Gabriel Medina's potential to contest a World Title has been clear since he wowed the world with a pair of Perfect 10s at the Quiksilver King of Groms. But the rise of a Brazilian to surfing's highest ranks -- and the passionate support of his nation -- has roots in both the surf industry's start there and the country's profound devotion to sports.
While soccer remains the dominant sport across South America, in the past 50 years, surfing has become an additional passion in Brazil. As Brazilians' enthusiasm for the sport exploded, a thriving industry mushroomed, too. According to a report from market-research firm Surfari, the Brazilian surf industry now makes $4 billion annually from an estimated 2.4 million fans. In comparison, approximately 3 million Brazilians attended the 2014 World Cup and spent $7.9 billion on tickets, according to a report by the International Business Times.
As the first potential Brazilian World Champion of surfing, Medina's journey has been profoundly meaningful for the country. The closer Medina gets to winning a World Title, the more fanatical his fellow countrymen get.
"Surfing is already growing," said Medina's stepdad, Charles Serrano. "Everyone is waiting for this. Not just me, the entire country."
Arpoador: Brazil's Surfing Roots
First attempts at wave-riding in Brazil date back to 1930, the same year as the first World Cup of soccer. But it was a 1963 road trip to Rio de Janeiro's Arpoador Beach by a pair of dive and surf pioneers who found the break and planted the seeds for surf culture (source: The History of Surfing by Matt Warshaw). Arpoador became the first official Brazilian surf spot, eventually attracting international and native surfers alike.
At the time, few Brazilians knew how to surf, and were loathe to try it due to the unwieldy, heavy wooden boards that made board transport difficult. As a nation with extreme poverty, Brazil was behind the times in the production of fiberglass, a prime component in the "new age" boards that were already being used in the U.S. and Australia. According to Brazil surf historian Reinaldo Andraus, Brazilians were using madeirite, a plywood substitute that allowed them to create boards that were simple to manufacture but unwieldy and difficult to maneuver both on land and in the water. In his book, A Grande História do Surf Brasileiro, "This initial generation of surfers was 'inventing the wheel', everything was new to them and the search for the best way out depended on the creativity of those involved, much was made on the basis of experimentation."
A year after that first expedition to Arpoador, Australian Peter Troy, a grassroots ambassador, introduced the surfing techniques Australian surfers had developed on a fiberglass board. A local shaper was able to mimic the design and fiberglass quickly replaced madeirite as the preferred material. By 1966, fiberglass boards were being produced in shops in Rio and São Paulo.
With newer, lighter boards available, more Brazilians were now taking to their local lineups and polishing their surf skills. Armed with up-to-date equipment, they began to visit famous surf spots, such as Hawaii's North Shore. It was then that their competitive side began to surface in the water.
Technically, Brazil was one of the original World Tour stops, hosting the Waimea 5000 in 1976. But while few pros took the contest seriously, that didn't deter Brazilian surfers from entering professional contests. That year, a goofy-footer from Rio named Pepe Lopes won the Waimea contest and was, consequently, invited to the Pipeline Masters.
The sport's popularity among so-called aspirational buyers was on the rise across Brazil, boosting the industry's economic success in South America. At first bootleg Quiksilver shorts and Rainbow sandals were making big money. Soon enough, seeing an opportunity in a budding market, Hang Loose and Mormaii wetsuits started to put up sponsorship dollars for athletes and contests (source: The History of Surfing).
By 1988 Brazil had two events on the ASP schedule, one pro Tour contest and one amateur event.
As the Brazilian surfing industry grew so did the interest from Brazilian athletes. Surfing's growing legitimacy encouraged surfers in Brazil to approach the sport with the same competitive focus that was expected in soccer. The result was the early phase of the so-called "Brazilian Storm" an influx of Brazilian surf talent on the WCT.
Brazilians made their mark on the pro surfing circuit thanks to a shy regular-footer from João Pessoa, in the state of Paraíba. Fabio Gouveia was 18 when he won the 1988 World Amateur Surfing Championships and became the first Brazilian surfer to win a title of any kind. After Gouveia's first World Tour event win in 1990, his countrymen hailed him as "a god in Brazil, [and] the vanguard of his nation's long promise in surfing," according to an article by surf journalist Derek Hynd (Fabio Gouveia, Encyclopedia of Surfing). Suffice it to say that surfers were now enjoying the type of reverence previously reserved for futebol stars.
A year after Gouveia's heroics at the Amateur Championship, he and Florianopolis native Flavio Padaratz joined the pro Tour and by 1994 Brazil had two Top 10 surfers on the World Tour. In the years that followed, it would become common to see eight or ten Brazilians in the Top 44.
In 1996, Gouveia fell off the Tour and Brazilians waited three years for another hometown hero. It came with the rise of Victor Ribas, who hit No. 3 on the World Rankings in 1999 and Adriano De Souza, who won the World Junior title in 2003. De Souza's victory launched his professional career: In the 10 years he's spent so far on the WCT, he's finished every season in the Top 10.
As Medina grows closer to clinching a Title, Brazilians have been rallying around him with the same support and celebrity as their heroes from other sports. People on the street stop him, TV stations bombard him for exclusives, Brazilian striker Neymar da Silva Santos Jr. even scored himself an authentic Medina yellow jersey. "I lost a little freedom here in Brazil, but it's normal," Medina recently told the New York Times. "But in relation to my personal life and my family, everything has improved, and we are happy and enjoying the moment."
From other professional athletes to local celebrities, the entire country, it seems, is taking a moment to pay heed to Brazil's new surf legend. "I hope you get this title and the whole country is supporting and expecting that and we are all cheering for you," taekwondo athlete, Diogo Silva, told ESPN Brazil.
For Medina, the inspiration is mutual.
"I know I have so much support from Brazil and other places as well," Medina told the ASP. "The people who root for me also inspire me. It is a lot of positive energy. When there is a lot of positive energy it inspires you to be better."
The event window for the 2014 Billabong Pipe Masters officially kicked off Monday, December 8th. Check back daily for the latest event status and watch LIVE on this site as Medina, Fanning and Slater vie for the 2014 ASP World Title.