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Surfing world champion Gabriel Medina’s birthday bond with Neymar

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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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MORE: Top U.S. female surfer has Olympic swimming, Egg McMuffin ties

Kelly Slater ups Olympic prospects after viral moment; Brazilian wins world title

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A 46-year-old Kelly Slater matched his best finish on the World Surf League in more than two years, reaching the semifinals of the Billabong Pipeline Masters in Hawaii on Monday. With that kind of surfing, he could next year qualify for the sport’s Olympic debut.

The 11-time world champion lost to second-ranked Australian Julian Wilson 14.2 to 11.17 at the season-ending event.

Earlier, the seven-time Pipe Masters champ Slater eliminated Brazilian Filipe Toledo, who came into Hawaii ranked third in the world this year. Slater’s highlights included what’s being called “the Houdini tube ride,” which went viral a day later on Monday.

Brazilian Gabriel Medina clinched his second world title by reaching the final. Medina, a 24-year-old who landed the first backflip in a contest in 2016, is so popular that he has 6.5 million Instagram followers, nearly three times Slater’s amount.

Slater has said the 2019 season will be his last on tour, but he has not ruled out competing at the Tokyo Olympics should he qualify as one of the top two Americans in next year’s standings.

“If I make the [Olympic] team, I’ll compete,” Slater said in April.

Slater dropped to the third-ranked American in 2016 and missed four of 11 events last season after breaking his foot.

Still, he was the only U.S. man to record multiple top-three finishes among the 11 World Surf League contests in 2018, even though he only competed three times total due to injury.

“I actually think my hand cut the other day took my mind off the foot,” Slater said Monday. “And then yesterday I banged my other foot on the reef. That took my mind off of this. Then this morning I landed on my back.”

The U.S. had no men ranked in the top six in the world going into the Pipe Masters. The 2016 and 2017 World champion — 25-year-old John John Florence of Hawaii — has been out since tearing an ACL in June.

The 2019 WSL season — and the start of Olympic qualifying — begins in Gold Coast, Australia, in April.

“It’s just nice to dust off the contest thing a little bit,” Slater said while at his 26th Pipe Masters, according to World Surf League commentators.

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MORE: Top U.S. female surfer has Olympic swimming, Egg McMuffin ties

Surfer Stephanie Gilmore’s path to Olympics joined by Cathy Freeman

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Stephanie Gilmore, like many Australians of her generation, points to one iconic sports moment of her childhood — Cathy Freeman winning the 400m at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

“I remember just being so blown away by the pressure [that Freeman felt],” said Gilmore, who was 12 years old at the time, two years before signing her first sponsor deal with Rip Curl. Surfing wasn’t part of the Olympics then, but it got Gilmore thinking about her other sports, like field hockey, soccer and track and field.

“I could go to the Olympics and throw a javelin or a discus,” she thought.

Gilmore stuck to surfing. Wise move.

Seventeen years later, Gilmore met Freeman for the first time. With the sport added to the Olympics, Surfing Australia brought Freeman to speak to more than a dozen Tokyo 2020 hopefuls at a camp in New South Wales last January.

“I was basically in such awe of her,” Gilmore said while visiting New York City last week, fresh off her female record-tying seventh world title. “She was so genuine and just talking about how she would find her sacred place in that moment that every single [set of] eyes all over the world were on her.

“Now I’m an even bigger fan.”

It’s hard to imagine Gilmore’s 2019 or 2020 topping her 2018. She won her first world title in four years and saw the World Surf League announce equal prize money for men and women starting next season. That came after a difficult stretch.

“My motivation and inspiration had sort of waned,” Gilmore said of going two and a half years between WSL wins from 2014 to 2017, including missing most of the 2016 season with hairline fractures around her knee. “Traveling so much can get a little tiring. You lose confidence, too, as you’re going along.”

Gilmore says that in Australia, each little beach has its own surf club. That’s where she began competing against the boys while Freeman was fresh in the minds of the Australian public. By 17, Gilmore was entering top-level international events, even winning her home beach event in 2005, then earned her first of four straight world titles in 2007.

On Dec. 27, 2010, Gilmore was attacked outside her home by a man with a metal bar whom she didn’t know. He hit her in the head and wrist, drawing blood and tearing ligaments before fleeing and later being caught, according to reports at the time.

Gilmore competed in the season’s first contest two months later, won an event four months after that and finished third in the season standings.

Gilmore won the first and last events of the 10-stop season in 2017, placing second overall to countrywoman Tyler Wright and just ahead of another Aussie, Sally Fitzgibbons. It’s likely that no nation will qualify more than two Olympic surfing spots per gender. Gilmore is three years older than Fitzgibbons and six years older than Wright. Time may not be on her side. All three were invited to Surfing Australia’s January camp for Olympic hopefuls.

The 2019 World Surf League standings should determine the two Aussie women who go to Tokyo. Gilmore needs to set herself apart from the best in the world, since they’re also the best from her country.

She did just that in 2018. Gilmore won three of the season’s first six events and clinched the world title on the first day of the 10th and final contest in Maui two weeks ago. She was the lone Australian woman to win any event this year. Wright missed the second half of the season with the flu and chronic fatigue.

Gilmore said the sting of losing the season’s first event — a quarter-mile from her Coolangatta home — and the anticipation of leading the standings going into the last event were proof that the motivation was back.

She couldn’t sleep the night before the Maui contest, unusual for her.

“All the what-ifs and the fear of failure and all these sorts of things in my head,” Gilmore said. “Yeah, it was mine to lose.”

She chilled out upon tackling the first wave of round one. She clinched the title when American Lakey Peterson bowed out in an early round. Only good friend Kelly Slater has more titles than Gilmore’s seven. The 11-time world champion said he believes Gilmore can reach his tally.

The two FaceTimed shortly after Gilmore’s celebration, explaining the intricacies of how waves barrel to WSL owner Dirk Ziff. Gilmore and Slater also talk music. Both play the guitar.

“He’s always been there,” said Gilmore, who is on a Led Zeppelin kick and often buys a guitar while at contests and leaves it there when she departs.

Gilmore believes that over the last decade surfing has gained on swimming and rugby in popularity in a nation where a majority of the population lives within a short drive of the ocean.

“The Olympic swimmers have always been held in the highest regard,” she said. “Ian Thorpe is probably our greatest Olympian. The swimmers have always been the most recognized athletes in our country. We’re such a small population in our country, but I feel like everyone surfs.”

MORE: Will Kelly Slater go for Tokyo 2020?

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