To call Maya Gabeira “fearless” would be to misinterpret her confidence. The big-wave surfer is as aware of the dangers of her sport as anyone watching her, amazed, from the beach. But perhaps no reminder is quite as fresh on the lips as her recent accident at Portugal’s big-wave break Nazaré, where she nearly drowned in late October after she hit a bump and snapped her ankle, causing her to wipe out on what’s been touted as the “biggest wave ever.” Unable to hold onto the rope her tow partner, Carlos Burle, was desperately trying to get to her, and Maya was swallowed up by the unrelenting sets and lost consciousness in a moment she remembers now as “spiritual.”
Burle was eventually able to pull Gabeira from the water and administer CPR (before going back in to surf the wave himself). Still, when we catch up with Gabeira a little over a month into her recovery, we expect her to be—understandably—shaken. Instead we find her radiant, wrapping up the last two weeks of her intensive rehabilitation program and getting ready to kick off a partnership with ZOZI to give away an epic adventure to Argentina and Brazil, her home country. Here, she recounts the final moments before blacking out and how she’s aiming to improve the safety of her sport:
Can you tell us what you remember from the accident?
I remember everything until the point where Carlos starts the rescue attempts. That’s when I believe I was going unconscious. I remember the wave when I fell, then popping up doing my breathing exercises and taking the next bomb on my head. Then I had a two-wave hold down that put me in the position where Carlos sees me. By then I was very tired, with a broken leg, no life jacket, and a serious lack of oxygen.
Do you remember being revived?
Yes. I have those memories fresh. I woke up in the sand, wet, and had Nuno the lifeguard next to me and more people around me. I knew right away what had happened.
So what went wrong?
A few things went wrong and a few things went right, like any hard situation where you come out alive, I guess. It was unfortunate that my wave was the second wave of the set, so when I fell I still had two huge ones to take on the head. It was unfortunate that I had a two-wave hold down and that my life jacket got ripped off my head underwater. The rescue attempts were hard because we had no backup and I wasn’t able to cooperate with Carlos. But we also had things that went right and without those, I wouldn’t be alive.
Had you ever been so close to drowning before?
I’d never been in a situation like that before. At first I was sad; it was hard to be living through that and realizing I might not come out alive. But in the end I was able to make peace with it and stay calm. It was a very spiritual moment for me.
You and Carlos had done a lot of training for this swell—did you know things might get so gnarly out there?
Absolutely. We realized it was the hardest set-up we had ever surfed in. I think we all knew the gravity and some of the possible consequences of that surf session.
Was this anything like what happened to you at Teahupoo?
It was very different, but I’m very glad to have lived through the Teahupoo experience because it gave me knowledge, nerves, and two years of specific training to live through Nazaré with more tools to survive with.
You know the risks as a big-wave surfer, but did this change anything for you?
I always thought big-wave surfing was extremely dangerous and life threatening. I never took it lightly. I think we all have room for improvement and situations like that prove that to us and show us what direction to go in so we can improve the safety of our sport.
What are your plans while you recover?
I’ve been on an intensive rehab program and I’m on my last 15 days of it, so I wouldn’t call it being on a bench! I’m working on safety aspects and talking to Carlos and my sponsors to improve it. I’m two weeks away from arriving in Hawaii and slowly starting to surf again. I plan to be fully recovered and ready for my winter season by mid-January!
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