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Meet Brazil's beloved Olympic surfers

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When you think Brazil and sports, it's all about soccer, right? The South American nation has long been a soccer powerhouse, but Brazilians have also been dominating another sport in world competition - surfing. And heading into the Paris Olympics, they are high among the favorites. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: The beach in the small town of Saquarema, about two hours north of Rio De Janeiro, is packed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAHN: Everyone is on watch for the World Surfing League championship to begin. But despite clear skies and amazing aqua blue water, the waves are flat today. Local surfer 40-year-old Joao Milheiro says on a good day, the fast long left break here is Brazil's best.

JOAO MILHEIRO: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: "This is the Maracana of surfing," he says, equating Saquarema's surf to the iconic Brazil soccer stadium. Soccer is still king in Brazil, but surfing is gaining ground. Brazilians have won every World Surfing League title since 2018.

NELTER MACEDO POGE: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: "Brazil is dominating. It's the Brazilian storm," says 62-year-old surf instructor Nelter Macedo Poge. "They're ready for the Olympics," he adds. Surfing debuted in Tokyo at the last Olympics, with Brazil's Italo Ferreira winning the gold. Poge says surfing is so popular, even fans get respect.

POGE: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: "When I used to come to this beach, like, 30 years ago, cops would see the boards on my car and pull me over. They thought every surfer was a stoner," he says.

POGE: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: "Not all surfers were stoners back then. But for sure," he says, "all stoners were surfers." These days, the Brazilian surf scene is more mainstream. Sixteen-year-old Giovana Vinte took up the sport last year. She drove six hours to get here and is bummed the waves don't rate yet.

GIOVANA VINTE: I cried a lot.

KAHN: I mean, are you still having fun?

VINTE: I'm still having fun.

KAHN: She loves that women are able to compete alongside the men, which is so not the case for Brazil's soccer teams.

VINTE: In football, we see more men play in Brazil. Don't have that visibility. But in surf, I see that more.

KAHN: She's excited for the Olympics. The surf competition will be held in French Polynesia at Teahupo'o in Tahiti, which has been called one of the scariest and most entertaining waves in the world. Brazilian team member Tatiana Weston-Webb didn't do well in Tokyo, but she says she's ready for Tahiti.

TATIANA WESTON-WEBB: Teahupo'o is a barreling wave over a shallow reef. So it's a pretty intense wave. It's not easy. And you really have to get comfortable after a while surfing there. And I do feel comfortable.

KAHN: Brazil will send three women and three men to the Olympics. They secured two extra spots, one for each gender, after a great run in the qualifiers in Puerto Rico. But the team has had some bad breaks lately. Ferreria, the Olympic gold winner, didn't qualify this year. The current world champion, Filipe Toledo, who did qualify, has taken the year off the pro tour, citing mental health issues. And one of the brightest stars, Joao Chianca, was hospitalized after a severe wipeout last December at Pipeline in Hawaii. He'll be surfing in the Olympics with a helmet.

JOAO CHIANCA: It's kind of weird. We want some freedom sometimes, but that's what is on the table for me. That's the cards that I have to play with this year.

KAHN: Despite the few bumps, Globo TV sports reporter Raphael De Angelis says Brazil's Olympic prospects are great, and so is the growing fan base at home.

RAPHAEL DE ANGELIS: Nowadays, we can say that it's 60% and the country of soccer, 40% the country of surf.

KAHN: The fans on the beach in Saquarema agree. I ask surf teacher Nelter Macedo Poge which way he swings.

POGE: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAHN: The national soccer team is a mess. He says he's sticking with the surfers. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Rio De Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Carrie Kahn
Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.