Pulling Guard

From the region that brought you Pelé and Fittipaldi, Paulista Gabriel Medina sacked the world surfing circuit with stone faced equanimity. In this profile, “Biel” finally looses his tongue.

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During the 2014 Pipe Masters, a scene was repeated prior to each of Gabriel Medina’s heats that became emblematic. Peak Gabe.

“Biel,” as Medina is known to family and friends, would emerge from the Rip Curl house at Off The Wall just a few minutes before he was set to take to the water with his stepfather and coach, Charles “Charlão” Rodrigues, on one side and his marketing manager, Fernando Gonzalez, on the other, both carrying Medina’s boards.  

Iron-faced and progressing rapidly through the crowd toward the contest scaffolding, Medina wouldn’t make eye contact with a single person. No smiles. No nods. No acknowledgements at all. Not to photographers or competitors or the thousands of his fans waving the flag of his home country, who had come all the way to the North Shore to support him, and who would watch him lose the controversial final with a 10 and a 9 but nevertheless capture his, and Brazil’s, first surfing world title.

Looking back at those moments, a certain question begs: How could someone so young—Medina was only 20 years old then—and under such enormous pressure be so detached from all the mayhem around him and ultimately deliver? 

The happenings on the beach weren’t the half of it, either. A large portion of Brazil, population over 200 million, was paying close attention to every move Medina made at Pipeline that week. Medina wasn’t just trying to win a title for himself or his family or his sponsors. He was carrying the expectations of an entire nation. 

It might sound like an exaggeration. How could a surfing world title be so important to a country? Well, it meant enough for a video to be released during the event, in which Neymar and Robinho, two of Brazil’s biggest soccer stars, gave Medina their support, even recommending, in what they understood to be surf lingo, that he should “take the waves apart,” “get tubed,” “go for the big carves,” and “do floaters.”

Medina’s hopes meant enough that before the event, Grupo Globo, the largest media conglomerate in Latin America, decided he was set to be Brazil’s new sporting hero, someone who could fill the big, empty, lucrative shoes left by the country’s two greatest individual athletes, the late Formula One driver Ayrton Senna and retired tennis player Gustavo “Guga” Kuerten. And if Globo could elect and depose presidents, it certainly could crown Medina, so long as he did his part at Pipe.

At the head of this configuration of factors was Medina’s 2012 signing with talent agent Cesar Villares, who had in the past represented tennis players Andy Roddick, Fernando González, and Caroline Wozniacki, along with negotiating contracts for top league soccer players like Neymar. Acting as a talent agent for IMX in a joint venture between IMG and Brazilian billionaire Eike Batista, Villares saw Medina as the perfect opportunity to materialize his vision of where sports marketing was headed.

Heavy stepping, and confidence maxing, on the beach and over the boil at Pipe with not just rankings and world titles on the line, but an entire life’s credence, 2019. Top photograph by Trevor Moran, bottom by Grant Ellis. 

“I felt he had the desire, a big dream, and a look and attitude [crossed] between Guga and Senna,” Villares says of first meeting Medina. “I had a feeling that he was going to be an idol.”

Still, none of that backing or hype would matter unless the young Brazilian made good on what all those outside interests were expecting. And, last but certainly not least, two looming shadows were also in contention for the title, chasing just behind: Mick Fanning, already a winner of three of his own, and Kelly Slater, with 11 in his bag.

So, again, how did a kid from Maresias, a small beach town on the north coast of the state of São Paulo, manage to keep his composure with the weight of a nation hanging over his shoulders as he went up against two of the most talented, savviest, ruthless surfers ever to slip into a singlet?

“It’s natural to me,” Medina says. “Competition is the environment I like. It’s what makes sense. [I’ve] made the effort, trained, traveled, and when I arrive at that moment, I want to make it all worthwhile and be rewarded for everything I’ve done. Because I gave up a normal life. I stopped living like a normal child. Competition is the place that gives me tranquility, and it’s where I can express myself. It’s my therapy. I was made like this. I freesurf, but it’s not what I like the most. I do my best when everyone thinks that I’ve already lost. I think that’s what feeds me.”

“Gabriel was never one of many words,” said Medina’s mother, Simone, in a 2020 eponymous documentary on the surfer’s life. “Not even when he was little. When he was little, I looked at him and he spoke with his eyes, but he wouldn’t open his mouth, and I was apprehensive. I used to think, ‘When will I be able to get something out of this boy? I need to know what’s going on in his mind. I need to know what he’s feeling.’”

Medina’s voice, or lack thereof, verbally and in disposition would ultimately come to be one of the major markers of his persona as a professional surfer. An unlikely characteristic, especially considering surfing’s rich history of outspoken, or at least odd, personalities. But for Medina, surfing itself was an equally unlikely path. 

Claudio de Jesus Ferreira, Medina’s biological father, had other dreams for his son. As an aspiring professional soccer player, he wanted Medina and his brother, Felipe, to follow in his footsteps, and the two could be seen just about every afternoon at the local pitch. 

That was until, at 8 years old, Medina’s best friend, Cauê Ferreira, took him surfing for the first time. Medina liked it so much that he went back the next day. And every day after that. When he was 9, his mother remarried, to Charlão, who owned a surf shop. He was then fully hooked and well into the local surf scene. Though somewhat of a latecomer, he took to it quickly. 

Medina’s accomplishments as a junior reads like a CV of most world-tour stalwarts. Lapping the field in regional contests. National championship titles in every age division. WQS wins in Brazil as a teenager against seasoned pros.

His true breakout moment, however, came in France in 2009, in Quiksilver’s King of the Groms contest, held in conjunction with the WCT event. In the final, at a small beachbreak, the then-15-year-old didn’t just win. He obliterated the competition, with consecutive scores of 9.7, 10, and 10, through combinations of progressive maneuvers that probably had many of the main event’s contestants slightly shaking in the sand.  

By 2011, at just 17, Medina was already on tour, thanks to making quick work of the qualifying events and the WSL’s decision, for that year only, to rotate the top qualifiers onto the WCT at the mid-year mark. Medina backed up his graduation to the big show by winning two of the six remaining contests, in France and San Francisco. 

Photograph by Munir El Hage.

“Things were happening so fast,” Medina says. “I never imagined that I would beat, like, Kelly, Mick, and Taj. There was a contest that I won [by] beating Taj, Mick, and Parko on the Gold Coast, on the wave where I always watched them in surf movies. To be honest, I went into those heats thinking, ‘I’ll do my best, but these guys are the favorites.’ They were much superior surfers. It was difficult, but I recovered and won. Things just went right for me.”

As his surfing progressed at a meteoric pace and his profile grew both at home and abroad throughout this period, so, too, did Medina’s refusal to give anyone the time.

Apparently, Charlão believed so much in the supernatural capacities of his stepson that he didn’t see a need for Medina to do any talking at all. His surfing would do that for him in a way words couldn’t. They’d made a pact when Medina was only 11 and first expressed to Charlão his dream to be a world champion. Charlão told him that when his thoughts or opinions or conversation were sought about anything, to never agree or disagree, no matter what. Instead, he was to instruct whomever it was to talk to Charlão. No exceptions. They also put a similar rule in place during contests, and so Medina would invariably appear before every heat with his headphones on his ears and a scowl on his face. 

“I don’t want Gabriel talking to nobody before getting in the water,” Charlão said in a 2012 interview. “An adversary coming over to compliment and wish good luck doesn’t help at all. So our agreement is for Gabriel to turn his back on whoever tries to make contact with him.”  

The ends seemed to justify the means. But it didn’t make Medina many friends. He didn’t show much of a connection with the other surfers on tour, even amongst its young crop of Brazilians—Miguel Pupo, Filipe Toledo, Caio Ibelli, Italo Ferreira—and instead spent his free time with mainstream athletes and celebrities. He put nonendemic sponsor stickers on his board. He was seen as a small-wave surfer who would fail at the tour’s heavier stops. There were hassles in the water with locals outside the events. He claimed his waves, shamelessly. Aggressive tactics in heats. He showed frustration when he lost, famously crying on the beach after finishing second to Julian Wilson at the 2012 Rip Curl Pro Portugal. He didn’t release freesurf clips, like surf-world darlings John John Florence and Dane Reynolds.

There were reasons, of course. But, at the time, approval wasn’t the goal.

“It’s not worth the risk,” Medina says today on the topic of putting out films. “Where my life really happens is in competition. I’ve had to save my body over the years; I know I’ll last longer the way I surf and the way I take care of my body. And I know the aerials that hurt and the ones that don’t. No matter how high, there is a right way to land. I don’t want to risk everything. I know what’s most important.”

And on the idea that he couldn’t surf heavy waves? 

“[Look at] Tahiti, the final I had with Kelly at Teahupo‘o [in 2014]. During the contest, the swell was gigantic. Those were waves I’d never surfed in my life, both in size and over a shallow coral reef. I was experiencing it [for the first time] during the competition. I was scared, but the desire to win, to perform, surpasses all that. Another moment was at Backdoor, where I became world champion for the first time. It’s a very difficult wave to surf backside. Not just anyone can get a 10 there, and I’ve been blessed with two 10s at Backdoor over the years.”

There were many other motivations for the things that made Medina the way he was. But taken together, and with not a peep at the time from him or his camp to explain, criticism came swiftly and heavily. 

“An Inconvenient Hero: Gabriel Medina wins heats, wins events, and will likely win a world title one day. But will the young Brazilian ever win us over?” Such was the title and introduction to an article written by Todd Prodanovich in the 2012 Surfer magazine Hot 100 issue. Medina placed second on the list appointing the best under-21 surfers on the planet, just below Florence. In the story, Prodanovich praises Medina’s incredible talent, but makes clear his frustration in not getting anything meaningful out of him during the time they spent together under Charlão’s vigilant eyes.

While Medina had quickly become one of the best surfers in the world, he didn’t seem to care to be a part of larger surf culture. He didn’t follow the unspoken rules. As such, Medina was cast as professional surfing’s villain, a role he appeared to embrace.

The stages of Medina’s competitive operations, to which a decade-plus of results speaks for itself. (From top to bottom) Pre-heat blinders, Portugal, 2019. Vocational dissection, Tahiti, 2016. Post-victory screaming for both a world title and Pipe Masters win, 2018. Photographs by (top) Ed Sloane, (middle) Trevor Moran, (bottom) Ryan Miller.

It was a rather harsh approach, his guardedness, with considerable implicit risk. Surfing, especially professional surfing, has its internal politics. Burning bridges will guarantee that the “enemy” can’t get to you, but at the same time will make it much more challenging to call for help should you need it. 

For Medina, none of it seemed to matter. He was winning. It went all the way back to that pact made with Charlão, when world titles were just a dream. It went all the way back, even, to the little kid who spoke to his mother with his eyes. Separated and thus free from the outside noise, he was centered wholly on his goal: dominance.

When asked to explain Medina’s mindset—his capacity for such deep and undistracted focus—his biographer, Tulio Brandão, has a theory: Medina’s success has been, up until very recently, directly connected to his detachment. 

“It’s about what’s not spoken,” Brandão says. “He’s managed to build a fortress around himself, which is pretty much inexpugnable. He won’t allow you to enter his space. Very few people are [allowed in]. Inside his fortress, he feels safe. It’s a silent place where nothing gets in. There’s no pressure at all. And that explains, to an extent, his ability to perform under enormous expectations. He manages to establish distance, and he enters a particular universe and stays in there with absurd focus and concentration. That makes it possible for him to deliver, even under the tremendous pressure to win world titles against everything and everybody. And I think it’s common with great athletes, this capacity to enter and stay inside a cocoon in order to feel safe and focused at the same time.”

Brandão also has reasoning for how that “fortress” got so solid: 

“He was like that naturally. It’s part of his interior structure. But Charles’ school of thinking very much reinforced that. He did an outstanding job cementing that fortress. He deserves a lot of credit for that aspect. He gave Medina discipline, focus, method. He has experience in triathlons, so he has this stubbornness, determination, and discipline that’s very common to triathletes. He brought that to surfing, and the pair kind of amalgamated in a bubble and went together. 

“That scene during the [2011] Quiksilver Pro in France, when Charles blocked Slater physically so he couldn’t get to Gabriel and apply mind games, is very symbolic and explains a lot. It shows that Gabriel and Charles had the same understanding of how important it was to shut down Slater’s strategy. It’s helped him win [against] so many surfers.”

Into his early twenties, Medina stuck to this program. He captured a second world title in 2018, won more individual events than anyone else through the period, and continued to maintain his position as one of the world’s very best on a surfboard. He also became surfing’s most famous figure globally. It was all working exactly as planned.

The scrutiny, however, intensified. Shaving his armpits in a Gillette advertisement and riding a Samsung surfboard (complete with a cellphone inset into the deck and live coaching texts from Charlão) in a TV commercial led to wide online mocking. His close relationship with Neymar, in opposition to his seemingly nonexistent one with his fellow surfers, led to a similar reactions.

There was also his in-heat behavior. In one infamous episode, Medina used his priority to drop in on Slater, guaranteeing victory in a Round Five heat of the 2017 Pipe Masters. It was technically within regulation. But public perception pays no mind to pages in the rulebook. It didn’t help that Charlão spoke out publicly against the tour, claiming there was a conspiracy to undermine Medina through lousy judging. There was even disapproval coming from among his Brazilian supporters. Medina stuck to his system anyway.

“It doesn’t affect me, the criticisms,” he says. “The tactics I used in competition, I always did what was in the rulebook. There are even a lot of new rules that have been created in these years that I encouraged the WSL to do, because of things I was doing within the rules. These are things that Kelly Slater did, and that’s why he was the best in the world. Sometimes you create enemies, of course, because we live in a world of competition and the sport is very individual. I’m there to win. So if it’s within the rules, it’s within the rules. So, at a certain point, I said, ‘I’ll ignore it.’ Today, I don’t see [the same] comments.”

As 2019 came to a close, Medina was once again vying for another title, coming into the final event at Pipe leading the ratings but with Ferreira just behind in points. Whoever advanced farthest would be crowned champ. 

Medina marched through the opening rounds, as expected. Then came his Round of 16 heat, against his old friend Ibelli, to whom

While changes to his private and professional life may have brought on a more personable Medina, it’s his surfing that still talks loudest. And in terms of technique and ability, “athlete” label be damned, he’s in the “best ever” conversation. Photographs by (top) Corey Wilson, (bottom) Ricardo Sant’Anna

Medina had been on the losing end of a priority call in the previous event in Portugal. The heat proved slow, and as time ticked down, Medina found himself in the lead. With 50 seconds left, Ibelli, who had priority, spun and went on a wave that looked to have just enough scoring potential to put himself in front. As he dropped in, so did Medina from the shoulder. Purposefully. The crowd gasped. The commentators were baffled. Medina had given himself an intentional interference.

“This might be one of the cleverest tactical maneuvers we’ve ever seen in the history of the sport,” said Barton Lynch from the booth. “While we feel it was an absolute disaster or brain snap, it might consolidate his win.”

Barton, no strategic slouch himself, was absolutely right. It was all part of the plan. Charlão had been aware of the math, and the rules. As the wave had come in and Ibelli geared up to go Charlão had yelled at his stepson from the beach, “Burn him! You can burn him!”

“I’d never heard that before,” said Ibelli after the heat. “He actually went on the wave and burned me. It shows what kind of competitor he is. He plays hard, he plays dirty, and does anything to win. That’s the mindset of a champion.”

“I just played the game,” Medina explained later. “I wasn’t sure [if Ibelli would have gotten the score]. That is why I went. Sometimes if it’s in the rules, you got to play the game.”

Despite public outcry for disqualification, the WSL ruled that Medina’s controversial tactic was “intentional,” but “not deemed unsportsmanlike.” He was allowed to continue. 

And he did, all the way through to a winner-takes-all final against Ferreira. Surely all the sacrifice would pay off, just as it had at the very same spot five years prior.

Only it didn’t. 

In what would prove to be an electrifying 35 minutes of competitive surfing, Medina came second to Ferreira in both the event and the final rankings. The sacrifice had been for naught.

Even if he had won, it might not have been enough to justify his spiraling reputation, exponentiated by the drop-in on Ibelli. The topic stayed hot in the forums, lineups, and parking lots for weeks. The verdict? Condemnation. 

As the calendar flipped to 2020, Medina’s public-approval rating hit an all-time low. Changes came. Some were immediate and by secondhand intervention. Others came over time and by natural maturity. 

At the beginning of the year, the Ibelli drop-in fresh on the surf world’s hive mind, sources indicated that Rip Curl stepped in and orchestrated an interview at Stab, an online surf magazine that had for many years been at the forefront of Medina criticism. Medina was joined in the conversation by Fanning and Stab publisher Sam McIntosh. The PR move was smartly titled, “What If Gabriel Medina Was Secretly A Good Guy?” The video’s caption was equally enticing, and put a stamp on the the Brazilian’s position in surfing.

“2x World Champion Gabriel Medina is both the most loved (see: Brazil) and most hated (see: the rest of the surfing nations) surfer on earth. He’s polarizing. Provocative. A competitive savant that sometimes takes it too far, resulting in condescension and scorn from surfing’s more ‘cultured’ (read: privileged) corners. But Gabriel’s got a dark secret. Beneath his cold, metallic exterior exists a soft, spongy core. One with filled generosity, compassion, and real human emotions! According to Mick Fanning, Gab is both the best competitor he’s ever surfed against and one of the most genuinely fantastic humans he’s had the pleasure of meeting. Click above to find out both why and how you’ve been wrong about Medina for years. We certainly were.”

Photograph by Corey Wilson.

Upon its release, in early 2020, the reaction proved outstanding if judged by the favorable comments registered in Stab’s typically acidic forum. 

The Brazilian then went quiet again for most of the tour’s lost year, before reemerging to place second to Florence at the 2020 Pipe Masters, which actually served as the first stop of the 2021 season.

It’s there that the more-wholesale changes to Medina’s long-standing program came to light. While in Hawaii, he privately married Yasmin Brunet, a decision that would have a large impact on his inner circle.

By the time the Australian leg of the tour came around, in March, Charlão, who had literally and figuratively stood by Medina’s side through the entirety of his career, was nowhere to be seen. 

“It’s going to be a different year for me,” Medina said in an interview with Brandão. “It’s the first time I go without Charlão. He prepared me so that one day I would become independent. Now he will have the same job [as coach] taking care of [Medina’s sister] Sophia. I’m super happy and excited for this new phase in my life.”

Though Medina’s attitude has softened, he remains a “by any means necessary” heat draw. 

The results of these adjustments? More than fine. At time of writing, through six events of nine, Medina has made five finals, winning two. It is as historically successful a start as the tour has ever seen, one that’s already guaranteed him a spot in the one-day WSL finals to decide the 2021 world champ. And he’s doing it at a level of performance that’s visibly ahead of the rest of the field.

His personality, too, seems to have undergone a shift. He appears lighter, more sincere with his fellow competitors, more open with the media, and more willing to lend his opinions on surfing and his place within it.

He speaks candidly about his present rivals and those he’s chasing in a larger race, revealing a more personal connection with them than he’d ever let on: “John John is one of the guys that inspire me. He’s the only guy I get in a heat and I don’t know what will happen. He’s the guy who can put me in a bad situation. I can have a 10 and a 9, but I know he’s dangerous and can turn it around at any time. It’s nice to have someone like that in our sport. During the events, I like to go surfing with him because he’s a guy who pushes the level. And he says the same thing about me. We try to surf together, we meet, we talk about life.

“It was really cool to be praised by Kelly. When he talks about me, I’m very proud. He’s the best of all time; he’s the incomparable one. I don’t think anyone will get close. I think when he sees my results, he says, ‘Man, when I got on tour, I did that.’ So he’s a guy who sees a bit of himself in me, it seems. Sometimes he loves you, and sometimes he’s jealous. It’s a very crazy mix, but, in the end, it’s nice to have his respect and admiration.”

Medina is even critical of the very organization upon which he’s made a career.

“I liked the way it was, running points,” he says of the tour’s new format. “The best always won. We surf lefts, rights, fat waves, tubular ones. I think it was a way to be fair. The way they are doing it this year, they’re experimenting. It just doesn’t make sense to have all these [other] events. There are ten events, we travel all year, and then Trestles isn’t the best wave in the world. It would be like Lewis Hamilton winning eight or nine out of the ten races, and then he would go to a racetrack with the five pilots who will fight for the world title. On a racetrack, anything could happen. He could get a flat tire. But he won nine races. It doesn’t make sense.”

That analogy, though, is telling. Medina will probably never be fully accepted by surfing’s core. Respected for his talents, sure, but he considers riding waves a sport, and himself an athlete. Senna remains his biggest idol. And he’s excited for surfing’s inclusion in the Olympics: “Surfing has made it onto the biggest sporting stage on the planet. I think it’s going to be cool. I grew up watching Brazil, rooting for our athletes. [Now] I’m going to be one of those guys.” Though Medina’s attitude has softened, especially on the grinds of the tour and with his peers, he remains a “by any means necessary” heat draw.

“You always have to have a little strategy,” he says. “Because I know everyone there, I know that you have to use it against some of them. There are some who you can let loose and focus on only surfing. But to say that there are zero strategies is a lie, because it would be a mess. I said that I wouldn’t use strategies anymore just to get the guys confused. They keep waiting for one thing, and another happens.” 

Photograph by Corey Wilson.

Still, the guard has in many ways come down. The kid who wouldn’t speak to anybody—who wouldn’t break even a fraction of his concentrated efforts to achieve what he wanted for himself, for big-money backers, for a country—has seemingly found his voice. And, with it, he might have caught a glimpse at a road much different than the one he’s quietly trampled down since he was 9 years old, even if there are still a few of the old goals hanging on. 

“My goal is to be a three-time world champion,” he says. “Then sit down, breathe, and decide what I want. My biggest dream in life is to have my son, to have my family. I don’t intend to be like Kelly and spend years on tour. I want to have a normal life, because I’ve dedicated my whole life to surfing. There comes a time for you to go to the next chapter and live something different.”

By the time you read this, Medina might have another world title. He might have a gold medal. He might not have either. But now he wants something beyond the scores and the trophies and the records. And he’s keeping that quiet.