In His Own Words

Gabriel Medina discusses language barriers, living up to expectations, and learning to keep a level head on surfing's biggest stage

Outside of his home country of Brazil, Gabriel Medina has become a polarizing figure. With his incredible aerial prowess, he quickly established himself as one of the most exciting surfers to watch on the World Tour, winning an unprecedented two events during his rookie season. But he’s also proven himself a very emotional competitor, occasionally falling to pieces in the wake of his losses. When he lost a controversial final against Julian Wilson in Portugal, Medina took to the podium in tears, telling the Portuguese crowd that the judges had made a huge mistake.

We expect our athletes to swallow the bitter pill of defeat, put on a fake smile, and pop the ceremonial bottle of champagne in the name of sportsmanship. But we forget that Medina is only 20 years old and part of a minority of Portuguese-speaking competitors on a mostly English-speaking Tour. Rather than struggle to explain himself in a second language, Medina tends to keep the media at arm’s length, which only alienates him further from the English-speaking audience. With that in mind, we gave this year’s Hot 100 winner the freedom to discuss life on his own terms, in his native tongue. —Steven Allain

Is being on Tour different from what you imagined as a kid?

It is and it isn’t. I always dreamt about being a pro surfer like my idols — Kelly, Mick, Bruce and Andy. That was my dream, to compete against the best surfers in the best waves. But as a kid it all seemed so unattainable. It was this big dream, but deep down I never thought it could really happen. But my parents always believed I could do it and they helped me get through all the stages and take all the right steps. Then it all kinda happened suddenly. It wasn’t forced or anything. Things just happened really fast. Now that I’m here, it feels like a great responsibility. I feel I have a responsibility to my country and to all the people who helped me along the way.

When did you realize you reached the same level as the top guys?

When I won my first event on Tour. Up until that point I wasn’t sure how I’d measure up against those guys. When I won, I realized I might have the potential to really surf well against the best. I thought to myself that if I played it smart and caught the best waves, things could go my way. That was a huge confidence boost. And it carried me through my second win, in San Francisco. After that one, I thought, “Wow, I can really go head to head with the top guys.”

How did things change for you after winning those two events?

Well, it was a shock to have to deal with all the attention and the media. That was something I’d never experienced. It was so intense because no one had ever won two comps straight off the bat in that way. But it didn’t change me at all. It felt so natural, and just like in any other contest, the high of winning felt the same. It didn’t matter if I beat Kelly or whoever; it felt oddly the same as the victories I had as a grom.

What have you learned since then?

That competition is very complex. There are so many variables besides your surfing that have to be right. The waves have to come in your heat; you have to learn to be patient, to adapt your strategy to the conditions and to have your head in the right place. Sometimes you surf well and still don’t win. It happens to everyone. You learn that one big score doesn’t mean much if you don’t have a backup. I guess every rookie learns that as time goes by. I took some big lessons from my losses.

After you won those World Tour events, many put their money on you to be the first to bring the world title to Brazil. How did you deal with that?

Brazil is very “needy” of champions. It’s even more so with surfing, because we’ve never won the title. I mean, to have people believe you can be a world champion is awesome. It comes from a great place, and I feel it and I understand it. But when you don’t deliver, it can be difficult too. Last year, for example, my results were very inconsistent, and I was widely criticized for it. But that’s how Brazilians are. We all place great expectations on our athletes and idols. I’m like that too. So I understand it and therefore don’t pay too much attention to the harsh critics. Especially because I love what I do and I surf every single heat to win. A lot of times you lose, and that’s the nature of competition, but I always give it my best.

How do you keep criticism or praise from having too much of an effect on you?

Win or lose, I always like to get back to my friends and family. They keep me grounded. When I’m home with my friends, I’m always the same Gabriel. I’m no better or worse in their eyes because of my results. It’s good to be with your true friends. It always reminds me of where I’m from and who I am.

You travel to most events with your entire family, which is not the norm for most competitors. Does having them there help?

I’m almost never home, so I get really lonely traveling by myself. When they come along on these trips, I don’t feel lonely, and they get to spend time with me, too. It makes everyone happy. And my mom also cooks when we’re on the road, so it’s great to be able to eat Brazilian food wherever I go. It’s just fun to take my family, and sometimes friends, to events. I get to laugh with them, and I end up only really thinking about the contest when it’s time for my heat.

gabriel-1

What’s the best thing about being on the Tour?

Getting to surf some of the best waves in the world with just one other guy out. And when that guy is one of the best surfers in the world, it’s even better, because I’m really competitive. Even if it’s a friend, I want to beat him. When you beat the top guys in great waves, there’s nothing like it.

And the worst?

Don’t take this the wrong way, but we travel too much. I’m not complaining, and I wouldn’t want to do anything else, but if I had to point out one thing that does get old, it would be all the traveling. Believe me, we’re not on vacation when we’re at these events. The Tour’s a marathon and we work hard all year to get to the end and hopefully be happy with the results.

What’s your relationship with other young guys on Tour, like John Florence or Kolohe Andino?

It’s good. I talk to all of them, but I don’t really hang out with most guys on Tour. Not even with the Brazilians. I guess in Fiji we hang out more and get to know each other better because we’re all on an island together. But usually I only really see the other guys at contests.

What about Julian Wilson?

Well, we had that thing in Portugal, and a couple instances after that where we didn’t see eye to eye. But it’s all in the past. He came up to me in California and we talked about it. We’re cool now. I apologized to him for acting the way I did in Portugal. I was really upset and didn’t know how to react to that situation. He also apologized for whatever misunderstandings we had afterwards, and now we’re friends again. Julian’s a great guy.

Do you think that sometimes you’re misunderstood by the English-speaking public?

Definitely. I mean, I can speak a little English, but my vocabulary is limited. A lot of times you wanna say something, but just don’t know how. Unfortunately, when you’re speaking in your second language, sometimes whatever you’re trying to say comes out wrong or gets taken the wrong way. Even if you look things up in a dictionary, a lot of Portuguese words have very different meanings when you translate them into English.

Can you remember a specific instance where you were misunderstood?

To be honest, when I watch my interviews it seems like I’m watching someone else on the screen answering those questions. It just doesn’t sound like me. Those aren’t the sorts of answers I would give if I could respond in Portuguese and express myself fully. It’s so weird. That’s why sometimes I hold back a little if I have to speak in English. It can be very frustrating. But it’s also one of the challenges of being on Tour. It’s all about trying to understand and accept people’s differences.

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Who do you consider the best surfer in the world today?

Kelly, hands down. He’s a freak.

And who inspires you the most?

Dane Reynolds. He’s a little crazy [laughs], but he’s amazing. He’s at the forefront of performance surfing. Nobody can touch him when it comes to maneuvers. He always does stuff as radical as it can be done.

ZoSea is taking over the ASP this year. What would be good changes to the Tour, in your opinion?

There’s always room for improvement. From what I hear from the older guys, the prize money and judging have improved a lot in the last years. In all aspects, I believe the Tour has always evolved and improved, and I hope it continues that way. I’m pretty confident it’ll only get better.

Who are your biggest rivals on Tour?

Everyone, really. When I first made the Tour there were a couple of guys that I considered easier to beat. But today, everyone’s a threat. Anyone can win an event on their day, so you can’t underestimate any of them. Just look at last year: there were a bunch of different winners and the lead changed a lot of times. Of course there are those who have that little extra, like Kelly, Mick, John John, Julian, Parko, and Jordy. But there are so many good guys, you know? Michel Bourez is always a threat as well. I guess the guys who worry me the most when I get them in a heat are Kelly, John John, and Julian.

It seems like there’s an underlying rivalry between you and Adriano de Souza. The public seems divided as to who’s the No. 1 Brazilian on Tour.

For my part, and I believe it’s the same for him, there is no rivalry. Of course the fans and the media like to compare us and discuss who’s the best or whatever, but between us there’s none of that. He’s actually the guy on Tour I talk to most.

Who do you think will win SURFER’s Hot 100 this year?

John John, for sure. Even when I won two Tour events and a few Primes, they still gave it to him [laughs]. Now that I had my worst year, I know they won’t give it to me. And you can tell them I said that, too [laughs].

  • Parker

    I’ve always wished I could hear Gabriel actually speak his mind so I’m glad you guys gave him this opportunity. He’s definitely one of the most exciting guys to watch in the water and I bet there’s a lot more personality there than we get to seen since he’s still getting the hang of English.

  • ivan

    Nice job Gabriel. Just the fact that there are apologies show that you (and Julian) are maturing into better people. Keep entertaining us and good luck this year!!!

  • Sam

    another brazilian. another druggy idiot kid.

    • Nobru

      Hey Sam you are the idiot here shut the fuck up!

    • Duck

      It never takes much for the first kid to show up and post his usual crap. Sam, time to bad, school tomorrow morning, sonny.

    • Hate Sam

      Sam , you are such an idiot why dont you by the Clippers .

    • edu

      Oh! I can assure that you are not better than my two Brazilian little kids, San. What to do? If even in an advanced country like the U.S. there is room for thoughts and behavior like yours, why my always incompetent country can’t have. Keep your garbage with you, man. Don’t spread!

    • André Fraga

      and you are a jealous american!

  • Borat Sagiyev

    Unlike all other Brazilians on tour, past and present, Medina is the 1st Brazzo that has a great style to his surfing and is actually worth watching even outside of the contest scene. He doesnt have any of those subtle weird movements of the other Brazos, i.e. Neco Padaratz, Fabio Gouvia, etc. Those guys were contest machines, but you’d never try and imitate their styles…weird head snaps, claims, wide stances…go Medina. The fact that most Brazos come from dirt poor backgrounds is actually nice too, they are not spoiled kids living on the beach (e.g., coffin bros inc.) that had resources to offset talent and allow them to be pro surfers.

    • James B

      Yeah, right…. Fabio Gouveia´s surfing was always compared to Tom Curren, as Fabio has a great, great style. So, could you please try to hold your biased POV?

    • luca

      Gouveia? Are you fucking kidding me? The guy that Tom Curren himself admired for his style?

      Dude, shut the fuck up.

    • Jaco

      ‘they are not spoiled kids living on the beach (e.g., coffin bros inc.)’

      Spoilt or not, the coffin bros are up there thanks to their talent, douchebag.

      • Michael

        They are spoiled surf kids. Their parents bought then a beach front house near pipleline and surf coaches, trips all over the world, and hired photogs. They are NOT raw talent, but bought talent.

    • André Fraga

      never read so much nonsense in my life!

    • astoke

      I admit medina is a ridiculously good surfer but I’ve got absolutely no respect for him…he is the biggest kook in the lineup and I’ve personally seen him back paddle and burn more people then I can count out at pipe.

    • npamsterdam

      I think you are right when you say that the coffin bros inc. are a bit spoiled. everyone would want to live their lives; a house in hawaii, trips, everything. But that does not mean they do not have talent. Even if you surf all day every day, not everyone reaches their level of skills. Secondly: even if their talent would be ‘bought’, which is never the case, it is their skill level that matters most, and you can’t argue with the clips of them surfing rincon.

  • Mestre Los Cabos

    Good Luck Gabe! You don’t even sound like a rookie falando protugues ;)

  • http://media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lposz3cocr1qep8ay.gif gannysesh

    What if there was a portugese translator on the tour who translated the Brazilians’ post-heat interviews? I certainly wouldn’t mind it.

  • Tim

    Good interview, gave a different slice of Gabe. Well done

  • frothdog

    The brazilians, and even more so the saffas, have to overcome big odds and financial challenges just to get on the big stage. makes for humble and dedicated professionals, great interview, kids gonna be a world champ soon.

  • Tiago

    Congrats Gabriel! You are maturing as a person, as a surfer and as a competitor in a very interesting way. We can never forget how old you are and what most of us were doing at your age. Take it step by step, have fun, enjoy that great life that the world tour must be but also take the advantage of travelling and competing with different peolpe to understand yourself better and improve. Now that you are clearly a much better surfer, I only have two suggestions: when travelling, learn how to not feel lonely and learn how to cook… actually the latter might easily help you with the former.

  • Ricardo Bravo

    Parabéns Gabriel…!! We’re all very proud of you!

  • comment

    Really nice to hear him speak in his native tongue, I always feel like he cant quite express himself in post-heat interviews, nice job guys

  • tfellini

    Don’t want to be the party pooper, but I’ve seen Gabriel give interviews in our native language and this doesn’t sound like him at all, he’s a very shy kid and not as eloquent and articulate as this reads. Until I seeI a video of this interview, I’m gonna assume this was written by his PR team… I mean, he probably discussed these things with his PR team and they helped him put these answers together based on his opinions, on his thoughts, but I really doubt he actually typed these words. Doesn’t change the fact that he sounds like a great kid, a very shy kid, but humble and appreciative of all the things that have happened to him…

  • mb

    This “article” is a shocking piece and lacks journalistic integrity. The interview almost COMPLETELY avoided the main issue to do with Medina – his flagrant lack of sportsmanship, which is the reason he is the most disliked surfer on tour.

    Medina was allowed to completely sidestep “that thing in Portugal”. Further, after his deliberate fade into Bede Durbidge at Bells to try and get an interference (when he was already in front), we all want to hear his version of his conduct. The fact it is completely missing from this interview, and he was not taken to task over his continued lack of class generally, compels the conclusion this “article” is no more than a public relations exercise by his major sponsors. ATTENTION Rip Curl: I wont buy your stuff because of him.

    • therealdmt

      Good points, mb. It won’t affect my buying of Rip Curl products (I like their wetsuits well enough regardless of who they sponsor or don’t sponsor), but otherwise I basically agree with you.

      Medina is a child in many ways. Traveling with his parents, he is isolated from the other competitors in a way that is only additional to the language barrier. He doesn’t fully realize the consequences of acting like a baby or being a cutthroat competitor against a guy who you have to live with for a good chunk of the year, and in many cases, years and years. He’s in his own world and doesn’t have to deal with the consequences of his actions, and so is widely disliked (while simultaneously being widely admired for his truly incredible surfing — which only further allows him to get away with bad behavior).

      His parents are trying to do the right thing though, not letting their young son get caught up in bad scenes and offering him support on the road. In particular, I remember his mom making a point to congratulate Julian immediately after the win in Portugal — classy move. Hopefully his heart is in the right place, the language barriers fall, he figures out the balance between competition and comradely and he basically grows up.

      • mb

        We are on the same page therealdmt.

  • mango

    future world champ!

  • Hunter Thompson

    I’ve actually been incredibly impressed with his awareness in interviews and his answers, particularly when he was fresh on tour and is english was much more limited than it is now. I watch athletes from all sports completely miss the questions the interviewers ask and I’m talking about people who speak english as their first language. The quickness with which Medinas english improved speaks to his intelligence and work ethic. He will win the title one day.

  • André Fraga

    You Americans and Australians should learn Portuguese, because Brazil’s new generation is already wreaking havoc on the competition! #BrazilianStorm

  • match

    Well said mb and therealdmt. You are both spot on. Medina needs to grow up and learn some humility

  • arillo smith

    Medina’s style is ugly because of his stance. He sticks his but in the air and flails his arms everywhere. The judges score him higher because he surfs faster than most but his style is hideous. If the judges ever incorporated style into the scoring, most of the brazilians would fall off the tour. I am sure that the above interview was edited by someone who speaks better English. The dude needs to learn how to talk. He is a cry baby and a terrible role model.

  • feu

    medinas got a lot to learn in 10+ feet waves. his style is still trashy in those conditions.
    e eu sou brasileiro, essa é a real.

    • flashorton

      guess him just winning Teahupoo takes care of that comment.

  • Yewwwaus

    Wow so good to hear this kind of stuff, bit of a mind changer on the old brazzo! Good stuff!