The waves crash on Ipanema Beach on an early August morning. Dozens of surfers ride along them as the much-talked-about water engulfs their bodies and boards.
Thirteen-year-old Alex Berg heads toward the water in his red, blue and gray swim trunks with his brand new red-and-white Hennek surf board in hand. A large wave broke his old one just days before. His sandy blond hair sets him apart from most Brazilians scattered across the beach. Berg’s mother is Norwegian, and his father is Brazilian. He moved to Rio de Janeiro two years ago but has already been sucked into the sport of surfing.
“I like the beauty of the sea and the waves,” Berg said. “The surfing — it’s a very beautiful sound.”
Berg is one of many Rio locals who spend their time surfing the waves of Ipanema Beach. Most widely known for Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz’s 1960 hit song “The Girl From Ipanema,” the beach continues to attract tourists and locals daily.
“I surf for fun, and I like to compete also,” Berg said.
Berg, who began surfing two years ago, started competing this year. He placed third in a competition at Aproador, a neighboring beach to Ipanema. He began surfing at a time where the sport was just taking off in Brazil. In a country where children learn to play futbol before they can talk, surfing is making its way up the popularity chain as Brazil’s favorite sport.
“There’s a big community of surfers in Rio, and many people want to learn to surf because of Gabriel Medina,” Berg said.
Gabriel Medina, a 22-year-old from São Paulo, Brazil, put Brazilian surfers on the map when he won the 2014 Association of Surfing Professionals World Championship Tour at the age of 20. He tied American surfer Kelly Slater to become the youngest surfer to win a world championship.
No Brazilian surfer had ever won a world championship before him. That is when the Brazilian Storm began to form. The team of high-caliber Brazilian surfers includes Medina, Adriano “Mineirinho” de Souza and Filipe Toledo.
“In Brazil, the pro-surfing scene is getting bigger. The Brazilian Storm — so many good surfers are coming,” Ze’ Maria Souza Coutinho said.
Coutinho, an exchange student from Portugal, and his roommate, Raphael Zundt from Germany, are both getting master’s degrees at Fundação Getulio Vargas. When not studying, they both frequently surf the waves of Ipanema.
They both learned to surf in other countries.
“I see the level of young children surfing here is much higher compared to Europe,” Zundt said.
Both students have been surfing for more than 10 years. One thing they do notice that is different in Brazil is water pollution.
“My second week I got an ear infection from the water,” Coutinho said.
A daily routine
Joao Pauli, 29, has only ever gotten a rash from the water. He was swimming at a beach near Rocinha, the biggest favela in Brazil.
“All the dirty things and trash come to the water,” Pauli said.
The 15-year veteran surfer used to live in Minas Gerais. But there are no beaches there, so he moved to Rio. All his friends were surfers, so he just joined in.
“To me, it’s the best sport ever,” Pauli said. “I like it because I’m in contact with nature.”
Pauli tends to surf every day after work. The lawyer, who lives within walking distance of Ipanema Beach, says he has seen the sport grow over the last decade simply by the number of people he sees surfing at the beach.
“When I started surfing, there weren’t many surfers here. Now it’s getting bigger and bigger, and its an Olympic sport,” Pauli said.
Brazilians got a welcome surprise last month when surfing was officially added to the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
With the surge of surfing in Rio, new businesses have popped up. Paulo Vitor Breves works at Sup and Surf on Ipanema Beach, a surf board, body board and paddle board rental service. Breves, 31, also a physical education teacher, has been surfing since he was 7.
“I’m a surfer and lifeguard. I’ll always be at the beach in contact with the sea,” Breves said. “And I see that it’s a good business too.”
Breves called surfing a traditional sport. He says it’s easy to learn and never to late to begin.
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Video by Vivien Pong
Favela Surf Club
“In the last few years, it hasn’t been very popular because it’s an expensive sport. Not every child could have a board because it’s expensive,” Breves said. “There are projects that get boards for children.”
A founders of one of those projects is Jean Carlós of Cantagalo favela.
Carlós created the Favela Surf Club. It’s a social service with the kids in the community. He asks them to study, and they learn to surf.
“I knew a lot of kids that surfed that went to the wrong side,” Carlós said.
His goal is to try and change that through his project.
“It’s better to see a kid with a surfing board instead of a gun,” Carlós said.
Carlós also gives lessons to beach goers on Ipanema and Arpoador Beach at Glória Surf School.
“It’s not easy; it’s hard. You have to really like it to learn,” Carlós said. “In my first class, you have to stand up. If you don’t stand up, you don’t even have to pay.”
Anyone can do it
One of Carlós’ students is Victoria Lyrio. She started at his surfing school two years ago. Vitória surfs everyday at six in the morning. On the weekends, she will be on the beach all day.
“Here in Brazil, we say that when you swim in the saltwater, it’s like you’re blessed,” Lyrio said.
Lyrio says that while the water looks clean, it’s actually very dirty. She has never gotten sick before because of the water, but says it’s sad how nobody cares enough about the environment to do anything about it.
As the Brazilians keep winning, the water stays clean (enough), and the waves keep coming, surfing in Rio is here to stay.
“Surfing is democratic,” Lyrio said. “It’s interesting because there’s no religion, race, sexuality … it’s different.”
Elizabeth Wyman is a Ball State University student and writer for Ball State at the Games, a group of 50 journalism students travelling from Muncie, Indiana, to Rio for the Olympic Games. Follow them at bsuatthegames.com, @bsuatthegames on Twitter and Instagram and facebook.com/bsuatthegames on Facebook.