Brazil’s 40-year rise to global surfing dominance

Under the brilliant Brazilian sun, as he rode the perfect peeling wave, professional surfer Filipe Toledo thumped his chest and screamed for the beach. The 27-year-old Toledo native, who grew up about 250 miles west of this stretch of sand, just won his second World Surf League Championship Tour event of the year. The win in Saquarema, Brazil cemented his place as the top-ranked male surfer in the world and moved him one big step closer to winning the men’s world championship.

Thousands of fans roared on the shore. Once again, Brazilians were celebrating the success of a Brazilian surfer and they were under the spell of collective triumph.

Even 10 years ago, the Brazilian’s victory in the list of the best surfers in the world would have been an anomaly. For decades, Brazilians have been the underdogs of the surfing world, with few stars. But starting in the 1990s, a combination of economic policies, a rich talent pool, a system of regional competitions and two men who created a long-term plan to produce the country’s first world champion changed the trajectory.

Toledo first announced his intention to become a professional surfer when he was 6 years old. He dreamed not only of playing on the elite tour, but also of being with famous world champions such as American Kelly Slater, 11-time world champion, and Australia’s Mick Fanning, three-time champion. Toledo – known for its ability to take off on the lips of waves, spin and seem to land with ease – had such great ambition. The idea that a Brazilian could not only qualify for the Tour, but actually win the Tour – beating the Californians, Australians and Hawaiians who had dominated for decades – was far-fetched.

Yes, the young surfer was talented. Like his peers, he started competing in regional competitions, helping the current generation hone their skills and push each other to new heights. He also benefited from the coaching and mentoring of his father, Ricardo, a former national surfing champion. And he was winning, a lot. But the distance between beating other top players on home turf and consistently beating the Slaters and Fannings of the world had yet to be crossed.

Professional Brazilian surfers simply “didn’t have as much information or support,” said Filipe Toledo. “They were like, ‘What do I do now?’ Should I just practice, or should I take the money I win from this event and spend it on throwing a huge party or putting it on trips?'”

In December 2014, the unthinkable happened: Gabriel Medina from the Maresias district of San Sebastião, at the age of 20, became the first Brazilian to win a world title on a professional tour. He did so on the final day of the Pipe Masters event. Oahu’s North Shore erupted: hundreds flocked to welcome Medina to the podium; Others performed the Brazilian national anthem; Others flew national flags.

For Toledo and his peers, Medina’s win was the beginning of a sea change in professional surfing. After decades of languishing on the fringes of the sport’s upper echelon, Brazil has transformed from a long shot into a global behemoth. The Brazilians won the World Championship Tour title in 2015, 2018, 2019 and 2021. Last summer, Brazil’s Italo Ferreira won the first Olympic gold medal in men’s shortboard competition. And at the end of June in Saquarema, the semi-finals were held with only Brazilians.

This generation is so dominant, so undeniable, that it has earned a nickname: Tempestade Brasileira, which is Portuguese for Brazilian storm.

However, this weather system of success was accidental. It was the result of a confluence of factors: political transformation, economic policy and a decades-long plan to produce not just the first Brazilian world champion on this tour, but a reservoir of talent to back him up. The plan worked.

Surfing has long been part of the country’s culture. In 1976, the year the modern surfing tour began, Brazil got its first taste of wave-riding glory when Pepe Lopez won the championship’s first event, in Rio de Janeiro.

However, Brazil was still under a dictatorship. A combination of closed economies, high travel costs and protectionist policies has deterred foreign investment and potential surfers. Resources were also scarce. Like athletes in other sports, professional surfers need trainers, coaches and equipment. But unlike other sports, surfing’s playing field is constantly changing. To be competitive on the world tour, professional surfers need experience in a variety of waves around the world—especially the hard, barreling ones that break in far-flung places like Hawaii, Fiji, Tahiti, and Indonesia.

This obstacle not only contributed to the skill disparity among Brazilian surfers, but also to a collective inferiority complex.

Carlos Burle, a Brazilian big wave surfer who grew up competing in his home breaks, said the best Brazilian surfers just needed enough money to ride the world’s best waves to have a chance of being competitive.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s that a few men broke through and gave Brazilian surfing a new sense of confidence. Fábio Gouveia, Flávio Padaratz and later Flávio’s brother Neco and Victor Ribas were the standouts who not only completed the elite tour but also competed against their unexpected counterparts.

Still, Gouvea, Padara, and the legion of surfers they inspired were up against a fast-moving wave of political upheaval and economic turmoil. In 1985, Brazil’s 20-year dictatorship ended, ushering in all the promise of a young democracy. Instead, the country fell into the grip of depressing inflation. For surfers like Gouveia, winning contests was more about financial survival than professional achievement, much less a world title.

In the early 1990s, everything changed. Brazil’s president from 1990 to 1992, Fernando Collor de Mello, encouraged a group of academics to create stabilization policies, and by the time Toledo was born in 1995, Brazil had a thriving middle class. In the early 2000s, as Toledo and the future Tempestade surfed their first competitions, including a strong amateur circuit, the costs of merchandise and travel (say, new surfboards or tickets to Hawaii) were increasing.

Those conditions were part of what allowed surfers like Burley to ride big wave surfing, a distinctive discipline of the sport that also requires a lot of travel. In 2009, he won his first big wave world title, breaking the formula for Brazilians. It would be a prelude to what came next.

Brazil’s newly fertile economic conditions began to attract foreign investment and business, including a booming surfing industry. Quan Petersen, then the marketing director of Oakley, was part of this wave. In Brazil, he said, “everyone is surfing,” adding, “We could be in the middle of a surf break and there would be 50 people.” Petersen teamed up with Luis Campo, a sports agent and Oakley marketing manager who became the godfather of modern Brazilian surfing.

Based on the way companies produced American and Australian surfers, Campos and Petersen created a system to develop and nurture Brazilian surfing talent. They didn’t just want to develop surfers who could compete on the world stage. They planned to bring the first Brazilian world champion to the championship tour. By the early 2000s, their program, called Mar Azul, or Blue Sea in Portuguese, was launched. They recruited young surfers and provided them with physical trainers, coaches, a psychologist, a doctor, English lessons and media training.

Mar Azul’s roster now reads like a roster of top surfers: Adriano de Souza (world champion in 2015); Ferreira (world champion in 2019 and Tokyo gold medalist); Toledo Plus surfers like Caio Ibel, Miguel Pupo and Judson Andre who are on the World Championship Tour. (Toledo trained with his father and Medina with his stepfather, but competed regularly for and against the Mar Azul crew.)

The nation’s competitive aspirations have completely changed. Brazilian surfers are expected to take the lead, and up-and-coming Brazilians are expected to join the tour. Both of these expectations were justified. And unlike Tempestade’s early days, the expectations of future surfers are already sky high.

“We now understand the formula,” said Toledo, who finished the 2021 season in second place behind compatriot Medina, who won his third World Cup.

That formula — an alchemy of economics, opportunity, work ethic and expectations — has been the driving force not only for Toledo’s professional success thus far, but for what he believes is still possible. Given his remaining season, he only has two goals.

Enjoy the process, he said. “And won the world title.”

After competing in June’s Oi Rio Pro, his once lofty goal sounds a lot less audacious. Instead, it’s more like a probability.

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