New generation of Brazilians aims at world surf glory
Slightly built and aged just 10, Rickson Falcao looks no match for the waves crashing onto Brazil’s Atlantic coast, but within seconds of launching his board, the kid surfer is transformed.
Waves rise and curl and foam and in the middle of them the tiny figure of Falcao on his shortboard swoops about like a dolphin.
“He has no fear. He’ll surf anything,” says lifeguard Flavio Souza, 23, watching Falcao cross himself, then paddle through the booming water off the beach in Saquarema, east of Rio de Janeiro.
Brazilians have been surfing for decades. In the last few years, though, they’ve got scarily good.
The sudden influx of talent even has its own name — the “Brazilian storm.”
It’s a storm led by superstar Gabriel Medina who blew down the doors of the sport’s elite club dominated by United States, Hawaiian and Australian athletes when he became World Surf League champion in 2014.
The next year it was the turn of another Brazilian, Adriano de Souza, and today, 12 out of the top 44 in the rankings are from Brazil, something unimaginable just a short time ago.
Medina will get another shot at the crown when he tries to dethrone Hawaiian John John Florence at the Billabong Pipe Masters starting in Hawaii this Friday — the last event in the 2017 championship.
And if anyone in the traditional surfing bastions still hopes that the “Brazilian storm” will dissipate, they’d be advised to check the forecast coming out of Saquarema.
Falcao, who lives and goes to school next to the water, and spends half of every day surfing, began when he was two. He’s now racking up age-group trophies, as are several of his beach buddies — and is remarkably focused.
“He has the psychology of an athlete. That’s very important,” says his mother Rejane Falcao, 37, who doubles as coach and manager and PR agent.
The tousle-haired boy, sitting in his tiny home, surrounded by trophies, doesn’t sound remotely big-headed when he describes his dream in a quiet voice:
“My dream? To be world surfing champion.”
And along Saquarema beach, where Medina is considered an idol, he’s not the only one.
Despite its vast Atlantic coastline, Brazil has few areas with world-class surfing waves. Until recently, it also had only a small middle class with the means to travel.
One traditional hotspot has always been near Sao Paulo, where Medina is based. The other is Saquarema, a sleepy seaside city famous for a beautiful church on a rocky promontory, dividing two long beaches — each lashed by consistently good breaks.
Locals call Saquarema the Maracana of Brazilian surfing, referring to soccer’s grand temple in Rio de Janeiro. Where New York is synonymous with yellow cabs and university cities are often crowded with students on bicycles, in Saquarema you quickly get used to people of all ages wandering down streets with a surfboard under their arm.
At the core of that local culture is Luiz Augusto de Matos, a burly retired firefighter who opened the Saquarema Surf School in 1990 and dedicated himself to turning generations of toddlers into wave wizards. Today he has 30 students.
The “Brazilian storm” lacks the financial heft powering Australia, Hawaii and mainland US competitors.