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Scrappy Brazilians making waves in the surfing world, but class and race divisions persist

Surfing has become a source of national pride for Brazil, with its athletes dominating world standings. But as with many aspects of Brazilian life, the country's race and class divisions are having an impact on surfers and the sport at large. Silvana Lima, a gay mixed-race athlete who happens to be the best female surfer in the world, doesn't fit the conventional image of what sponsors think of. Stephanie Nolen reports from Rio de Janeiro

Brazilian Surfer Silvana Lima poses for photo on Recreio beach, west zone of Rio de Janeiro.

Sometimes, when the television cameras focus on Silvana Lima as she paddles her surfboard out to a point break, you can decipher the tattoo on her right arm: " tudo passa." Everything passes.

The list of what has already passed, in Ms. Lima's 38 years, is considerable: she grew up on the sand in a town in Brazil's northeast, living in a shack where her parents sold snacks to beachgoers. She learned to surf using a piece of discarded lumber onto which she stuck a makeshift fin. She got her first real board, a hand-me-down, at 14, and surfed so well that a promoter brought her to Rio three years later. There she began to pick up enough sponsors to compete internationally, and made it to number two in the world, in 2008 and 2009.

She also experienced three terrible surfing accidents – ligament tears requiring surgeries that left her unable to surf for as long as a year – and the loss of those sponsors. She battled subtle discrimination, as an athletic mixed-race woman who didn't fit the conventional sandy-glamorous image of a Brazilian beach babe. In 2015, she had to sell her apartment, her car, and her bulldog's puppies to fund a trip on the international competition circuit.

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And now she is fully back in the game, and gunning for both the world title next year, and an Olympic medal for Brazil when surfing makes its debut in Tokyo in the 2020 Summer Games.

"Was it difficult? Was it terrible? It was. But it passed: everything passes," she said in a conversation near the beach on the edge of Rio where she trains these days. Her story is remarkable, but the gruff Ms. Lima struggles to disguise the fact that she would really rather be in the waves than chatting. "Today I'm happy to say I have some victories, some sponsors, and now all my focus is on being the world champion – to compete under the Brazilian flag."

Silvana Lima is the only brazilian surfer on Women World Surfing League.

Brazilians are a big deal in the world of surfing these days: 13 of the athletes in the world rankings of the top 45 are from Brazil, a shocker in a sport that since its inception has been dominated by Australian and U.S. competitors who traded the champion title back and forth.

Ms. Lima had her first big success nearly a decade ago, but Brazilians really grabbed attention when Gabriel Medina, a tousle-haired kid from a beach town outside Sao Paulo, won the World Surf League champion in 2014. Close on Mr. Medina's heels was Adriano de Souza, who won the world title the next year.

"This generation came as a rocket – they're very talented and very eager," said Tiago Brant, a former pro surfer who now does commentary on the sport for ESPN. The phenomenon has earned the name the Brazilian Storm, perhaps also a dig at their style – because the scrappy Brazilians have a reputation for trash talk in the line (the row of surfers waiting for a wave) and for ignoring etiquette and grabbing a wave that isn't "theirs."

Regardless, the international success of the superstars such as Mr. Medina – who is a ubiquitous presence in Brazilian advertising and has published a best-selling biography at 23 – has boosted the popularity of the sport.

"Surfers are seen more as elite athletes now, and not just the guy who wants to lounge on the beach and surf all day," said Victor Bernardo, another Sao Paulo surfer who cracked the world top 40 last year. "It's gotten easier [to make it as a pro] because there's more coverage and attention – but also harder, because there are more good surfers around."

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But as with so much else in Brazil, the country's race and class divisions play out in surfing, too. Ms. Lima is one of the few mixed-race athletes in the sport. Mr. Bernardo is the one of the only prominent black surfers on the male side, in a country that where 53 per cent of people identify as black or mixed race.

Mr. Brant, who is white, says that the racial imbalance can't be denied. "We Brazilians have a hard time speaking about race issues – we tend to think we don't have any racism here but that's definitely not true, and the fact is, surfing is a white sport in Brazil," he said. "It's not a rule that it has to be, but it's happened like that, and we don't like to talk about it."

Mr. Brant said the barriers to entry are low – the ability to swim and a board, basically – "so talent appears very easily." But to compete – and thus to build the profile to get enough sponsors that you can surf full time – quickly gets complicated. "Brazil has a huge coastline but our waves are not so good," he explains. Few areas in Brazil have the combination of reefs and swells that produce good surfing. So surfers have to travel, if they are going to master waves like the huge barrels of Hawaii – and that's expensive, and means it's tough to hold down another job.

Surfers need sponsors – but between Brazil's economic crisis and its prejudices, they can be hard to come by. The telecommunication firm Oi SA, for example, is one of the major patrons of the sport in Brazil, but has been stuck in bankruptcy proceedings for a year and a half. Mr. Brant says that surfers who meet the Brazilian advertising ideal – blond, white people, essentially – typically have an easier time finding backers.

Silvana Lima competes in the semifinal round of the Billabong Rio Pro Women’s surfing competition in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday May 15, 2011. Lima lost to U.S. surfer Carissa Moore.

And for female surfers, there's a particular challenge. First, Ms. Lima said, the women's sport gets far less attention than the men's ("in truth, in sports, it's always about the men") and then additionally, sponsors have a specific vision of what they want from a female athlete: "You have to be a surfer, and a model." It took a long time to build up sponsors of her own, ones who were willing to back her purely because of how fast she surfs and how high her aerials are, not how she looks in a bikini.

"I had good sponsors – but they didn't give me the same chance to have the same level of support as women in other countries – the structure, the staff, all the costs, to travel with physical trainer," she said. "A good athlete needs that structure behind them, and I have had to pay all of that out of my earnings."

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Brazil's dominance on the global surf scene came after the economic boom years from 2000-13, when income levels rose across society. Since 2005, the federal government has included surfing in its grants program for competitive athletes.

But today the country has few competitive events at home – international marketers don't yet view this as a sufficiently lucrative market. "So how are new girls going to break in?" Ms. Lima asked. "They can't compete in Brazil because there are no competitions and they don't make any money [in winnings], so they can't travel."

Ms. Lima is sponsored by Oi today, and a variety of clothing and surfboard makers – she views the time she must spend "modelling" as a necessary evil. But the road ahead – to the world title, or to Tokyo – will not be easy; her jaw juts out talking about it.

"If I worried about what people think or what they say or what will work or not – I'd have stopped surfing already."


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