When Maya Gabeira was a teenager, she left her home in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to pursue her dream: surfing. And more specifically, surfing big waves.
A handful of years later, and Gabeira has accomplished many of her surfing goals – including multiple Guinness World Records and WSL Big Wave Awards. She’s also helped to pioneer one of the greatest big-wave discoveries of all time, Nazaré. That’s where she resides these days, and where she continues to push the limits of big-wave wrangling.
But her latest endeavors wasn’t in the water. Instead, she wrote a children’s book – entitled Maya and the Beast – aimed at inspiring young people (particularly young girls) to follow their dreams. So, we called her up in Nazaré to chat about it.
Turns out, Gabeira has no experience as a writer, per se, but she does have it in her blood.
“My dad is a journalist and a writer,” Gabeira said. He has published 14 books. I’m a surfer, which is completely not his thing, but he inspired me. Aside from that, by no means was I passionate about writing, nor had I studied it or anything like that. It was more of an instinctual experience. And it helped that I was telling a story that I knew, because it was my story. And I wanted to share that with the world.”
There’s a famous quote, often attributed to Mark Twain, that goes something like this: “Write what you know.” And for Gabeira, that was to write about her own experience as a woman coming up in the primarily male-dominated big-wave world. That, and her tumultuous love affair with surfing at Nazaré.
“Maya in the book is born in Nazaré, which obviously I wasn’t,” she said. “For me, I related because I feel like I have a sort of second life here [in Nazaré]. I was reborn here. But a lot of it really relates to my real life – like, how I was introduced to surfing, how it was such a boy’s sport, how I had to find ways to learn how to surf. I was very scared of the ocean growing up; I had asthma, which has always been a thing for me. So, there was a lot to overcome as a young teenager, just like Maya in the book.”
Speaking of Nazaré, the book takes place there, and Gabeira has an interesting relationship with the town and its notorious wave. It’s where she broke not one, but two, Guinness World Records for the biggest wave ever surfed by a female. It’s also where she nearly drowned in 2013.
“Now, my relationship [with Nazaré] is good,” she said. “But we had some bad moments in the past, tragic moments. When I first came here, I completely fell in love with the wave and the potential. After I had the accident, when I came back, I was very intimidated. I really wanted to conquer my fear, but I wasn’t in a comfortable headspace. It wasn’t as fun as it was before because I knew the danger firsthand. I wasn’t trying to prove to anyone else that I could do it, that I was meant to be there; I was proving it to myself. It took a long time for me to change that relationship to what it is now. Now, I have great memories on top of that terrible one. It’s a very happy place for me.”
Just like Maya in the book, the real Maya Gabeira struggles with asthma…yeah, not the ideal condition for someone whose career involves long breath holds. But just like the classic superhero trope, she’s found a way to see her weakness as a strength.
“I have to train a lot harder with stuff like breath holds in the pool,” she said. “It’s something that I’ve dealt with forever. In some ways it’s a weakness, but I try to look at it in a different way. It can be a strength. I already know what it feels like to be out of breath. Although it’s terrifying, it’s something that I’m used to. So, in a way, that can be a strength in big waves.”
When asked about the progression of women’s big-wave surfing – something that she’s one of a handful of females currently leading the charge in – Gabeira feels of the proud advancements that have been made, while also noting that a lot more needs to be done.
“Things are starting to change,” she said. “The WSL is doing a lot to make the women feel welcome in a space that is primarily dominated by men – we have the same prize purse, the same competitions, the same awards. But it all feels a little loose. Hopefully, things get tighter on the competition side. It’s very new still, and we need to make it more professional.”
And she hopes that her book, Maya and the Beastwill show the next generation of female big-wave surfers that they, too, can earn their spot in the lineup and conquer their fears.
“I want the book to inspire young girls to get out there, to explore, to believe in yourself. There are so many obstacles that will come your way, but you can’t give up. Never give up.”
Click here to learn more (and order your copy of) Maya and the Beast.