As the beach at Barra da Tijuca is flooded with fans eager to lay eyes on the best surfers in the world at the Oi Rio Women’s Pro, it’s hard not to notice that the only Brazilian woman competing is (was) wildcard, Silvana Lima. Lima is the top-ranked Brazilian woman on the World Surf League’s Qualifying Series – she’s ranked 22nd and she’s the only Brazilian woman in the top 50, one of just five in the top 100. None of them are ranked on the CT. There are no Brazilians on the Women’s Junior Tour. And although Top 17 surfer Tatiana Weston-Webb has Brazilian roots, she officially represents Hawaii in competition.
Meanwhile, one quarter of the athletes on the Men’s Championship Tour (including the past two World Champions) and 17 of the top 100 QS men are from Brazil.
Brazilian men are staging a potent CT takeover, the scale of which is comparable to the ‘Aussie Invasion’ of the 1970s, but there’s not a single Brazilian woman who, at this point, looks likely to qualify for the 2017 women’s Championship Tour. Why?
Matt Warshaw explains in The History of Surfing that when Brazilians arrived on the international scene in the ’80s, they had to fight hard for respect from the rest of the surfing world. Perhaps Brazil was so consumed with proving that it could compete with Carroll and Curren that women surfers were simply sidelined. Maybe they’re still largely there, on the bench, waiting to be put into the game. But Warshaw tells me that Brazilian women are encouraged to surf, at least as much as women in other countries.
Gustavo Azenha, Director of Columbia University’s Lemann Center for Brazilian Studies, agrees that while surfing is more common among men than women at all ability levels in Brazil, he suspects that the same factors you find in other countries are responsible: “More limited role models, less encouragement from family and peers, gender stereotypes, etc.” But comparatively, the number of Brazilian women in competitive surfing is dwarfed by the number of those from other countries with major surf industries. Something doesn’t add up.
Rio de Janiero native Chloe Calmon is currently ranked third on the World Surf League’s Women’s Longboard Tour. She’s one of three Brazilian women on that particular ranking – Atalanta Batista is fifth and Thiara Basso is 17th.
Calmon was introduced to surfing by her father, who’s been surfing for more than 40 years. She lives in Recreio, close to about 10 of the city’s best surf spots, and she fell in love with longboarding because it’s reminiscent of ballet.
“I surf every day at Macumba Beach, one of the most iconic longboard spots in Brazil, and you can see [female] surfers of all ages in the water,” she says. “Every weekend I bump into a 14-year-old girl paddling out on a log with her mom and her grandmother. How cool is that?”
Calmon’s story is further proof of what Warshaw says, that Brazilian women are as welcome in the surf as those in any other country. Of course, it wasn’t always that way.
Retired tour surfer and current World Surf League Women’s World Tour Chaplain Ana Barend started surfing in 1985 in Rio. She was one of few women surfers in the area at the time; most of them lived in São Paulo or in the southern part of the country, she says. She found role models both in big wave chargers, like Lynne Boyer and Margot Oberg, and Brazilian women who competed on the national level, like Tanira Damasceno and Roberta Borges. At that time, the only competitions available to women in Brazil were national ones.
As a woman surfer – in the ’80s, in Rio – Barend faced harsh judgment and contended with surfing’s special brand of ostracism.
“Have you surfed in Brazil?” she asks. “People are energetic and super amped. There is no way that someone would give an inch to a woman who is a beginner. [When I first started] guys would look at me, with priority, and go anyway. It was so frustrating. Then, when I started to improve it still happened, but less frequently.”
Barend’s account of her experiences as a beginner is disheartening, but it isn’t much different than what I dealt with as a kid on the East Coast of the U.S. a few years later – and again as the only girl on my high school surf team, and yet again when I moved to the Gold Coast. In fact, I imagine that most of us, regardless of where we live, have been rejected like this at some point in our surfing lives, and I can’t help but wonder whether this kind of treatment wasn’t, at least in part, about being “outsiders” more than it was about being women. Regardless of the rationale, the hazing isn’t all that surprising.
What is surprising, however, is that it wasn’t overly difficult for Brazilian women to get sponsorship contracts at that point in time.
“It was a novelty and brands wanted to invest in women’s surfing,” Barend says. “I had my trips paid and I had a salary, plus prize money when I made it to the main event. [I do not know why it changed.]”
This is a good place to point out that it has, in fact, changed.
Brazilian Jacqueline Silva first qualified for the CT in 1999. She subsequently ranked in the Top 17 from 2001 to 2009, and then again from 2011 through 2012. She says that for about a decade, the Brazilian market for women’s surfing was strong, and accordingly, so was the competitive circuit. She refers to this time as the “glory years” for women like her compatriot Silvana Lima.
Calmon agrees that when she began surfing 10 years ago, there were a lot of contests for women, for both longboarders and shortboarders. Women still faced some hostility in the water at that point, but over the coming years, they were accepted and even celebrated.
“The level of the girls’ surfing has improved a lot and they’ve proven that they can charge and shred it, too,” Calmon says.
Today, there are more girls in the water than ever before. But there are far fewer contests.
“When I started competing,” says Calmon, “I would compete pretty much every weekend, [at] state championships, national championships, [and other contests]. To become a pro, you would have gotten a good experience as an amateur. Last weekend, I competed after three years without any longboard events [in my country]. Nowadays, Brazilian surfers are winning world titles, QS, and LQS events, but we need more support in Brazil for the young generation coming up.”
By “more support,” she means more contests: “Anything is welcome, from small amateur contests to national events throughout the year. This is how I started, and I know how important it is for an athlete to compete.” That’s how you learn where to set your goals, she says.
Silva explains that up until 2012, women surfers in Brazil had sponsorships, space in the media, and recognition. “From then to now, [there has only been] one event in 2014, the Saquarema para Mulheres, and one event last year, Wiggolly Dantas Campeonato Brasileiro Surf Feminino. [Hence] the shortage of Brazilian athletes on the world circuit,” she says simply.
And there you have it: The scarcity of female Brazilian surfers on the world stage is certainly not on account of a lack of talent, and it isn’t exactly due to a misogynistic culture; it’s due to a lack of funding – and a shortage of brands who believe that female surfers are worth their investments in an already trying economy.
Our country’s economy is, unfortunately, not good,” Silva says. “We are facing a political crisis as never seen before, so I think that this [difficult] time for the sport is also due to this downswing [for the] country.
“I feel like being a third world country for years has shaped women’s roles [in Brazil],” says Australian Bec Woods, who competed on the CT for a decade (and many times in Brazil). “Where much of the world is trying to move forward through a lot of women’s issues, some larger countries with poverty issues [seem to] have priorities on different things. Which is a shame, because they would be supporting a movement of empowerment and probably, boost the whole country. The world wouldn’t know what hit it.”
“That country is full of incredible talent that… we will never get to see,” Woods continues. “Hats off to Silvana [Lima], Jackie [Silva] and Tita Tavares. They brought the Brazil firecracker to the world stage and I actually loved it. I hope more follow, but that depends on the men in the industry there.”
Michael Kevane, a professor at Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business who specializes in international economics and the economics of gender in developing countries, says that while poorer economies offer fewer professional opportunities across the board, weak economies can be especially onerous for women.
“It is usually the case that poorer economies are more gender unequal across many different domains and opportunities,” Kevan says. “[However], Latin American economies often have more complex pictures. For example, girls are often in school longer than boys, but there is still plenty of ‘glass ceiling’ type discrimination in the professional world, and lots of overt sexism (related to ‘machismo’).”
WSL South America Media Manager João Carvalho acknowledges that women’s surfing in Brazil is experiencing a depression of sorts, with no national circuit and very few sponsorship opportunities to support successful campaigns on the QS, but he believes that the situation is improving.
“The girls joined in a movement to rescue women’s surfing in Brazil,” he says. “Together, [they] held a unique event that decided the professional Brazilian champion in 2015.”
And in April, professional freesurfer Marina Werneck helped revive the QS 1500 Praia do Forte Pro presented by Oi, the first WSL event at Praia do Forte in Bahia (northeastern Brazil) since 2008. The Praia do Forte Pro is part of a new women’s surfing series, the SeaFlowers Crown of Surfing. Thanks to the Praia do Forte Pro, there are several new Brazilian names on the QS ranking.
Brazil has more than 4,500 miles of breathtaking beaches, yet despite the fact that Brazilians spend huge chunks of their time at the edges of the sea, soccer still reigns supreme in the nation’s sporting hierarchy. However, with the astronomical international success of Brazilian surfers, surfing is climbing the ranks.
“Since Medina won his first world title, and then Adriano, surfing has never been so popular like it is now,” Calmon explains. “Now, it is cool to be a surfer.”
In addition to throngs of Brazilians learning to surf, large corporations outside of the surf industry (like energy and mobile providers and beverage companies) are supporting surfers, Calmon says. Brazilians can even watch the CT on television.
The hope is that as surfing begins to inhabit a revered space in the hearts of more Brazilians and the nation’s economy stabilizes, more substantial support for women’s surfing will naturally follow.
“From now on, everything is a matter of time and patience until things get back to normal,” says Jacqueline Silva.
At that point, I suspect that Americans and Australians and everyone else on the competitive circuit will regret ever having asked, “Where are all of the Brazilian women?” And as Woods said, the world won’t know what hit it.