Updated: November 3, 2009, 12:17 PM ET

Being Maya Gabeira

In just eight years, Maya Gabeira has gone from beginner to among the finest big wave surfers in the world.

By Andrew Pattison (video), Micah Abrams (story)
ESPN Action Sports
Being Maya Gabeira
At only 22 years old, Maya Gabeira has broken into the boys club of big wave surfing and is a dominant presence in the women's field.Tags: Surf, Being, Maya Gabeira, Big Wave

On December 15, 2004, "Eddie" went. The Quiksilver Invitational In Memory of Eddie Aikua is only held when the North Pacific unleashes its most spectacular swells on big-wave surfing's birthplace: Oahu's Waimea Bay. That day, as 35-foot waves poured into the Bay, for only the seventh time in the event's 23-year history its elite roster of on-call big-wave hell men gathered on the beach. Before they could paddle out, the locals who call this break home had to surf in. "The Bay called the day," as Quiksilver likes to say, but the first waves of the swell belonged to a handful of relatively unknown men and one woman.

Jamilah Starr, a transplant from Santa Cruz, California, was known to locals as one of the most accomplished big wave riding women on the North Shore. None of them were surprised to see her in the lineup that morning, jostling for what she could before they all ceded the break to the contest. A monster wave jacked up and she gained position, furiously paddling her Pearson Arrow single fin to keep pace with the wave's peak, then leaping to her feet and practically free-falling down the face as metric tons of whitewater avalanched behind her. Absorbing the bottom turn gracefully, she roared toward the wave's shoulder, en route to the beach, where a 17-year-old Brazilian girl watched, enthralled.

/photo/2009/0728/as_surf_mg_thp1_576.jpgTim Mckenna/Red Bull PhotofilesThe Halloween Swell at Teahupoo wasn't all brutal beatings for Gabeira. Gallery »

"It really changed my life, that day," says Maya Gabeira. "Just feeling the ocean like that and wanting to surf it so bad. I just decided everything I could do to be able to be out there and catch a few waves, I would do."

In the four and a half years since that swell, Gabeira hasn't just caught a few big waves. She won three consecutive Billabong XXL Big Wave awards and an ESPY; she caught arguably the largest waves ever surfed by a woman at Tahiti's fearsome Teahupoo, and she has garnered the kind of sponsor support once thought impossible for a woman outside World Tour competition. Just eight years after first picking up a board, Gabeira is on a short list of the most recognizable female surfers in the world.

When Gabeira was 14 years old, she was just another hell-raising teenager on the streets of Rio De Janeiro. The daughter of a well-known fashion designer and an iconic politician, she grew up privileged but tormented by her parents' divorce when she was 11. After a period of drinking, smoking and adolescent rebellion, she discovered surfing through a boyfriend. And while her infatuation with the sport was immediate, her ability to actually do it was not.

"She went to this surf school," explains 2002 XXL Champion and fellow Brazilian Carlos Burle, who shares a spot on Red Bull's big-wave team with Gabeira. "And after a month of lessons she still couldn't stand up. She doesn't have a lot of skill with surfing and she takes a lot of time to learn. But she's also very wise, and so that is her skill. Her skill is to learn."

She has a lot more to do. She can go much bigger. And we're training for that. We're going beyond our boundaries."

--Carlos Burle

Just three years into her surfing life, Gabeira set out on a pilgrimage of sorts. Her first stop was Hawaii, where she found herself watching the Eddie Invitational and seeing huge surf for the first time. True to her declaration that day, she parked herself on the North Shore for the remainder of the winter. But while Gabeira struggled with the technical aspects of surfing like turning technique and body position, she discovered a natural aptitude for the larger surf on the North Shore.

When she arrived in Hawaii, she explains, "I was doing amateur competitions, doing little turns. I had a 5'10" under my arm and that's all I knew. Just getting used to the whole thing, paddling out in big waves and watching—I was mostly watching then—I still got to experience it."

She's sitting in a conference room at the U.S. headquarters of her sponsor Billabong, surrounded by photos and magazine pages left over from a brainstorming session. The imagery displays women's surfing at its most accessible and benign: beautiful women splashing around in shallow water, riding longboards on small waves, and posing in swimwear on the beach. Asked why she thinks she adapted so easily to waves it often takes surfers years to step up to, her reaction shatters the illusion of playfulness tacked to the wall behind her. The slightly amused smile she's been wearing snaps straight, and she suddenly looks much older than her 22 years.

"Because I love it," she says, with an intensity that takes the fuzzy glow right off the word "love."

/photo/2009/0728/as_surf_mg_ak1_576.jpgTony Harrington/Red Bull PhotofilesIn the past year, Gabeira has joined legitimate surf expeditions: Point Carrew, AK. Gallery »

By the end of her first winter in Hawaii, Gabeira had tackled big Sunset Beach, which is the first rung on the North Shore's big-wave ladder. She also paddled out at "small" Waimea, which doesn't even break until the waves reach 15 feet. As the North Pacific grew quiet, she continued her pilgrimage to Australia and then Indonesia. The following winter, she was back on the North Shore.

It was late in the winter of 2006 that Burle first saw Gabeira surf. "I could tell in the first moment that she could [surf big waves] because I could see it in her eyes. She was comfortable in the situation," he recalls. Burle began mentoring Gabeira and a year later, on a small beach break in their native Rio de Janeiro, he introduced her to tow-in surfing.

Californian Sarah Gerhardt broke the women's tow-in barrier in 1996. Not long after, 7-time World Champion Layne Beachley established the benchmark by towing into 25-foot surf at Oahu's Log Cabins. But, aside from Keala Kennelly's 15-foot barrel at Teahupoo in 2005 and the Maui tow team of Andrea Moller and Maria Souza, no other women have significantly contributed to the revolution in big-wave surfing that tow-in represents. Tow surfing requires enormous resources; beyond simply having access to the rare breaks that handle the huge waves tow surfing calls for, there is the expensive necessity of the jetski and the need for a partner with the skill and knowledge to operate it in such conditions. With women making up only a fraction of the big-wave surfing community, it was no surprise that they were nearly non-existent in tow surfing.

Gabeira's first sessions on the jetski weren't unlike her first sessions surfing. But before she could grasp the timing and wave-reading required to properly whip into a wave—to say nothing of driving the ski itself—Burle received word of an early season swell heading to Teahupoo. "I knew I was going to go to Teahupoo at some stage of my life, but I didn't think I was ready," she says. "It was a last minute opportunity and I figured I should go check it out, no expectations."

/photo/2009/0728/as_surf_mg_crash_576.jpgBillabongXXL.com

Teahupoo is a horseshoe-shaped reef just 50 yards from open ocean and ideally located to receive the brunt of massive southwest swells from the South Pacific. A fast, difficult left-hand barrel when it's small, anything over 8 feet turns the wave into the consensus pick for heaviest in the world. The wave pulls so much water off the reef that the lip can be as thick as the wave is tall and the reef itself becomes nearly dry. Her first few days, with the surf hovering in the 6-to-8 foot range, Gabeira struggled to negotiate the barrels and broke numerous boards while narrowly escaping bodily damage on the reef.

Two weeks later, Burle returned to Brazil, but Gabeira spent another month in Tahiti absorbing as much about Teahupoo as she could. "By the end, I was getting it, getting good waves and really falling in love with the wave," she says.

Eight months later, the confidence she worked so hard to build would be severely tested.

Gabeira has paddled into 25-foot waves at Maverick's and Waimea. She won her first XXL Award in 2007 largely on the strength of a tow session at Mexico's Todos Santos. She's a regular presence on Oahu's outer reefs when the surf gets huge. So it would be unfair to say that her career was made on November 1, 2007, when a massive late season swell detonated 15-to-20 foot bombs across Teahupoo's reef. But it's no stretch to say her reputation was made that day, when only the best and the bravest in surfing were up to the task.

Teahupoo at that size is difficult to explain, but Gabeira tries. "The water sucks off the reef so hard ..." she pauses, looking for the words, "there's not such thing. You don't train for it. You have to be so good at it that you just do it right there when it happens."

I've seen her take some horrendous wipeouts. And the fact that she still wants to go back and try again, you have to respect that. You have to.

--Keala Kennelly

Her first two efforts, she wasn't good enough. The first wave was a simple lack of resolve—failing to commit at the most critical moment of the drop in, her board didn't gain purchase and she was flipped onto her back for an instant before the entire ocean landed on top of her. She was plowed over by a second wave before Laird Hamilton zipped into the impact zone to save her. Her second wave, she made the drop but stalled in the barrel and was swallowed whole, bouncing off the reef and opening a gash in her leg.

There is no shortage of men who have survived wipeouts of far less consequence at Teahupoo and vowed never to surf there again. But Burle wasn't thinking about those men when he drove the ski up to Gabeira as she recovered in the channel. And he knew it wasn't her talking when she expressed doubt about her ability to try again. He coaxed her back into the lineup and whipped her into some 15-foot caverns that rival Kennelly's famous wave for the largest ever surfed by a woman at the break.

Footage of that session tore across the internet, earning Gabeira plenty of acclaim—and her second consecutive XXL award—but it also made her something of a target. There were comments made in chat rooms about her preparedness for the conditions after such a short time surfing Teahupoo and whether it was simply luck that she wasn't hurt or worse.

"I was scared for her," admits Jamie Sterling, a notable Hawaiian big wave surfer on hand that day. "She wiped out on some really big waves. She must have a pretty good guardian angel looking over her, because somebody else might have died."

But surfing Teahupoo at that level remains a frontier in big wave surfing, and the whole point of frontiers is that no one knows about them until they find them. And she's faced such criticism before.

"My opinion is, sometimes I don't know if I'm ready and I go anyways," she says, the chill in her voice getting lower as she continues. "I have not done this for 20 years. There will be days when I face something I haven't experienced yet and I cannot look at somebody and say I'm 100 percent sure I'm ready for it. But I'm going to try because I've worked every day, trained many hours to be there. If I'm ready or not, only the ocean can tell me."

/photo/2009/0728/as_surf_mg_xxl_576.jpgCarlos Serrao/Red Bull Photofiles

Kennelly, who is frequently compared with Gabeira because her big wave accomplishments rival the young Brazilian's and yet she doesn't receive the same sponsor support, doesn't agree with Gabeira's detractors.

"A lot of people think Maya takes a lot of risk and gets in over her head," she says. "But to her credit, I've seen her take some horrendous wipeouts. And the fact that she still wants to go back and try again, you have to respect that. You have to."

Since the "Halloween Swell," as it came to be known, Gabeira has become a fixture at Teahupoo, as well as a big-wave explorer in places like Alaska and along her own Brazilian coast. And she's awaiting her chance to attempt what she sees as the sport's crown jewel: Maui's Jaws. It's provides some perspective on just how quickly she's reached this point to realize that the last time famed spot broke with truly epic swell was December 15, 2004—the same day she watched Jamilah Starr at Waimea Bay.

Burle, for his part, has enjoyed being along for the ride: "She's overcoming all the prejudice, all her fears. And she has a lot more to do. She can go much bigger. And we're training for that. We're going beyond our boundaries."

And while, for Gabeira, those boundaries include having gender qualify her accomplishments, she nevertheless acknowledges the role she can play in turning the Big Wave Boys Club into something a little less testosterone-drenched. "It's nice, just to show it's possible. It's such a big barrier and so different to be a woman out there. I just hope more women realize they can do this sport, too," she says. And for the first time all afternoon, her face breaks into a bright, warm smile.

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