Maya Gabeira's horrifying, high-speed wipeout on a wave with an 80-foot face, seen by millions on live TV 18 months ago, has proved to be a great career move. Forget her 2009 ESPY Award for Best Female Action Sports Athlete and her successful ride that same year of a four-story-high wave in South Africa, the biggest ever for a female. Or her 2010 Billabong Girls Best Overall Performance Award, her fourth in a row.
Although she has spent most of the last year undergoing two surgeries for herniated disks, and is still fielding media inquiries about her near-death wipeout, this month Gabeira is returning to the site of her crash — the beach at Nazaré, Portugal — with a crew to make a documentary about it. "I'm just now getting back to riding waves," she says. "I'm training to get back to where I was before the crash."
Global fame was the last thing on her mind as a girl in Rio de Janeiro. She was drawn to surfing at 14, watching — and waiting for — her boyfriend, an avid surfer. "I realized they were having a lot of fun and were very passionate about it. I felt like I was missing out on something," she says.
Her fearless image will forever be defined by the events of Oct. 28, 2013, when she crashed her board and floated for five minutes, unconscious and facedown, before being rescued by her longtime tow partner, Carlos Burle. One of a handful of female big-wave surfers — extreme risktakers who are towed out to sea on Jet Skis and deposited on the lips of waves taller than Godzilla — the 28-year-old from Marina del Rey separated herself from the pack that day.
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But with the intense publicity came notoriety. Laird Hamilton, the godfather of big-wave surfing, dismissively said Gabeira had no business tackling such a huge wave. Gabeira today says she didn't resent his slam — only its timing. "He has the right to say what he thinks, but I was in the ER and as low as a person can get," she says in a soft, lilting voice that still carries inflections of her native Brazil. "'I'm glad you're alive' would have been nice to hear on national TV."
Gabeira can live just fine with being known for an epic failure. "I don't think it's a bad way of people knowing about me," she says. "It's what comes to many people's minds when they hear my name, but that's all right with me."
So she travels the globe regularly, chasing the biggest waves and making commercials for her primary sponsor, Red Bull. Los Angeles is her home base, and when she's here she's a familiar face at the Red Bull training facility in Santa Monica. She embraces her high-risk career, saying, "If there's one thing for sure in life, it's that everyone is going to die, so I don't worry about it. I'm not doing it because I'm fearless or because I want to die. I do it because I love it."