Maya Gabeira surfs sans suit

Body Issue 2012: Maya Gabeira (1:32)

Go behind the scenes for the making of ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue with Maya Gabeira. (1:32)

Why did you decide to pose for the Body Issue?
MG: I was honored to be among so many amazing athletes and to celebrate the athlete's body. I want to show that surfers can have feminine bodies. You can have the body you need for the sport and still be a woman.

If you could write the caption for your Body photo, what would it say?
MG: Strong but feminine.

How do you train for surfing?
MG: I do a lot on the stability ball to help with balance, such as arm work on my knees and one-legged squats. That helps build fast-twitch muscles and teaches your muscles to adapt and move on top of something moving -- like a surfboard. Then I'll train my shoulders and arms with weights, and I do Pilates for flexibility and core.

What do you like about your body?
MG: I'm strong and capable, but I still have a feminine body. I like having a strong upper body. It shows all the hard work I put in on the water and at the gym. Most women are afraid of being too strong. When you surf, your muscles grow -- especially your shoulders -- but it doesn't really make you bulky because it's so aerobic.

What challenges do you face with your body?
MG: Lower back pain. I'm not sure where it comes from, but that's been a challenge the past four or five years. I'll be fine and training hard, and then all of a sudden I train too much and I'm not so good. It's gotten to the stage when I haven't walked for a day. I had an X-ray a couple of years ago and nothing showed, so I don't know what the problem is, but I'll go to physical therapy when it's bad. Then it'll be fine, and I'll go hard again, and it'll come back. It's an endless cycle.

Have you ever felt self-conscious about your body?
MG: For sure. I fluctuate in weight. I feel best at 130-135 pounds, but I'll get up to 145 pounds, and I get really self-conscious and have to go on a diet and get myself together. I travel to remote locations such as Indonesia and Mexico, and it's hard to find something healthy to eat, so you just eat whatever is there. And the schedule is never the same. Plus, when you finish surfing, you just want to eat. You can get really big waves for two or three days and be in the water the whole time and build up a big appetite. But then when you have low days and the waves aren't big, you still have the same appetite and you can just eat, eat, eat. It makes it hard to plan a diet.

Describe your toughest day of training.
MG: Big-wave surfing. It's a full day if the waves are really big. You start at 6 a.m. and go until 4 or 5 p.m. It might be a five-hour paddling session, lunch on the Jet Ski and a couple hours of tow surfing. I have to try to time my workouts for the best waves, so we might have to be out there the whole day to find a time to surf.

What is the most unusual training you've ever done?
MG: I do a lot of static apnea in the pool. When you fall in a wave you need your lungs to sustain you, so if you train for being out of oxygen and not breathing for long periods, you can prepare your body. I'll do some exercise out of the pool to warm up, then I'll start by holding my breath for one minute, then breathe for three minutes, then go down for a minute and a half. I keep increasing my time until I reach four minutes. I'd love to eventually be able to get to five or six minutes without a breath. This is key because when you fall in a big wave, you're under a lot of stress and you lose a lot of energy. You're coming from an aerobic moment, so your heart rate is very high and you're already out of breath.

What happens when you wipe out off a big wave?
MG: It's a complete survival moment. There isn't room for being scared and nervous. You have to take advantage of all your calm and training and confidence to do the right thing -- which is not waste energy. You go into a zone of controlling your thoughts and hoping it will be over soon. In my worst case, when I'm underwater and might black out, knowing I want to see my family again gives me strength to not pass out or lose focus. But it gets black, and it gets deep enough where you feel your eyes and ears, and you can't come up because you are being thrown around and hauled down by the wave.

Have you ever thought your life was in danger?
MG: A few times I've thought I might not make it. One time I got tangled with some other guys in the water. My leash got tangled around them, so they dragged me underwater, and I had to take my leash off to come up. Luckily I had a quick release, but it was frightening. It's a little traumatic when those things happen. You have to dig deep and find the inspiration and the reason and the passion to continue to push the sport. Sure, I'd rather have a safer job where I know I'm coming back to my house and my bed every night, but that's not my sport. Besides, the risk, adrenaline, energy and gigantic waves are what make the sport so fascinating and rewarding.

What do you tell yourself when you feel like you can't train any further?
MG: I think about my goals, what I want to achieve. I'm also motivated by the emotion and speed and adrenaline and the challenge of catching a bigger wave. Forty-five feet is the highest I've caught, but I hope I can get 50 or 60.

What about your body would surprise us?
MG: I've broken my nose 10 times. Maybe 11. I've lost count. It became so sensitive that anything hitting it would dislocate it and make it bleed and swell, until one time it got smashed into pieces. I tried to avoid surgery because I didn't want to be out of the water, but a doctor told me if I didn't get it fixed I wouldn't be able to breathe fully, maybe only 70-80 percent. So I had surgery to fix it.

What drives you to want to ride waves?

MG: I got into big-wave surfing when I was 17. I really fell in love with it, and it was such a huge challenge. I didn't think I'd be a professional; I was just doing it because I was passionate about it. And now it's what I know and what I do best. I was a dancer when I was younger, and my mom thought I'd be a professional. I was really into it and did it for hours every day, but I stopped dancing and started surfing when I was 13.

Describe the rush of riding a wave. What goes through your mind?
MG: It feels so intense. I'm so focused and in the moment, like there is nothing else in my mind. Everything is about that wave and the speed and riding it. Sometimes it's only 10 or 20 seconds, but it's so intense. You are cheating death, one with the wave, taking a big risk, coming out on the other end, riding down a huge amount of moving and changing water, and you're adapting the whole time. It makes waiting for it from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. worthwhile.

What was your best athletic moment -- when everything clicked and you felt completely in tune with your body?
MG: On really big waves I feel one with my body, and I'm happy that my body can sustain the speed of the wave and control the board underneath my feet. My board can weigh up to 20 pounds. To be strapped into that while going 40 or 50 mph is an incredible feeling.

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