Why Mahina Maeda May Be The Most Fearless Woman In Competitive Surfing

Yasuo Maeda

Mahina Maeda is known for her lack of fear: In November she became only the second woman in history to surf the legendary big waves of Nazare, Portugal.

Mahina Maeda hadn't planned on riding gigantic, record-setting waves. It was early November 2014, and the 16-year-old from the North Shore of Oahu had been watching the waves climb from 5 to 10 to 15 feet and higher at Nazaré, the deadly big-wave hub off the coast of Portugal.

It was almost a year, to the day, since Brazilian surfer Maya Gabeira had lost consciousness and nearly drowned at the same spot after attempting to set the world record for the biggest wave surfed by a woman.

Nazaré is not for the faint of heart.

But Maeda was fresh off clinching the junior world title in nearby Ericeira, and was looking for something to keep up the momentum from her latest win -- and something that people would remember her by.

So on that day in November, Maeda's "Uncle Garrett" -- big-wave surfing legend Garrett McNamara, a close family friend -- strapped her into not one, but two life vests. Then she hopped onto the back of his jet ski and rode out into the roaring surf. And after three deep cleansing breaths to "reset" herself, the teenager cascaded down her first wave and then went in for another, meatier one: a beast estimated at 30 feet.

"My mind just went blank," she recalls of dropping in. "I could hear just my heart pumping. That's it."

The colossal wave closed out on Maeda almost immediately, crashing around her and pulling her under in one heart-stopping moment. But she resurfaced with a toothy grin spread across her face as McNamara towed her to shore.

She had become only the second woman on record to drop in at Nazaré, a feat that earned her a nomination for Ride of the Year in the 2015 Billabong XXL Big Wave Awards.

"Where she got pounded at Nazaré is as bad as it gets," McNamara says. He would know: He set a world record there in 2013 when he rode a 100-foot behemoth, breaking his own record from 2011 when he dropped in on a 78-foot wave. He adds, "And the video doesn't do it justice."

It's this type of grace under pressure that Maeda, now 17, hopes will push her through to joining the top 17 female surfers on the World Surf League's Women's Championship Tour. For the past two seasons, she has been crisscrossing the globe as an amateur on the World Qualifying Series, the precursor to nabbing a spot in the pro ranks: The top six women on the WQS qualify for the WCT.

My mind just went blank. I could hear just my heart pumping. That's it.
Mahina Maeda

Maeda is currently tied for No. 4 in the rankings -- with a huge opportunity in front of her this week, at the WCT's fifth stop in Fiji. Her junior world title win last year earned her a wild-card entry into the competition, and it's an ideal training ground for an amateur on the cusp of turning pro. In Fiji, she'll face off against two of the most competitive women in the world in her first heat: fellow Hawaiian and one of Maeda's personal idols, Carissa Moore, a two-time world champion; and Australian ripper Dimity Stoyle. If she performs well, she'll leave the competition with a clear "watch out" message for the women currently on the WCT, especially those ranked in the lower half.

Competing in Fiji will also mean missing her high school graduation ceremony, but with an almost dizzying travel schedule, this is really no surprise. In fact, she's hardly ever home. This year, her season kicked off in China in January. She headed down to Australia in early February, went back home to Oahu for a few days, and then traveled back to New Zealand in March. Ahead of Fiji, Maeda detoured to Bali for a surf trip to practice in bigger waves. When she gets back from Fiji, she will have only a few short hours before she leaves for a contest in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. The WQS is nicknamed "the Grind" for obvious reasons, and the constant travel just comes with being an elite surfer.

A self-described "water baby," Maeda's skills were obvious from a young age, when at 4 or 5 she attempted a bottom turn (a turn at the bottom of a wave) on her dad's longboard. The daughter of Japanese immigrants, she credits her mother, Hitomi, a former competitor in kendo martial arts, for her in-water fierceness.

Michelle Yap

Mahina Maeda calls Haleiwa, Hawaii home, but with the nonstop travel of life on the WQS, she's hardly ever in Hawaii.

Maeda holds dual Japanese and American citizenship and speaks Japanese fluently. She's also one of the few -- very few -- Asian-American women in surfing, and in action sports in general, so she tries hard to balance both Japanese and American culture in her life.

"Japanese culture is about being humble," Maeda says. "I have always been the one that's kind of hidden. It's the way that I was raised."

She counts a pachinko parlor -- one of the rowdy, ubiquitous arcades found all over Japan -- as one of her sponsors, in addition to her main one, the apparel company Hurley.

The break Maeda will next surf in Fiji is a notoriously dangerous one. One small mistake -- a loss of footing, a miscalculated turn -- can result in burned up time and energy or, worse, broken boards and bones. Waves have been known to climb to 20 feet (and larger).

But for a surfer like Maeda, it may also be the perfect stage to show off her fearlessness.

"I want to show [the other competitors] that I'm not scared of the waves and that I come from a famous one at Sunset [Beach]," she says, referring to the big-wave spot in her backyard.

To prep, she has been hitting the gym with coach Kahea Hart, who combines high-intensity circuit training with rounds of boxing with a competitive focus.

"We do three minutes of boxing, and in the last minute, I'll talk them through scenarios where they're surfing in a heat," the former pro surfer says. "That way they're playing the game in their head while boxing and under pressure."

As she showed at Nazaré, Maeda knows how to handle pressure well. And whether the waves are 5 feet or 25, the teen takes an egalitarian approach, a wise move since she'll need to master both to accomplish her goal of becoming the first Japanese-American world champion.

"My Uncle Garrett told me that whether you surf in small conditions or big conditions, treat it all the same." She pauses thoughtfully, as if in quiet calculation before adding, "Treat it with a lot of respect, and good things will come back to you."

The holding period for the Fiji Women's Pro starts May 31. Watch it live at www.worldsurfleague.com.

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