Of Brazilian Gabriel Medina‘s 7.7 million Instagram followers, most began tracking him after his first world surf tour win at age 17, his first world title at 20 or his second crown last year at 24.
But not Neymar. The soccer icon with 113 million followers got in on the ground floor. On Medina’s 14th or 15th birthday, to be more precise.
At the time, either in 2007 or 2008, Neymar was already big in Brazil, though he didn’t start playing professionally until 2009 and didn’t move from Brazil’s domestic league to the titans of Europe until 2013.
“My manager told [Neymar] I wanted to meet him, and then he pretty much organized it,” Medina said in December. “I met [Neymar] first time at his house in Santos.”
Medina, who lived a 90-minute drive from Santos in Sao Paulo, celebrated his birthday by presenting a gift to his fellow precocious athlete, a surfboard.
The two since palled around Brazil and Europe, playing Counter-Strike and poker and hanging at Carnival and on cruises, Medina said. In 2014, Neymar promoted on his social media a live broadcast of Medina’s competition as he tried to become South America’s first world champion in surfing, which makes its Olympic debut in 2020.
Neymar, whose lone sibling is a younger sister, calls Medina his brother. He attended a World Surf League contest in Portugal in October.
“Really good friend outside of the beach and inside of the beach and in the soccer fields,” Medina said. “He put a lot of work and is one of the best. It’s good to have a friend like that.”
Medina was in Rio for the start of the Olympics, a few weeks after he became the first surfer to land a backflip in a contest. But he had to leave before Neymar penned the moment of the Games, slotting the shootout winner to deliver Brazil its first Olympic soccer title.
Two months later, Medina’s stepfather and coach, known in Brazil as Charlão, was involved in an unspecified incident involving World Surf League officials.
He was suspended for six months. Medina struggled early in the 2017 season, rebounded to win the ninth and 10th events but lost in the quarterfinals of the Billabong Pipe Masters finale, ending his comeback bid and allowing American John John Florence to clinch a repeat title.
Medina said his climb back in 2018 to his first world title in four years was more difficult than earning that maiden crown, when he became the youngest male world champ since Kelly Slater won the first of his record 11 titles in 1992. Medina, whose favorite tattoo is a family crest inside his upper arm, mentioned dealing with his dad’s situation.
“When you win the first one you kind of get in a comfortable zone, you know?” he said. “That’s why I think the second is harder. You have to put a lot of work, even more than the first one.”
Brazil had its most successful Olympics ever in Rio, unsurprisingly, with national records of seven gold medals and 19 total medals. It finished 13th in the medal standings, also a best. Those numbers are expected to descend without a home-field advantage in Tokyo. The addition of surfing should be a boost, though Medina is not guaranteed one of two Brazilian spots at the Games. Three of the top four men in last season’s world tour standings were from Brazil.
Which led Medina to proclaim that surfing has passed volleyball as Brazil’s second-most popular sport.
“Of course,” Medina said, “soccer is No. 1.”
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