Inside Brazil’s 40-Year Rise to Global Surfing Dominance

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Under a brilliant Brazilian sun, as he rode across a perfect peeling wave, the professional surfer Filipe Toledo thumped his chest and shouted toward the beach. Toledo, 27, who grew up around 250 miles west of this stretch of sand, had 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 he was one big step closer to winning the men’s world championship.

On shore, thousands of fans roared. Once again, Brazilians were celebrating a Brazilian surfer’s success, and they were under a spell of collective triumph.

As recently as 10 years ago, a Brazilian win against a roster of the world’s top surfers would have been an anomaly. For decades, Brazilians had been the underdogs of the surfing world with few breakout stars. But starting in the 1990s, a combination of economic policy, a rich talent pool, a regional contest system and two men who created a long-term plan to produce the country’s first world champion changed their trajectory.

Toledo first announced his intention to become a professional surfer when he was 6. He dreamed not only of making the elite tour, but also of being alongside the likes of renowned world champions like the American Kelly Slater, an 11-time world champion, and the Australian Mick Fanning, a three-time champion. That Toledo — who is known for his ability to launch above the lips of waves, rotate and land seemingly with ease — had such outsize ambition was a stretch. The idea that a Brazilian could not only qualify for the tour, but actually win the tour — to beat out Californians, Australians and Hawaiians, who had dominated for decades — seemed far-fetched.

Yes, the young surfer was talented. Like his peers, he began competing in the regional contests that helped the current generation hone their skills and push one another to new heights. He also had the benefit of being coached and counseled by his father, Ricardo, a former national surf champion. And he was winning, a lot. But the distance between winning on home turf against other up-and-comers and consistently winning against the Slaters and Fannings of the world was still untraversed.

Professional Brazilian surfers just “didn’t have that much information or support,” Filipe Toledo said. “They were like, ‘What do I do now? Should I just train or should I get the money that I won in that event and spend it, doing a huge party, or invest it going on trips?’”

In December 2014, the unthinkable happened: Gabriel Medina of the Maresias district of São Sebastião, at age 20, became the first Brazilian to win the world title on the professional tour. He did it on the final day of the Pipe Masters event. The North Shore of Oahu erupted: Hundreds of people rushed to carry Medina to the podium; others sang the Brazilian anthem; still others waved national flags.

For Toledo and his peers, Medina’s win was the beginning of a sea change in professional surfing. After decades of pushing at the edges of the sport’s upper echelon, Brazil transformed from long shot to global behemoth. Brazilians went on to win the championship tour’s world title in 2015, 2018, 2019 and 2021. Last summer, a Brazilian, Ítalo Ferreira, won the first men’s Olympic gold medal in the men’s shortboard competition. And in late June in Saquarema, the semifinals were stacked with Brazilians alone.

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

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

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

Yet Brazil was still under a dictatorship. Its combination of a closed economy, high cost of travel and protectionist policies kept foreign investment out and would-be pro surfers in. Resources were also scarce. Like athletes in other sports, professional surfers need trainers, coaches and equipment. But unlike other sports, surfing’s field of play is ever-changing. To be competitive on the world tour, professional surfers need experience in a variety of waves all around the world — particularly the heavier, barreling kind that break in far-flung places like Hawaii, Fiji, Tahiti and Indonesia.

That hurdle not only contributed to a skills gap 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 simply needed enough money to travel to the world’s best waves to have a chance at being competitive.

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

Still, Gouveia, Padaratz and the legion of surfers they inspired were up against a rushing tide of political upheaval and economic turmoil. In 1985, Brazil’s 20-year dictatorship came to an end, ushering in all the promise of a young democracy. Instead, the country was thrust into the grip of crippling inflation. For surfers like Gouveia, winning contests was more about financial survival than professional achievement, much less a world title.

In the early 1990s, things began to change. Brazil’s president from 1990 to 1992, Fernando Collor de Mello, called on a group of academics to create a set of stabilizing policies, and by the time Toledo was born, in 1995, Brazil had a thriving middle class. In the early 2000s, when Toledo and the Tempestade-to-be were surfing their first contests, including a robust amateur contest circuit, spending on goods and travel (say, new surfboards or tickets to Hawaii) was on the rise.

Those conditions were part of what allowed surfers like Burle to ascend in big-wave surfing, a distinct discipline in the sport that also demands extensive travel. In 2009, he won the first-ever big wave world title, breaking the mold for Brazilians. It would prove to be a prelude to what came next.

Brazil’s newly fertile economic conditions began to draw foreign investment and businesses, including the growing surf industry. Cuan Petersen, then a marketing director for Oakley, was a part of that wave. In Brazil, he said, “everybody surfs,” adding, “We could be at a surf break in the middle of nowhere and there would be 50 people out there.” Petersen teamed up with Luiz Campos, a sports agent and Oakley marketing manager who became the godfather of modern Brazilian surfing.

Following the playbook of how companies marketed to American and Australian surfers, Campos and Petersen created a system to develop and nurture Brazilian surfing talent. They didn’t just want to cultivate surfers who could compete on the world stage. They planned to produce the first Brazilian world champion on the championship tour. By the early 2000s, their program, called Mar Azul, or blue sea in Portuguese, was up and running. They recruited young surfers and provided them with physical trainers, coaches, a psychologist, a doctor, English lessons and media training.

The Mar Azul roster now reads as a who’s who of top surfers: Adriano de Souza (world champion in 2015); Ferreira (world champion in 2019, and Tokyo gold medalist); Toledo; plus surfers like Caio Ibelli, Miguel Pupo and Jadson Andre, all of whom are on the world championship tour. (Toledo trained with his father, and Medina trained with his stepfather, but routinely competed with and against the Mar Azul crew.)

The competitive aspirations of a nation have completely transformed. Brazilian surfers are expected to pack the top ranks, and up-and-coming Brazilians are expected to join the tour. Both of those expectations have been met. And in contrast to the Tempestade’s early days, expectations for up-and-coming surfers are already sky high.

“We understand the formula now,” said Toledo, who finished his 2021 season in second place, behind Medina, his countryman, who won his third world championship.

That formula — the alchemy of economics, opportunity, work ethic and expectations — has been the driving force not only behind Toledo’s professional success so far, but of what he believes is still possible. Considering the rest of his season, there are just two goals he has in mind.

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

After June’s Oi Rio Pro competition, his once lofty goal sounds a lot less like hubris. Instead, it seems more like a probability.