In surfing, there is always a level of challenge to conquer.
For beginners, it might just be standing on your board for the first time, or paddling out and getting a feel for the environment. For more experienced surfers, it could be a new trick or seeing how long they can stay up.
For Maya Gabeira, it was surfing some of the biggest waves mankind has ever seen.
Born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Gabeira was exposed to some of the best surfing waves. Gabeira’s boyfriend introduced her to the sport, and ever since then, she hasn’t stopped hunting for the thrills of big waves.
“I actually started at a surf school in Rio,” Gabeira said. “I went to Hawaii when I was 17 and was exposed to a pretty strong big wave surf culture on the North shore of O’ahu. I was already interested in big waves but we didn’t have any [in Rio], So when I got to Hawaii and got to see it and understood more of the niche and I fell in love.”
Big wave surfing has gained a lot of popularity in recent years, but it is an incredibly treacherous sport. Think of it as high risk, high reward. There is the possibility to wipe out and getting carried 25 to 50 feet under the current, slamming into reefs or other hazards, or the consequences of the underwater pressure. Sometimes surfers of big waves will be under the water for more than a wave, as some waves come in as quickly as 20-second intervals. But, if a surfer catches the perfect wave, the high reward outweighs almost all the risks.
Gabeira first got her name into the big surf world after winning championships at locations such as Mavericks, Waimea, Todos Santos, and Dungeons, a place known for shark-infested waters. Early in her career, Gabeira was recognized at the Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards for best female performance from 2007-2010. Gabeira was also the first woman to surf the Alaskan Sea and won an ESPY in 2009 for Best Female Action Sports Athlete.
With all the notoriety and fame surrounding her career, Gabeira was still the same surfer, hungry for the next big adventure. But with this kind of surf, there is always high risk associated with high reward.
After hitting the reward jackpot for a number of years, Gabeira hit one of the biggest risks that surfers face — drowning from one of these waves.
In 2013, Gabeira was surfing Praia de Norte in Nazaré, Portugal. Known for exceptionally high waves that can peak over 70 feet, Gabeira was dragged under and lost consciousness, almost drowning and breaking her ankle in the process. Post-accident, Gabeira had a long road of surgeries and rest ahead of her.
“I went through the trauma of nearly drowning here as soon as I arrived and it was super hard, because I had just fallen in love with this place [Nazaré],” Gabeira said. “Not only was I traumatized by the accident, but I was also very injured and had four years of rehab so a lot of time to try and get back to real shape.”
The rehab process was extensive. Not only did Gabeira have to heal her body, but also get back into the game mentally. Even with the trauma of almost drowning, it wasn’t enough to scare the thrillseeker away from the monstrous waves.
Five years later, in 2018, Gabeira surfed again at Nazaré, riding on a legendary 73.5 wave, setting a world record for the largest wave surfed by a woman.
“It was so crazy because you stay so long out of the game that you feel like it might never peak again or even win something again,” Gabeira said. “It was a relief. To come back and to feel like I can do it again.”
Since recovery and breaking records, Gabeira has also written a book. Released on Aug 2, 2022, titled Maya and the Beast, Gabeira’s book was inspired by her personal story of a shy kid who can accomplish anything they set their mind to.
“I think there’s a lot of different things to take away from it,” Gabeira said. “My favorite part is to connect with the kids and be able to read it out loud and see how they react to it and even put a little seed there of love of the ocean and a love for sports and surfing and especially for girls, you know, getting out there are going for something that seems impossible and making it possible.”
The message resonates not only with Gabeira, but with all females in the heavily male-dominated surfing world. Gabeira is not only breaking barriers on the waves and in print, but does it with care and love for the future of the sport, encouraging others to get after it, one wave at a time.
Photo credits: courtesy of Hatsumi Ajinomoto, Ana Catarina