-doubt. And now, she’s about to surf her first big wave.

Maya focuses her eyes on the horizon, and paddles out. 

The sets are already pretty big, and before she knows it, her wave is coming at her fast, a sparkling blue giant rising towards her. She paddles harder, faster, picking up speed and then positioning herself just so. And then she pops up on the board, feels that telltale surge of the wave cresting and then —

She starts to fly!  Not literally, of course. But she’s surfing on top of a thirty five foot tall wave! It’s as tall as a telephone pole! But she can’t think of that now. She has to stay balanced, bend her knees and aim towards the shore.  As she does, a circle of white foam curls around her, enveloping her in a shimmering tunnel. She expertly guides her board through the barrel of the wave and emerges with both her hands up in the air and a huge smile on her face. She’s done it! She really has! Maya has just surfed her first big wave. 

She can hear the entire crowd on the beach cheering and clapping for her. She paddles back to the beach, beaming with pride, grinning, her heart thumping wildly. 

Over the next few years, she surfs in Indonesia, Tahiti, and South Africa, where she makes history by surfing a wave that’s 45 feet tall, which is the tallest wave ever surfed by a woman! She keeps going, keeps pushing herself and refining her techniques. By the time she turns 20 years old, anyone who loves big wave surfing knows the name: Maya. Gabeira. 

And yet, Maya deals with a lot of fear. Staring down a giant wave can be super cool, but it can also be super scary. And that’s a good thing. Fear can alert her to be extra cautious and make smart decisions. Fear can give her the adrenaline she needs to find the water’s edge in the face of a wipe out. Because wipeouts are part of ANY surfers’s career…

The year is 2013, seven years after she surfed her first big wave in Waimea Bay. Maya is in a big wave competition in Nazaré, Portugal, a bay with some of the largest waves in the world. 

On the day of the competition, she can see that the waves are enormous. The swells are so powerful, and there’s a big canyon underwater, which makes the whole thing even scarier. 

Maya checks in with her breath and her mind. She attaches herself to a jet ski and gets pulled out into the ocean. The wave is already roaring behind her. There’s no turning back now. 

But something is different about this wave. Maya can tell. It’s close to 70 feet tall! She draws in a deep breath, and tries to exhale all of her fears, all of her uncertainties, all of her what if’s.

She’s got this, right?

But, when she gets out there the wave is chaotic, tossing her all over. She breaks her ankle and then falls off her board. 

The next few minutes are a watery blur. The force of the wave spins her around as if she’s in a laundry machine. She gets back up to the surface, just in time for the next wave to crash down. This one rips off her life jacket and takes her breath away. 

Finally, Maya’s training partner reaches her on his jet ski and brings her to shore. 

She gets rushed to the hospital to begin what will be a five year long recovery.

For some people, this might be the end of their surfing story, and that would be okay. But, for Maya, it’s not. She feels a sense of resilience and determination rise within her like the swell of a big wave. She works every day to build back her strength, balance, and intuition. She has new respect for her body AND for the ocean. And she knows one day she WILL get back on her surfboard.

In January 2018, that day finally comes. Maya returns to Nazaré, Portugal to surf the big waves. It’s been five years since that life-altering wipe out, and she walks along the shore gazing at the blue expanse with awe and excitement. She knows that she can only prepare so much, and at a certain point, the ocean will be in charge. 

After all, like her teacher used to say, the ocean is always changing. But Maya is too. 

She’s a different person than she was five years ago. She’s more confident, and also more humbled. She has to balance her dreams with her fears, her hopes with her reality. She has to step into that water, willing to risk it all.

And she does. She channels her energy in long, deep breaths as she gets into position. She feels the rhythm of the swells and pops up just in time, her legs and heart steady. She sets her gaze forward, bends her knees low, and takes off. The wind is rushing past her, the wave cresting over her and trailing behind her in a cape of dazzling white foam. 

She stays steady and strong, and before she knows it, she’s charging towards the bottom of the big wave, her voice rising in a cheer! 

When she gets back to shore, the crowd of spectators is going wild. Maya is back, and better than ever – she just surfed a 68 foot tall wave – the largest wave ever surfed by a woman! She just made History!

Then in 2020, Maya goes back to Nazaré, Portugal to make history AGAIN! This time, she surfs a wave that’s 73 feet and 6 inches tall! Which is not only the biggest wave surfed by a woman, but also the biggest wave surfed by anyone that season.  

Maya continues to surf to this day. Every time she gets back in the water, she feels the same mix of nerves, excitement, and fear and sets her sights on finding  balance. But it’s tricky. The ocean is always changing. 

And so is she.