New generation of Brazilians aims at world surf glory

Saquarema (Brazil) (AFP) –


Slightly built and aged just 10, Rickson Falcao looks no match for the waves crashing onto Brazil's Atlantic coast, but within seconds of launching his board, the kid surfer is transformed.

Waves rise and curl and foam and in the middle of them the tiny figure of Falcao on his shortboard swoops about like a dolphin.

"He has no fear. He'll surf anything," says lifeguard Flavio Souza, 23, watching Falcao cross himself, then paddle through the booming water off the beach in Saquarema, east of Rio de Janeiro.

Brazilians have been surfing for decades. In the last few years, though, they've got scarily good.

The sudden influx of talent even has its own name -- the "Brazilian storm."

It's a storm led by superstar Gabriel Medina who blew down the doors of the sport's elite club dominated by US, Hawaiian and Australian athletes when he became World Surf League champion in 2014.

The next year it was the turn of another Brazilian, Adriano de Souza, and today, 12 out of the top 44 in the rankings are from Brazil, something unimaginable just a short time ago.

Medina will get another shot at the crown when he tries to dethrone Hawaiian John John Florence at the Billabong Pipe Masters starting in Hawaii this Friday -- the last event in the 2017 championship.

And if anyone in the traditional surfing bastions still hopes that the "Brazilian storm" will dissipate, they'd be advised to check the forecast coming out of Saquarema.

Falcao, who lives and goes to school next to the water, and spends half of every day surfing, began when he was two. He's now racking up age-group trophies, as are several of his beach buddies -- and is remarkably focused.

"He has the psychology of an athlete. That's very important," says his mother Rejane Falcao, 37, who doubles as coach and manager and PR agent.

The tousle-haired boy, sitting in his tiny home, surrounded by trophies, doesn't sound remotely big-headed when he describes his dream in a quiet voice:

"My dream? To be world surfing champion."

And along Saquarema beach, where Medina is considered an idol, he's not the only one.

"Most of us, all of us who surf, want to be world champion," he said.

- Cradle of champions -

Despite its vast Atlantic coastline, Brazil has few areas with world class surfing waves. Until recently, it also had only a small middle class with the means to travel.

One traditional hotspot has always been near Sao Paulo, where Medina is based. The other is Saquarema, a sleepy seaside city famous for a beautiful church on a rocky promontory, dividing two long beaches -- each lashed by consistently good breaks.

Locals call Saquarema the Maracana of Brazilian surfing, referring to football's grand temple in Rio de Janeiro. Where New York is synonymous with yellow cabs and university cities are often crowded with students on bicycles, in Saquarema you quickly get used to people of all ages wandering down streets with a surfboard under their arm.

At the core of that local culture is Luiz Augusto de Matos, a burly retired firefighter who opened the Saquarema Surf School in 1990 and dedicated himself to turning generations of toddlers into wave wizards. Today he has 30 students.

Alumni range from Alessandra Vieira, the 1994 world amateur champion at the age of 14, to elite surfer Raoni Monteiro. One of Brazil's most promising young female surfers on the junior circuit, Carol Bonelli, also grew up in Saquarema, although she trains with Medina.

"All these kids have a future," Matos, 50, said. "Our project is to take them small and to raise them. Rickson (Falcao) is another one. It's a cradle of champions."

- Brazilian 'avalanche' -

The "Brazilian storm" lacks the financial heft powering Australia, Hawaii and mainland US competitors.

With Brazil only just coming out of deep recession and the Rio state government struggling to pay even for basic services, de Matos and other enthusiasts rely largely on love for the sport.

Even exceptional athletes like Medina, he said, "carry Brazil -- Brazil doesn't carry them."

But there are signs of change.

Rickson Falcao's mother said he now receives 500 reais ($155) a month from the federal government's sports subsidy program known as "bolsa atleta."

And this year the Saquarema surf school teamed up with a local gym dedicated to specialized surfer training.

The atmosphere in the facility -- where you can strengthen specific muscles used in paddling or practice balancing on wobbly boards -- is a long way from the laid back image associated from the old hippy days of surfing.

"It's part of what's happening in Brazil with Gabriel Medina," said trainer David Santos, 38, as he directed children through a series of agility exercises.

Santos hopes the gym will help put Saquarema more firmly on the international map, giving surfers a place to come on dedicated training trips.

De Matos, known to everyone as "Nena," jokes that Saquarema even has its equivalent of American star Kelly Slater's California wave ranch, a machine creating endless, perfect artificial barrels in a pool.

In Saquarema's case, it's an inlet next to the church where the ocean breaks, then ripples in neat, ever smaller waves across the shallow water inside, creating a perfect spot for teaching beginners.

If a "Brazilian storm" is possible in such humble circumstances, imagine what would happen with proper resources.

"It will be a giant avalanche," de Matos says, choosing yet another natural phenomenon to describe his vision. "We will invade."