What It Took to Set the World Record for Surfing

Brazilian surfer Rodrigo Koxa had to conquer PTSD before he was ready to break Garrett McNamara’s world record

McNamara (in 2013 in Nazaré) still surfs its monster waves, despite the risks. Last year, a fall broke champion British surfer Andrew Cotton’s back. (Tó Mané)
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As soon as Rodrigo Koxa saw the wave, he knew it was the -biggest one of his life. “I remember the shadow of it,” he says. “It was super-powered, super-fast.” This was in November at Nazaré, a little more than three years after the Brazilian surfer had experienced a near-fatal wipeout there that shook his confidence so badly that he stayed away from monster waves for months. “I almost died,” he recalls. “My mind shut down. It was the worst time in my life.”

Plagued by nightmares of being dashed on the rocks below Nazaré’s lighthouse, Koxa says he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He lost his sponsor. He had wanted to be a “big rider” since reading about the greats in surfing magazines as a boy, but Nazaré’s big waves had seemingly defeated him.

Koxa, the son of a businessman and a psychotherapist, lives in the beach town of Guarujá, where he grew up. He took up surfing at age 5, won his first competition at 12 and was an old pro by his 30s. Like the rest of the surfing world, he had learned about Nazaré from Garrett McNamara.

“Garrett’s a visionary, like a big brother to me,” Koxa says. McNamara invited Koxa to stay at his house when the younger surfer first traveled to Hawaii in 2000, and he had been generous with advice. When the American introduced Nazaré to the world, Koxa knew he had to follow. Little did he dream that—after two years of mental work to rebuild his confidence—he would beat McNamara’s own record for the largest wave ever surfed.

That wave—what he calls “my wave”—lives on in a mental reel Koxa has replayed in the months since: “I was at the right spot—I was at the peak of the triangle. I thought, ‘I’ve got to go straight down.’ The wave was behind me, trying to get me. I felt it break, ‘Boom!’ behind me.”

After his jet-ski-mounted partner plucked him from the frothy water and towed him back to shore, Koxa watched his feat on video and realized the wave had been even bigger than he thought—not just the biggest of his life, but perhaps the biggest ever surfed by anyone, anywhere. He marveled that, after years of worrying about another catastrophic wipeout, he had met this monster without a hint of fear.

“I think I put all the fear somewhere else,” he says. “I don’t know where. But I felt so confident!”

In April 2018, Koxa, who is 38, learned he had broken the Guinness World Record. According to the World Surf League, the wave measured 80 feet, two feet higher than McNamara’s record wave of 2011. Koxa’s hero called to congratulate him. With the acclaim—and financial resources—that come with a world record, he hopes to begin working with a larger support crew, to help him find and tackle even larger swells. And he will, of course, begin that quest at Nazaré.

“I want to beat myself!” he says.

About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Michigan-based freelance journalist writing about cities, science, the environment, art and education. A longtime Smithsonian contributor, her work also appears in CityLab and the Boston Globe.

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