I’m going to offer a dissenting opinion (“How dare you!”) and a chance for a lot of surf fans-turned-lemmings to call me a kook here, not so much for defending Gabriel Medina but for calling out all his haters. And there are lots of them. There are a lot today, there seemed like a planet-full of them yesterday after he snaked Caio Ibelli in an effort to advance from his Round of 16 heat, and there will still be a lot by the time I stop thumbing this piece. But honestly, I would wager a bet that 100 percent of those people were haters before he pulled off the ‘Most Genius Snake in the History of the Sport’. And here’s the thing: your judgment of that decision — one that’s worth actual, objective debate — is certainly painted by how you felt about the guy before Finals Day of the 2019 Billabong Pipe Masters.
So if we’re going to throw around the U-word so often from here on out in reference to the two-time world champion, I’m going to take my best swing at compelling people to do so objectively. Let’s just call it like it is; you hate Gabriel Medina whether he dominates in clean fashion or pulls off moves that require the presence of mind we’ve only seen one other competitor regularly display…and no matter what he does, we all kinda seem to love that guy. Because you’re irritating me otherwise. And irritated Juan can hammer out 5,000-words about such things with the best of them. It’s not my most endearing quality.
As an American who grew up obsessively watching mainstream sports, I’ve always been fascinated by our fascination with professional athletes. There’s a solid disconnect between looking at elite competitors as both world-class talents of their craft and human beings. Judging the competitor and judging the human are often folded into one lazy act without even trying to give ourselves context or, God forbid, empathy.
Odd choice of words when talking about roasting a guy in the dying seconds of a CT heat, I know, but it applies nonetheless. What I’m getting at is that snaking a wave at your local and snaking a wave with a world title on the line are entirely different acts. They should be judged as mutually exclusive choices because they are, but judging him from your perspective of knowing it’s not okay to do on an average day in an average lineup according to surfing’s rules of etiquette is to say that you’re ignoring competitive surfing’s entire ethos.
The mere fact that people ever ride a wave for the purpose of being judged is already counter to what the majority of us are compelled to do daily for the fun of it anyway. Furthermore, surfers justify burning one another on the daily without a clock ticking, and anybody who looks down on Gabriel Medina doing so while actually having done something similar is hypocritical.
I’ve burned people. You’ve burned people. And every single one of us has bargained with ourselves as to why it’s a justifiable act in the moment; most often it’s that the recipient of the stuffing was in violation of basic lineup etiquette….according to us. But the one thing you, the reader, can’t judge without hypothetically putting yourself in the shoes of another human being (save for a handful of people reading this that have competed on the CT) is making that choice — to snake or not to snake — while sitting within arm’s reach of a world title.
I’ve personally never been affected much by Gabriel Medina’s persona or place in the sport. He’s never moved my emotional needle, neither rubbing me the wrong way or endearing himself. But I get that he pisses people off. He comes off as smug, arrogant. Comments sections are filled with the idea that his demeanor in competition is somehow exemplary of an entire ethnic group which, after a while gets really, really tiring to read and hear. It says more about the average surf fan’s intolerance for others than it does Gabriel Medina.
I’m pretty sure nobody ever once uttered these words when Kelly famously stuffed Parko at Kirra:“Those f*ing bald Floridians always do sh** like this. I’d like to see one of them pull that off in _______ (insert place where person lives, surfs and views such talk as socially acceptable).”
Nobody used their perception of Kelly Slater pursuing another world title as rationale for hating him or those that share his flag. It was Kelly’s world and the rest of us were just living in it; the accepted fallout of one man’s focus on becoming the greatest ever. And in hindsight, while Kelly’s often blind pursuit of winning is now looked at as commendable, it’s impossible for some to grant the same objective judgment to a guy who’s plainly said over and over he wants the same thing.
The hypocrisy just keeps snowballing. Gabriel Medina wants to be the best ever and if we owe him any credit — love him or hate him — it’s that his actions are aligned with his words. Allowing a guy a free pass at a wave that could cost him one of the multiple world titles he still plans to win (and maybe millions of dollars) would actually go against the very thing he’s told us all he’s after.
So what you see is what you get. At this point, we need to accept it and stop demanding he give us something else and we probably need to stop and check our understanding of the word “unsportsmanlike” along the way. Applying it to what happened at Pipe quickly became a go-to argument that doesn’t ask for much thought. Kelly dropping in on Joel with priority, Medina dropping in on Kelly with priority at Pipe in 2017, and then without priority against Caio Ibelli and choosing to accept the penalty as a trade off for advancing to the next round (and safely keeping his end goal alive) is probably more accurately defined as gamesmanship than anything else.
See, while the entire surf world all of a sudden is an expert on all things rule 171.11, pretending that it should now be applied to Medina roasting Ibelli is kind of…well, it’s naive. The WSL has already proven to its fans that the intentional act of burning somebody with or without priority isn’t unsportsmanlike. They’ve let the act fly in the past so if nothing else, enforcing it now because everybody just hates Gabriel Medina would show a lack of integrity.
And let’s be honest, hating Gabriel Medina is really the main reason you’ve decided you hate what he did, ergo let’s hide behind calling it unsportsmanlike. We kind of have to accept that any athlete acting within the boundaries they know they’re afforded — while you may not love it — is doing so fairly. There’s no deceit. There’s no cheating. It’s just plain and simple gamesmanship — a tactic or a choice made in pursuit of winning within the rules, no different from fouling at the end of a basketball game or flopping on the pitch (the latter just being flat-out annoying).
We have many more years of watching Gabriel Medina do things in a jersey that would turn the average dawn patrol lineup into a crime scene. We might as well lean into it and take it for what it is. After all, while a lot of surfers wouldn’t forfeit the good graces of others for a trophy, many of us made a choice to defend another multiple world titleholder for similar acts long, long ago.