April 21, 2024
How Maya Gabeira overcame a life-threatening accident to surf two record-breaking waves

How Maya Gabeira overcame a life-threatening accident to surf two record-breaking waves

The first: “Why the hell did you put yourself here?” Then the second: “Where is my mom?”

To onlookers from the shore, Gabeira is a tiny, speck-like figure against a towering mass of water. Hunched and squatted on her board, she hurtles across the ocean at a terrifying speed while the wave thunders to the surface behind her.

The wave in question, which Gabeira caught at Portugal’s Praia do Norte break in February last year, was the biggest anyone had surfed that season and also the biggest ever surfed by a woman. Measuring at 73.5 feet, or 22.4 meters, it surpassed her own record of 68 feet set in 2018.

But the statistics and the footage only tell part of the story.

Before breaking world records, Gabeira endured three spine surgeries and nearly five years of painstaking rehabilitation having almost drowned at Praia do Norte — the site of both her records — in 2013.

The accident occurred when Gabeira came off what was at that point the biggest wave she had ever surfed. She broke her ankle and was knocked unconscious, becoming trapped in the swirling waters before her jet ski rider, fellow surfer Carlos Burle, was able to help her to the beach for CPR.

“I had a lot of doctors telling me to stop because of the difficulties they had dealing with my spine and the uncertainty that continuing the sport at a high level would have on my future health,” says Gabeira, reflecting on the years of recovery that followed the accident.

That she has been able to return to big-wave surfing, let alone break records, is testament to the 34-year-old’s resilience.

In 2015, she moved to Nazaré — a fishing village north of Lisbon and home to the world-renowned Praia do Norte break — to hone her craft.

Following the accident, she began to view the sport in a different light.

“It humbled me a lot,” says Gabeira. “It showed me how much I didn’t have everything under control and organized, and how much more I had to improve.

“But more than that, it really detached me from achievements — which is funny, because then I did get two world records after it … but that was never the priority.”

Gabeira gives an interview prior to the Laureus World Sports Awards in Berlin on February 17, 2020. She was nominated as Action Sportsperson of the Year in 2014 and 2019.

‘There needed to be a woman doing that’

Growing up in Brazil, Gabeira was a serious dancer between the ages of five and 12 before taking up surfing. Despite coming from a family with no connection to water sports, she was quickly hooked.

“I always thought from the beginning that surfing was a very addictive sport,” she says.

“The lifestyle and the sensations, the feelings, the challenge, and the fact that the ocean was always different, the wave was always different. It never felt like you had it.

“I admired the guys and the boys that would be out there on big days, I admired their bravery and I thought that was something I wanted to see portrayed in women more.

“I think that unconsciously really drove me … I felt there needed to be a woman doing that. I wanted to be that person.”

Gabiera competes at the Nazaré Tow Surfing Challenge on February 11, 2020.

Aged 17, Gabeira left Brazil for Hawaii to pursue a surfing career. The sport still takes her around the world (she is currently preparing to travel to Indonesia), but it is Nazaré — a popular hunting ground for big-wave surfers — that she calls home.

When big waves are forecast, surfers from all corners of the world descend on Nazaré. It was there that Brazilian Rodrigo Koxa set the record for the largest wave ever surfed in 2017, taking the record from American Garrett McNamara, which had also been set in Nazaré.

“It’s very hard when you’re expecting a very special day, a lot of nerves pile up and you can really feel this crazy energy that it creates,” says Gabeira.

“You feel the energy and everyone’s organizing and looking at the maps and there’s all this gossip about the biggest ever. That is something that makes me quite nervous, so I have to work on myself to deal with that amount of energy coming towards a day.”

Nervousness, excitement and fear are all impulses that Gabeira knows well. They are essential ingredients of big-wave surfing, a discipline that can involve long, uncertain waits until massive swells materialize.

“It has the fear factor,” says Gabeira. “(A big-wave surfer) has to be somebody who wants to push themselves, that wants to be challenged, that wants to navigate that territory of fear and being scared and dealing with being scared; somebody that likes the ocean at that raw state.”

Photographers capture a giant swell at Nazaré last October.

That’s not to say Gabeira is immune from fear; these days, she says she’s more scared of riding big waves than ever before.

“It’s so much easier to not be that scared when you haven’t seen enough,” she explains.

“When you have seen it all and you’ve lived through it and you’ve seen other athletes and other things that can go wrong, a lot of close calls, you start realizing that it’s nice to push, but it’s really nice also when you’re in a position where everything aligns and you perform and you catch the biggest wave of your life.

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“If it doesn’t, you don’t have to push all those different things to make it happen. I feel like I used to be a lot like that before my accident — I would compensate all the areas that didn’t click on the day and I learned my lessons.”

Living in Nazaré has ensured Gabeira gets that sense of alignment as often as possible whenever she enters the water.

Ahead of her most recent world record, for instance, she says she felt calm and grounded starting the day in her own home: “Waking up from my own bed, with my dogs and eating the same thing and having that luxury of feeling like I was at home doing what I do every day — I had a really comfortable scenario around me.

“That was also one of the reasons why I moved here, because I thought that I had so many disadvantages on my comeback that at least I needed the advantage of giving myself a comfortable home feeling of surfing Nazaré.”

Gabeira drops into a wave at Praia do Norte, Portugal, on January 18, 2018.

Battling for recognition

It transpired that surfing a record-breaking swell was only half the battle for Gabeira.

After riding the 68-foot wave in 2018, a lengthy delay followed before the record was confirmed. Only by launching an online petition, which accrued more than 18,000 signatures, was she able persuade the World Surf League (WSL) and Guinness World Records (GWR) to establish a women’s category for the largest wave surfed.

At the time, Gabeira had traveled to the WSL headquarters in Los Angeles and was promised there would be support for a women’s category. As months went by and her emails continued to go unanswered, she started to think her efforts would be in vain.

“I thought the hard work was going to be to come back and surf a huge wave,” she says.

“And then I found out that it was just as challenging to make it a priority for the WSL and the Guinness Book to establish the women’s category.

“First you take it personally, you’re like: ‘Why is this happening to me?’ And then you realize that somebody needed to care so much and fight for it to happen. It just happened to be me.

“It sucked that it was me because it felt at times personal, it felt humiliating, and it felt all kinds of ways, especially coming from a near drowning … But at the end of the process, I started realizing that it was a change.”

GWR did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but a WSL spokesperson told CNN: “Prior to 2018, the WSL Big Wave Awards for the biggest waves of the year (unlimited and paddle) were open-gender categories, meaning the men’s and women’s divisions were combined and judged together.

“Because the judging of the men and women had always been combined prior to Maya’s submission in 2018, Maya’s world record in 2018 was a special determination of the largest wave ever ridden by a woman and the first record of its kind, which set the bar for the category going forward.

“As a result, judging had to span the entire history of the sport, evaluating all potential world record rides up until that point … The WSL has worked closely to ensure waves are being measured and judged appropriately.”

Measuring the world’s biggest waves is a complicated process.

To confirm Gabeira’s latest record, experts reviewed footage of the ride and used scientific calculations based on real-world coordinates, her height, and the length of the Brazilian surfer’s board to determine the wave’s size.

Having surfed her first record-breaking wave in January 2018, it took eight months before the record was verified and the women’s category was established. The whole process, Gabeira says, was “terrible.”

“I had the idea of doing a petition and pressuring them publicly, which worked very well. It was a bit nerve-wracking for me to expose myself in that way and to put myself out there … but it worked.”

To be vulnerable and to embrace the unknown is part of Gabeira’s life as a surfer; the fears and the thrills that come with the sport continue to be an allure.

“I’m always going to be challenged by that double standard,” she says. “Of being very scared and then also feeling like I still want to be part of the sport, I still want to be in the water and I still want to see those giant waves.”