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Maya Gabeira: Big Wave Surfing’s Boundary Breaker

The two-time world record holder has been one of her sport’s greatest trailblazers for women. She spoke to Boardroom about her iconic career, business, and commitment to conservation.

Maya Gabeira is no stranger to being the first. The big wave surfer has repeatedly shattered boundaries throughout her career as a big wave surfer. 

The two-time world record holder has overcome a near-death accident and several injuries. She has taken home multiple awards, including five Billabong Global Big Wave Awards and the 2009 ESPY for Best Female Action Sports Athlete.

But while her most well-known accomplishments have come on the world’s most notorious breaks, Gabeira is equally proud of her personal journey in which she has served as a fierce advocate for herself in a sport that is dominated by men. Over the course of time, she channeled that same grit to create a personal brand that has evolved with her values and keeps them at the core of her decision-making. 

Boardroom caught up with the big wave champ to discuss her career, the path towards ushering a new set of surfing opportunities for the next generation of surfers, the importance of values in business, and more. 

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Nazaré’s Hometown Hero

In recent years, Gebeira has found herself at home at the epic spot Nazaré. Many are familiar with the break from the HBO documentary series 100 Foot Wave. When Gebeira moved to the Portuguese town in 2015, it felt like a homecoming of sorts, complete with the trauma of the 2013 accident that nearly killed her. The return allowed her to tend to a relationship that needed repairing.

It also introduced a new chapter of her career — enabling a new type of stability that she had lacked as she chased what she calls “the most consistent wave in the world.” As she moved from break to break, she drew a major conclusion: home-court advantage was real. 

“To me, the home-court was always where you can shine the most,” she told Boardroom. “And I always saw that in our sport. We had athletes in every big wave spot in the world that were, like, the No. 1 athletes, and they happen to be local for a reason. You gotta so intimately know and understand that one particular break, that to live there is a huge advantage.”

Maya had moved from her own home of Rio de Janeiro at the age of 17, chasing a new wave each year.

“I never had that advantage of being at home,” she explained. “I was one of the first professional athletes to explore the wave. … I feel like I have some advantage in the lineup, which I never felt before. I used to spend the season [focusing] on one wave. And then in the summertime, I would surf all kinds of fun and beautiful waves. Like Indonesia, Fiji, Tahiti. Nazaré is kind of different because earlier in my career I used to surf so many different big waves, but they also were different than Nazaré. They weren’t first as tall and as challenging and as dangerous.”

And the move has paid off, lifting Gabeira to the next level in her performance and serving as the site of her two world records. Plus, she gets to do it all steps from the comforts of her own home. 

“There’s nothing better than to sleep and wake up in your bed and eat the same thing that you eat every day, and then to be able to break a world record that morning,” she said with a laugh. “And then come back to your bed and sleep that night. It’s surreal.”

Now she’s the community’s top ambassador. 

Becoming Maya

As Gabeira reflects on her career, she acknowledges that much like her surfing, her approach to business has become far more refined based upon her experience.

Similar to the way that she established the path for the next generation of female surfers, she also had to figure out how to navigate the business world largely on her own. When it came to considering how to sustain a life in the sport she loved, she learned quickly that she had to be creative. 

“I didn’t have this traditional path in surfing, and it wasn’t usual to have a woman big wave surfer,” she recalled. “We didn’t really have competitions for most of my career. I was always exploring [business] opportunities, right? … I always had to be a little bit creative and a little bit open to different types of incomes, like motivational speech or events or shoots or publicity.”

Photo by Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic

And through time, she’s worked with some of the biggest names out there: Tag Heuer, Red Bull, and Google, just to name a few. When asked how she selects which partnerships she wants to pursue, she’s candid that the rationale has not always been perfectly consistent. 

“Well, it depends on what time of a career when I needed money or if I was in a bit more of a luxurious position that I could choose what I do,” she said. “Because there were times when I’ve been in a niche sport, in a sport that’s male-dominated, you do the jobs that come your way. Of course, I wasn’t gonna do anything. That’s absolutely against my principles, but I have certainly engaged with companies that I either don’t consume personally or believe in their values.”

But she is quick to grant herself grace, acknowledging that her own values have changed over the course of her career:

“Values are also something that change and we change as human beings. Some companies that I’ve been with worked very well at the time, and nowadays I couldn’t see myself representing them anymore because I changed. And some companies change, too. … Being with so many companies through the years] taught me a lot, and they gave me a big spectrum of opportunities. … I’m proud of that, but nowadays I’m a little bit more picky, and I like to do things that I believe in.”

As she looks back, she identifies a connection of her professional career and her passionate commitment to her values: “I think when I finally broke my first world record, that’s when some of that weight got lifted off my shoulders. I finally felt like I was ready to engage with the world and commit to the issues that were close to my heart.”

These days, those values are solidified. Gabeira is a fierce advocate for sustainability and conservation, and she is committed to working with companies that have clear supply chains and fair trade practices. 

In addition to the time she spends in the water, she puts in an equal amount of effort for the ocean. Gabeira is a member of the board of directors for Oceana and has worked closely with the Surfrider Foundation and WWF in the past as well. She is constantly learning and evolving in her own understanding of the environment, and she is proud to identify the ways that it has played out in her business practices. 

“I don’t put profit ahead of the environment and the ocean and how people get treated in the process of creating a product,” she said.

Maya Gabeira, rides a wave during the TUDOR Nazare Tow Surfing Challenge at the Praia do Norte in Nazare. (Photo by Henrique Casinhas/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

New Adventures Await

While Gabeira continues to eye new professional levels to unlock, she’s begun to pursue new adventures out of the water as well. 

For years, she was intrigued by the idea of starting a business of her own. Her mother is a fashion designer, so for a long time it seemed like a fashion line was an obvious choice. However, several years ago, Maya realized that the sunscreen with which she slathered herself every day was undeniably bad for the environment. The combination of chemicals and the excessive plastic supply left infinite room for improvement. 

And thus, she unlocked a new professional adventure, spending years trying to architect the perfect product. The process has granted her an enhanced understanding of the number of variables required to ensure that she is remaining true to her values. 

She laughed when recounting how it’s taken them two years to find a plastic alternative for the packaging. “No wonder why people are destroying the world for profit!”

She is set to launch the product in Brazil later this year and is exceedingly proud of what she has developed. 

Across all of her endeavors, Gabeira emerges as an amazing teacher for others. Her own intense curiosity drives her to research things endlessly, and she shares her knowledge with a wide range of people.

“I like to educate myself,” she said. “I always feel like I know nothing. I’m a very introspective person. I think a lot. I live in my little bubble, and I like to share what I think what I see from my perspective, but I’m also very curious in other people’s perspectives as well.”

As for what’s next? Maya is publishing her first book this summer — the first of three. 

“I got a second world record, and I had a lot of opportunities come my way,” she said. “I was sitting in a small apartment in Nazaré and the pandemic hit, and I just thought, ‘Shit, what am I gonna do now?’”

She thought about her four-year-old nephew, and the stories she shared with him, and she pulled together a book proposal and landed a deal. Her father, a founding member of Brazil’s Green Party who has written several books himself, was shocked. Like most things, Maya felt undeterred. 

“I’m sitting in my apartment now for the next two years. Apparently, something’s gonna come out of me!”

Her impact on the next generation is secure, but Maya isn’t done chasing giants just yet.

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