Italo Ferreira grew up without much in a small town with nothing to do. His life began to change course when he discovered surfing — improvising with a cooler lid from his father, who sold fish in their native Baía Formosa in northeast Brazil. And now, the 27-year-old surfing aerial master is on his way to the Tokyo Olympics as a world champion to watch. "I started surfing with a Styrofoam cover from a box that my dad used to freeze fish," Ferreira said in Portuguese. "I took it to surf because it was the only thing that could float and could hold me for a few seconds at a wave. That was what made me happy while my dad was working."
This year, Ferreira and fellow Brazilian Gabriel Medina, 27, are expected to rule the men's competition at surfing's long-awaited debut as an Olympic sport in Tokyo. The legitimizing Olympic platform and the duo's unexpected rise to the top of the game — they've been dubbed the "Brazilian Storm" — in the past decade highlight how tough it may be for the exclusive sport to try to attract a mainstream audience. While the surfing community has long pledged that the ocean is for everyone, the elite professional ranks show a sport that remains homogeneous, expensive and inaccessible. A series of recent industry efforts to help groom the next generation outside of the usual hot spots of Hawaii, California and Australia are a tacit acknowledgement of the existing disparities among its talent bench.
Gigi Lucas, who founded a nonprofit called SurfearNEGRA that funds and hosts surf training camps for girls of color, said it can cost newbies about $1,000 for the essentials: surfboard, wetsuit, leash and a week of group lessons. It is geography, though, that's the crux of the accessibility issue, as wave chasing is integral to the sport because it depends on surf conditions that change seasonally from region to region. And with that comes high-priced coastal neighborhoods and travel and transportation from faraway or more urban areas. Then there's the issue of merely being interested in and exposed to the sport. "There are still invisible barriers to overcome in order to make surfing equitable," Lucas said.
For one, many Black people have a disconnect to the ocean, she said, because they were often banned from public beaches up until the civil rights movement in the 1960s. That legacy of systemic racism is why some girls come to her program without knowing how to swim or the basics of oceanography. Lucas, who is Black, said she wants to share her love of surfing but doesn't actually push girls to go pro, noting there are no Black pros in the top tier of the World Surf League. Instead, she encourages the girls to find aligned interests such as marine biology or engineering to chart their own influence in the sport. About 70% of USA Surfing's development team today hails from California and nearly all of the most promising young surfers are white.
Greg Cruse, USA Surfing's CEO, said he believes the rising popularity of surf wave pools will help close some of the access gap. "When surfing is only on the fringes of the continent and that's expensive real estate, it's not exclusionary by design but it's exclusionary by geography," Cruse said. The Olympics are also challenging this geographical status quo, as each national team is allowed only two male and two female surfers in the competition.
That builds pressure on the industry to recruit prospects from as many countries as possible to strengthen and broaden the Olympic roster — and keep quality consistent throughout the world. The International Surfing Association, the Olympic governing body for surfing representing 109 countries, said it prioritized growth in emerging markets to appeal to a global sports platform. "I wanted fairness and I wanted equal opportunities," said Fernando Aguerre, president of the ISA.
"For the Games, this format brings (them) together, whether you're a rich surfer or a poor surfer." Johanne Defay, 27, of France, wouldn't consider herself a poor surfer — her father, after all, is a doctor, and the mega surfing brand Roxy started sponsoring her when she was 12, which included training opportunities in Australia and Hawaii. But her origin story is a cautionary tale about the fickle nature of sponsorships, which are make or break for emerging athletes. "If it's your dream, you take the chances," Defay said. The Reunion Island native recalls how devastating it was to her career when the sponsorship deal ended right before she reached the professional WSL championship tour in 2014.
A nine-month season on the competitive circuit can cost as much as $80,000 in travel costs alone. The cost of going pro is not unlike that of other individual sports, such as tennis and golf, but surfing is uniquely dependent on location. To combat some of those pressures, the WSL this year began organizing regional events so that up-and-coming surfers may gain momentum much closer to home. "A lot of people survive on prize money," said Jessi Miley-Dyer, a retired pro surfer who now runs the WSL's competition events.
Defay said it was fellow pro surfer Jeremy Flores who helped sponsor her "insane" rookie season. Now, they're both off to Japan for the French team — she as a dark horse to watch after an upset win at the high-intensity Surf Ranch last month. Paying it forward is important to Medina, too. In 2017, the first-ever Brazilian champion built a surf school at home in Sao Paulo to support local talent. The program includes not just athletic training but also computer and language classes, as well as medical and dental care.