My day wrestling down fear, with a little help from some celebrity friends

Gabriel Medina with the surf crew at São Conrado

Gabriel Medina with the surf crew at São Conrado

Perhaps the only thing worse for me than no waves, are waves that are too big for me to surf, because I just want so bad to be able to catch them, and sometimes – though I may ill-advisedly try – I just can’t.

This is what’s been happening for the last couple days.  Two evenings ago, I got washed out on my evening surf at 2 different beaches.  The white water was too churny, and once I finally got through, the waves were too scarey to try.  Yesterday I tried again, once in the morning – big scarey closed out waves, terribly churny ocean, one or two courageous attempts ending in the washing machine – and again in the evening – supposedly easier break, but a failed paddle out through 200 meters of stormy surf.   This is confidence dimming stuff

I really needed to catch a wave today.

I woke up early, the surf report declared decent conditions – tubes even, on the local beach.   And it was sunny too!  Somehow I have reached Rio during the summer monsoon, and this was literally the ONLY day of my stay that did not start out rainy and cloudy.  The sun had never looked so good to me, and when I got down to the sea, it was sparkling blue.  This is actually a big deal for Rocinha, since the beach also receives all the sewage from the favela, which washes into it during the storms.  This being the first day without rain also meant that it was the first day of a blue (not gray) ocean that did not smell like sewage!

My friend Bocão,  a surf pioneer whose Rocinha surf school is a community institution, joined me to enjoy the prime conditions.  Only one problem.  The waves are still huge.  I am still nervous.  It’s all the best surfers out in the water today.  The 11 to 13 year old set who are my usual surf buddies are sitting out and admiring the show.  I have not fared well in the washing machine-conditions in the white water the past few days and I am not looking forward to the paddle out in front of the crowd of onlookers.  As Bocão runs in without a care, I stretch (i.e. stall) and suss out the best way to get through the breakers and avoid getting in the way of the many good surfers catching super fast long lefts across the water.  One of the local regulars sees me – a jolly locuatious fellow, who like many surfers here seems to live only for the waves  – and asks if I intend to go out.  Yes, I say, with a look of fear, but I am a little worried that the waves are  big for me.  He assures me that I’ll be fine, and pats me on the back happily, clearly pleased that I am heading out.  “You can set an example for all the girls,” he says.

OK. I think.  This is good.  Now I’ve got something to aim for.  I am dreading my time in the

Side by side with the champion!

Side by side with the champion!

spin cycle, but I have to get out there just to show the girls.  There are no female surfers out there today, and I’ve actually never seen any other women surfers at the beach besides a couple young girls who are learning how to stand on longboards at the surf school.  If I am gonna be any sort of role model to them, I’ve got to try like hell today.

So I head back.  I am duck diving, and making it through, but the surf is still a bit stormy, with a lot of waves refracting off the nearby rocks and causing lots of churning and really close intervals on the waves and pretty soon I am just getting pounded and gasping for air.   But I think of the girls, and persist and make it out to the break.  And of course it looks 3 times bigger than it did from shore, and no different than the scarey waves that have flummoxed me the last few days.  What was I thinking??  Somehow the sunshine made it seem more inviting than the past few days (where the fast breaking/plunging half closed out, half tube waves were accompanied by cold winds, ominous skies, and downpours. )  But it’s the same stuff, just in the sun, and I am scared.

Bocão keeps calling me over to where he is.  I don’t want to be there, because when the 8 foot sets come through I will get pounded, and I am mad at myself for being scared of 8 foot sets right now, but for some reason I am.  And this is the weird thing about fear.  Sometimes you are scared of things that weren’t scarey before.  In my mind I have never been in surf this big, but then again, I think of other days where I was in surf almost this big, and doing really well.  And while this makes me feel frustrated, it doesn’t make me less afraid.

Bocão is catching a zillion waves, and I feel like I am no less scared and only more frustrated.  Every now and then Bocão will say, this one, this one Mira.  And I look up and see an enormous collasal peak coming towards me, and instead of turning to paddle into it like a good brave fearless surfer, I make like a scaredy cat and hussle over it before it breaks.  Then Bocão tells me the waves are not that big, which makes me feel even worse.  This is getting me nowhere.

But here’s the thing, if you bob around like a bouey long enough – and I bobbed around for a very long time­–  eventually boredom sets in.  And boredom, amazingly, can trump fear.  You start to be willing to take risks just to break the monotony of sitting on your board.  So finally – after Bocão has already gone in — I try going for it a couple times – I paddle hard and pull out of a couple closeouts, and finally make 2 solid attempts on good fast breaking waves, which end in 2 solid wipe outs.  I am working hard though, and making the most out of my time, but inevitably I end up on the inside of a big set, and get washed through the tumbler onto the beach.  I am out of breath, and frustrated, and tired, so I stumble out of the water panting, and rest on shore – trying to just be satisfied with trying, but I am watching all these guys on the water catching these waves like its nothing, and doing crazy spins off the lip,  and I feel like and idiot.

The frustrating thing is that right now, it’s not really my goal as a surfer to be catching ever larger waves, but rather to be working on turning and trimming ON the wave.  I decide to take it easy on myself and head to another beach where the waves should be very small (according to the report) and I can just get some wave time under my belt and raise my confidence.  I start packing up my board getting ready to catch the bus, thinking I probably shouldn’t have even come to this beach at all today in the first place.    But then something happens which proves me wrong.

Gabriel Medina mingles with his admirers

Gabriel Medina mingles with his admirers

On the beach a crowd is gathering.  I can’t really see what’s going on, but Bocao catches my eye and calls me over.  And Oh. My. God.  Who should be at the center of the crowd but Gabriel Medina – who is, only, the 2nd ranked surfer IN THE WORLD!  This is the young phenom who recently out-ranked Kelly Slater (probably the greatest surfer who ever lived), and took the world by storm when he was just 17 in the world tour.  – He’s been surfing in the water this whole time (I wonder if everyone else knew but me) and has just gotten out, and there are about 20 giggling kids and another 20 giggling adult men gathered round him shaking his hand and taking pictures.   He is a super good sport and gives lots of attention to everyone (he even gives his board strap to one of my young friends from the surf school).  He takes a group shot with the entire surfing population of Rocinha who shout “Medina” instead of “cheese”, and I get a chance to tell him that I was there in San Francisco when he won that section of the World Tour in November 2011.  Wow!!!  Gabriel Medina.

It turns out he’s been there with his whole crew of surfing buddies who are now getting out of the water to join him as he prepares to go.  There are a lot of them!!.  So now I realize that half the guys who were in the water this whole time were Gabriel Medina’s super high level surfing friends, and one of them was the number 2 surfer in the world!  And suddenly I am a little less hard on myself for not being a better surfer today.

But I still have to catch some waves!  I NEED to catch some waves. So I eat a hamburger and take the bus down to another beach, that I’ve heard has a protected break and gentle waves that I hope will be good for practicing my turns.  When I get there, I realize that I may have overcompensated – the waves here are infrequent, closed out, and teeny, and the water is crowded, shoulder to shoulder, with the veritable army of small children on body boards.  I spend an hour fighting 8 year olds for 1 foot waves,, and finally throw in the towel on my intended surfing goals.   Instead I channel my inner Buddha, and sip a fresh  coconut while enjoying the vibe of a crowded Brazilian beach with 1000 child body-boarders.  But when I leave, I am still feeling that deep-seeded need to catch waves with an accompanying frustration that I haven’t been able to catch any good ones for several days.

I think I may have failed at some aspect of self-care/hydration, because by the time I get back to Rocinha, I am tired, dehydrated, and a bit nauseous.  I eat a big meal which only seems to wipe me out more and stumble back to my house for a long nap.  I wake up at 5:20pm, and the sun is still shining beautifully – still no rain!  I am still feeling frustrated that on this day of perfect sun and good surf conditions, I have not caught a single wave worth mentioning.  I decide that I must try one more time.  With my nausea only half gone – I head slowly down to the beach one last time.  Am I nuts? What am I actually trying to accomplish here?  I ask myself as I walk down the long shady boulevard that connects the favela to the beach.    I am not sure, but I think it has something to do with beating my fear. I pass a huge group of kids heading back from the beach to the neighborhood.  I think they are part of an afterschool program as they are being led by an older guy who seems to be a teacher, and in the back of the long file is another young woman who seems to be some sort of supervisor.  As I walk past them, I look at the little girls, and also think that maybe it has something to do with the thing that guy said to me this morning, that I can be an example to the girls.  I really want to be able to show them that a girl can surf these waves too.  As I reach the end of the line of kids, the young woman who is supervising them looks at my surfboard, gives me big smile of encouragement, and a thumbs up.  Yup.  That was all I needed.  No need to question myself, I am doing the right thing.

So I get to the beach, and the waves are a little smaller than the morning as I had hoped but still have some force.  There’s something out there I can catch.  I know it.   So I paddle out through the breakers – it still sucks, but I panic less and trust myself more this time even though I am way more tired.  The water is stormier and less predictable due to the later afternoon wind.  The local shredders have found a place where they can take some big late forming lefts coming in. Those lefts out there are pretty big, but there are some other peaks that show up a little more inside that I think I can do.  There’s a couple guys gathering around them and I am having a hard time getting into the right spot to get preference on these waves.  But finally, after quite a while trying, I get my chance, I see it coming, it’s breaking fast and breaking to the right, but I am ready, and I paddle like hell, stand up quick, and get a nice hefty drop down the shoulder, and manage to steer onto another swell that’s intersecting my wave to keep on my ride.

Not the best wave of my life, but it was a plenty good one, and oooooooh how sweet it felt.  I paddled in after that.  The sun was going down, and I was still dehydrated, and I realized that one wave was all I needed, just one good wave, just to know I could do it.  Just to know that I could stick with something till I got it.  And yeah, to set an example for the girls.  There were still a lot of them on the beach, and I hope some of them were watching.

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