Big-Wave Surfer Maya Gabeira on Fear, Beauty, and Her Favorite Surfing Spot

By Tetsuhiko Endo; Photograph by Dove Shore, Redbull Photofiles. See more surfing photos of Maya Gabeira >>

In her short, but brilliant career, Brazilian big-wave surfer and a 2009 Adventurer of the Year Maya Gabeira has made very few missteps. Discounting the slew of broken noses she has sustained, she is a four-time Billabong XXL award winner and also won an ESPY in 2009 for Best Female Action Sports Athlete of that year. With preternatural strength, kamikaze fearlessness, and glamor model looks, she is one of the action sports world’s favorite daughters—and a marketing diamond mine for her sponsors. But behind the cover shots, the grinning photos, and the accolades, Gabeira is a 23-year-old woman who has dedicated her entire life to the heretofore masculine pursuit of riding things that can easily kill her. For better and for worse, she stands mostly alone in her profession.

Adventure caught up with Gabeira in New York City of all places, where she was making the PR rounds while on a trip to mentor some of the East Coast’s best young female surfing talent.

What brings you out to New York?

MG: I’m working with [fellow professional surfer] Carissa Moore on the Carissa and Maya Project. We spend time with top amateur girls from the East Coast and try to mentor them a bit. The East Coast isn’t famous for surfing and doesn’t have great waves. Also, the water gets cold during the winter and most of the industry is located out West. The idea is for Carissa and me to share some of our experiences with the girls and hopefully inspire them.

Are you getting to enjoy New York between all this work?

Maya Gabeira: Yes! I went to the Jay-Z concert last night, and it was one of the most amazing concerts of my life. I’m not that into concerts because I usually go to bed around eight or nine, but this one was worth it.

What do you have in your i-Pod right now?

MG: I listen to Jay-Z, Eminem, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jack,Johnson, and Bob Marley. It depends though. I do a lot of yoga, so I don’t listen to music then. And If I’m working out with my trainer, he just yells all the time, so that’s my soundtrack. But if I’m running or biking, I listen to music.

Do you do a lot of cross-training?

MG: I train six days a week. I used to do seven, but then I found out that it’s not good for my body, so I always try to take one day to rest. Surfing is so unique in this sense though–you have to take every opportunity you can get to surf. When it’s flat, you struggle, because you don’t have good days to surf, then sometimes you get 10, 15, or 20 days to surf in a row and you want to take advantage.

I understand you just moved to California from Hawai’i.

MG: Yes, I’m living in southern California, Cardiff, and I love it. I moved because I was on the road so much and living in Hawai’i, you always have to go to LA for a layover.

Can you explain the traveling schedule of a big-wave surfer?

MG: You have to follow the seasons, which means being in the Southern Hemisphere for their winter, and the Northern Hemisphere for their winter. My spots right now are Tahiti, Mexico, South Africa, Fiji, and Peru. In the Northern Hemi winter, it's usually all about Hawai’i and California

What do you think are the main challenges for female surfers who are trying to make a career out of the sport?

MG: There are two things. First, marketing in the surf industry doesn't put as much money into the women’s side as it does into the guy’s side. Second, imagine how it is to be the only girl in the lineup, constantly having to battle guys for waves. The industry and the lineups are dominated by men. We don’t have a court to practice on by ourselves like tennis players, we have to share waves with every single surfer in the water on a given day. Sometimes it can be intimidating.

What do you think female surfers should do to get more money into the sport?

MG: You know what I think? I think it’s already changing because the girls are getting more feminine, and becoming better surfers at the same time. We are showing the companies that the girls can sell, too. Clothing brands are starting to model their clothes on athletes as well as models, and that is a step in the right direction.

How important is beauty compared to surfing ability in women’s surfing?

MG: Performance always comes first. Second is not how you look on he outside, but how you carry yourself. Third, of course being pretty is going to help–marketing is about how you look.

How you do fit into all of this?

MG: I’m just who I am, and I’ve never changed. I was always quite feminine because I grew up with an older sister and a mom who was a fashion designer. I briefly became a tomboy after I started surfing, but I’ve never tried to changed the way I look just to surf like the guys. This is who I am, and I’m not as strong as the guys, but I just want to be the best I can.

How far do you want to take your career?

MG: I don’t know. I’m going to try and go and far as the guys can go…does it sound crazy to you?

Does it sound crazy to you?

MG: A little!

Is it hard being one of the only women in the boys club of big-wave surfing?

MG: There are two sides: On one hand, I have such an advantage. Because I’m a girl, I can associate with all the different groups of surfers and be friends with guys from different spots (who don’t necessarily mix with each other). So I can circulate through all the groups, but I’ll never be as tight with the guys as they are with each other.

That means there’s not as much competitiveness between me and the guys, but I also don’t have contests to do. One day, I want to surf in the Eddie (the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau competition at Waimea Bay, Oahu), and ride in the guy’s big-wave surfing contests.

What’s one of the downsides about being a female big-wave surfer?

MG: It’s lonely. And that’s going to be with me forever. Nothing is perfect. You have a lot of friends, you know everyone, but the deep connections, having someone who knows about your life in a deep way, are so hard to maintain.

I don’t spend more than a month and a half in the same country throughout the year. Lacking those deeper connections is what really gets you. I only really have them with my mom, my dad, and my sister. My mom is the only person who i talk to all the time and who knows what I’m up to.

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Does the Internet help?

MG: Yes, Twitter helps me stay in touch with my friends, but the big problem is that I never really know where I will be. My schedule can change at any moment, so I need to be flexible, always flexible. If a big swell pops up, the schedule for my whole month could change in the course of one day. If that happens, sometimes I’ll go missing and my friends won’t know where I am until they read it on my Twitter account.

What is your favorite place to surf big waves?

MG: Waimea Bay in Hawaii. That’s where it all started and I love how its still possible to paddle into those waves, even when they are huge. I feel pretty intimate with the wave, I’m just so happy when it’s big.

How important is it to establish a relationship with a spot?

MG: The relationship is everything. The more time you spend, the more comfortable you are going to be. I just love that wave. I push my body so much there…I go for eight hours if I can.

What is your least favorite big wave?

MG: Mavericks in California. The wave is amazing, but I still suck out there. It’s way too cold for me. When I go, I instantly freeze. Also, the shape of the wave is difficult–I’m goofy (right foot forward on the board) and riding it backside makes it so much harder. It’s very technically challenging.

What role does fear play in your surfing?

MG: The fear is there, it’s part of it. If it wasn’t for fear, why would you really do it? It gets you high, makes you do incredible things, makes you act instinctively, and do things you didn’t even know you could do.

How do you deal with it?

MG: I’m really committed to what I do. I know the risk I’m taking and prepare myself the best I can. Once I’m faced with a challenge I still have confidence–the feat doesn’t paralyze me. I’m still able to control my mind when I’m scared and that is important. When you go through bad situations, like get caught inside or losing the jet ski, what’s going to save you is your mind.

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