"Sport Has The Power To Change The World" - Nelson Mandela
Meet Maya Gabeira, shaping the world for women, one industry, one sport at a time.
When Maya Gabeira broke two Guinness World Records for the biggest wave surfed by a female in 2019 and by female or male in 2020, she conquered more than two waves roughly the height of seven-storey buildings. She bounced back from a world-publicized near-drowning experience seven years ago, triumphed over the huge mental struggles resulting from this broadcasted failure, and reasserted her skill in a male-dominated sport.
Gabeira’s story moves impressively from the lowest lows to the highest highs, serving as an exceptional model for all female career climbers facing setbacks, including gender-based ones.
Born the youngest daughter of Fernando Gabeira, a famous Brazilian politician, and a fashion designer mother, Gabeira’s story begins suspiciously like a chick flick tale. Gabeira discovered a love for surfing after following her boyfriend into the Hawaiian sunset at the age of 14. Her relationship lasted two months; her surfing has continued to this day, winning her numerous accolades.
In 2009, Gabeira won the Best Female Action Sports Athlete ESPY Award, in 2008 she embarked on an expedition with fellow surfers Raimana Van Bastolear, Jamie Sterling, and Carlos Burle, and became the first woman to surf the Alaska.
To put Gabeira’s impressive array of achievements in clearer light; big-wave surfing is overwhelmingly a boys’ club.
In a 2020 interview with The Atlantic, Gabeira says, “The loneliness that involves deciding to become a big-wave surfer as a female makes it much more difficult […] It’s just harder to establish [yourself as a woman] in a male-dominated community. Guys take other guys under their wing; they travel together. I don’t have a group of girlfriends traveling with me chasing huge waves. Men have many different groups to go with.”
Her fight for her place in the sport continues: after her first world-record-setting ride of 68 feet in 2018, it took eights months of lobbying and the pressure of an online petition to get the World Surf League to give her wave the approval it needed to be sent to the Guinness World Records.
Prior to this, there was no world record for the biggest wave surfed by a woman.
This is the stage Gabeira entered on and sought to make her mark in. However, back in 2013, prior to her world records and the cementing of her reputation in the big-wave community, an event occurred which badly dented Gabeira’s growing career. In the dialogue it opened up, this event helped expose latent gender biases in the industry.
In October 2013, when trying to surf a monster 70-foot wave off the shores of Nazaré, Portugal, Gabeira suffered a wipe-out after falling from her board and having a mass of water with an estimated weight of 144 tonnes fall on her. Under this impact, Gabeira was knocked unconscious, her lifejacket was ripped off, and her leg instantly broken as she was held underwater for the duration of two waves. It took 10 minutes for Gabeira to reach the beach in a state of exhaustion after being dragged out by fellow-surfer, Carlos Burle, who then resuscitated her with CPR.
Unsurprisingly, Gabeira’s failure was pounced on by prominent male figures in the surfing community as proof that big-wave surfing is ‘not for girls’.
To emphasise, it is not uncommon for big-wave surfers to encounter severe accidents like Gabeira’s in their career.
In 2010, former World Tour surfer Shane Dorian nearly died after a two-wave hold-down in Northern California. Dorian had to be pulled out and airlifted to hospital. In 2012, Greg Long fell at Cortes Bank and was held under until he blacked out. Following both accidents, none of either surfers’ skill was ever questioned by the surfing community.
Gabeira’s case is a stark and telling contrast.
Laird Hamilton, one of the most prominent big-wave surfing champions, said in a 2014 interview with CNN that, "she [Gabeira] doesn't have the skill to be in these conditions. She should not be in this kind of surf," he said. "I feel like it's Carlos' responsibility to take care of her and he's just lucky that she didn't drown."
Hamilton’s dismissive comments on Gabeira following the incident say a wealth about the sexist industry Gabeira entered, and – in light of her recent accolades - relatively less about Gabeira’s actual skill in big-wave surfing.
To make matters worse, his disparaging comments about Gabeira were broadcasted live on mainstream media in one of the rare instances in which surfing culture makes it to popular culture.
In that brief less-than-30-seconds spiel on Gabeira, Hamilton became a spokesperson for the big-wave community, addressing the wider world. The salt on the wound was that Gabeira lost all her sponsorships following the incident: this was a defeat on multiple levels.
Unsurprisingly, Gabeira dealt with many panic and anxiety attacks following her ordeal. She was battling on multiple fronts: the loss of her reputation and sponsorships within her career community, her compromised surfing ability after the accident, a huge decrease in confidence, and nightmarish, panic-inducing memories of a hair breadth’s brush with death.
But this is not where Gabeira’s story trails off.
Soon after the incident, when lying in a Portuguese hospital bed, Gabeira asked to see the footage of the incident. She says, “I wanted to see what had happened, because my memory of the incident stopped when I passed out […] it was important to know what I had done wrong”. This was the seed of Gabeira’s recovery, and the first indication that the fight had not left her.
Her recovery took five years and three back surgeries: it was slow but steady.
In Gabeira’s own words, as told to The World online publication, “It was a process, you know. It was five years. I mean I had many injuries — I had three spine surgeries. I had half of my mind in it by being here and being exposed to the sport and being exposed to the waves. So I tried to be present, even though I wasn't fully performing, in order to keep that fire burning and that desire and the focus for so many years”.
To help ‘keep her fire burning’, Gabeira took steps to learn to be a better teammate. During these five years, Gabeira learned to drive the Jet Ski involved in in-tow surfing and to perform rescue. Until finally, in an interview with BBC, Gabeira pinpoints November 9, 2017 as the day she felt ready in body and mind to return to the giant waves.
On February 11th 2020, Gabeira’s triumphant break-through came, and off the same shores where she almost died seven years ago, she rode a wave 73.5-feet high. This broke the Guinness World Record for largest wave surfed by a female, and largest wave surfed by anyone that year, as was confirmed in September 2020.
Her emotional return to these shores was dramatized in an emotional 26-minute documentary by RedBull titled Return to Nazaré.
Gabeira’s record-setting year didn’t just propel her into mainstream media outlets such as The New York Times, it also helped promote the sport to a wider audience, this time with females at the helm.
In September 2020, Gabeira told The Atlantic, “that a woman did surf the biggest, tallest wave of the year is quite phenomenal. It opens the idea that in other categories and other areas of surfing, this could be accomplished, too.”
Maya Gabeira’s story is remarkable because she went far further than simply ‘facing her fears’. There is something very satisfying about the numbers in Gabeira’s story: the progress from a 68-foot record-breaking-wave to a 73.5-foot record-breaking-wave is a neat and ‘poetically just’ reflection of Gabeira’s progress in strength, courage and skill.
In a revealing interview in August 2020 with the World Surf League, Gabeira said, “can I be allowed to fail again? […] I kind of need that allowance to be able to move on from here”. She said she was “ready to take on a different chapter of my life […] Finally it gave me that little switch on ‘I can fail again’.”
Failure gave her a score to settle with herself and with the world, which had seen her failure and delivered half-baked judgements on her skill or lack thereof. For Gabeira, the key to her success was finding in failure a strong incentive to become a winner.
- Priming yourself to try again after significant failure can take many years of preparation – it doesn’t happen overnight.
- Make use of the time you have now. Gabeira suffered an injury that left her operating at 80% of her usual energy. She used her time wisely, nevertheless, learning to be a good teammate, gaining different perspectives and building relationships within her industry. In her own words, “I tried to be present, even though I wasn't fully performing, in order to keep that fire burning and that desire and the focus for so many years”.
- Failure is not definitive, let it be your prequel to success. Gabeira found in her public, painful failure, her strongest incentive to succeed.
- Cultivate emotional independence. Take it from Gabeira that your industry won’t always support you. Seek out those who will and focus on both your relationships with them and your relationship with yourself.
- Learn from Gabeira, let success involve advocating for yourself and opening the door for others behind you so they can continue your work.
Image credit: Maya Gabeira's Instagram @maya and Facebook