Guns, Drugs and Waves: Life As A Bodyboarder In The Slums Of Brazil
In 2017, we took a deep dive into the world of young Brazilian hopeful, Socrates Santana, and his two mentors – Flavio Britto and bodyboarding icon, Guilherme Tamega – who have been with him through his journey from the slums of Rio to the world stage. This story originally appeared in Movement Issue 43.
To outsiders, the Rio favelas are alluringly hazardous. In reality, they’re a rabbit warren where hardened thugs, drug lords and extreme violence co-exist – sometimes harmoniously, sometimes not – alongside locals who keep well enough alone. They’re also the breeding ground of some of bodyboarding’s most gifted riders.
Almost everyone living in the favelas has a dangerous story to tell. Six-time world champion Guilherme Tamega recalls being a grom and having two guys mug him on his walk home, his new gear stolen just a year after he’d first picked up a board. (Imagine if that incident stopped him from picking one up again?). Last New Year’s Eve, local rider David Barbosa was shot in the leg at a party in Rocinha, a favela behind the iconic Brazilian wedge break, São Conrado – he felt a hot sensation in his leg, brushed the area with his hand and realised blood was rushing out of him from a bullet-sized hole. Thankfully, and despite passing out on his motorbike as he sped to the hospital, Barbosa recovered and was back in the water within the month.
In Rio, the stakes are high and the opportunities low. For most, joining a gang and making money selling drugs is the only option. But then, there are some kids that see a chance – a rare and sacred thing – and realise it could be their one shot at getting out. Take Socrates Santana: raised in the Pavão-Pavãozinho favela on the shores of Copacabana Beach, mentored by Tamega and determined to become a future world champion, he’s the shining beacon of hope for local kids looking for a better life through professional sport – with guys like Barbosa and APB junior stalwart Matheus Bastos following suit. For these kids, there is no ‘Plan B’ – the only option is to become the world’s best, or go down fighting.
We sat down with two people helping to launch Santana into the annals of bodyboarding greatness – Tamega, and co-founder of the non-profit Brazilian youth surf club, Escola de Bodyboard Tamega, Flavio Britto – along with Santana himself, to paint a picture of what it’s like for the young hopeful to live, surf, strive and survive under the shadows of the favelas.
Flavio Britto: As it is today, the drug gangs control the access to the favelas. If they don’t think you’re a cop, you’re good. But there’s a false feeling of security, because even though you’re not going to see shots everywhere, the people who are controlling the favela are bad people. So you can’t rely on them. Even for myself, [despite] the amount of times I’ve been up the favela to speak with Socrates’ family and other friends that I have there, in the current climate I just don’t want to go there.
Socrates Santana: I think because I grew up in the favela, it made me feel more motivated to succeed. I know the difficulties are greater, and I have to rise above.
Flavio Britto: In Pavão-Pavãozinho, the sun doesn’t reach all the way back to where you walk because the houses are built so close together. It’s usually a very humid and dark place, and it’s very crowded. The water is sometimes not clean. There are blackouts. The locals live in small boxes – it’s basically a bed and window, sometimes the bathroom is in the kitchen. But [Socrates] has an amazing view. He can see the entire Copacabana beach.
Socrates Santana: If I did not live in front of the beach, I would probably be playing football. But Posto 5 at Copacabana is my favourite wave; it’s where I learned to bodyboard.
Guilherme Tamega: I would say Posto 5 is like a smaller Puerto Escondido. It’s very fickle. Ever since I was 9 I would charge the shorebreaks at Copacabana. That’s how I learnt.
Flavio Britto: I grew up at Posto 5, seeing Guilherme; he was my idol. Everybody bodyboarded at the time. But it’s a very inconsistent wave. Kids from the favela, they want to be at the beach because it’s a pleasant place to be – especially bodyboarding, because you can get a used board for a very cheap price. When every other spot in Rio can’t handle the big swell, it will be the best place to be. But when it’s small and medium, it’s very inconsistent. We call it a champion’s wave. If you can learn to surf here, you can surf anywhere.
Socrates Santana: I was always at the beach, with my dad while he was working at our kiosk, and I would watch my brothers surfing. The first few times were complicated. There was a lot of foam and current on the inside but, with time, I was able to control my board and learnt how to drop in, bottom turn and do some maneuvers. I loved bodyboarding right from the start.
Flavio Britto: At nine, Socrates was doing things that a 14-year-old kid would do. When he first came [to the Escola de Bodyboard Tamega], he was raw talent. We didn’t even have boards for him because he was so small – he was surfing with a board bigger than him.
Guilherme Tamega: We knew Socrates was gonna be something. But I always told those guys, “Let it happen naturally – don’t force it”. Today, there’s no time to be a kid. When I was a kid, I was already living a professional life. Yes, I was a kid, but my attitude and discipline was better than the pros most of the time. So you better step up. No “Poor kid”, “Poor this”. I don’t care.
Flavio Britto: Our main goal is to occupy the kids’ free time. For these kids, it’s better if they’re not back at the favela. The more you keep them doing something, the better. So we introduced a healthy sport, an opportunity to surf and learn to swim. We’re not promising that they’re going to be champions, but we want to have the sport help them get a sense of what’s right and wrong, and give some kind of support that most of the kids don’t have. Either their parents are working the entire day, or they’re crazy and irresponsible and they don’t give a good example. And that’s the truth about the favela. For us to say to them, “Oh you’re going to be a professional bodyboarder”, it’s not much. For us, it’s better that we give them a sense of right direction to help them finish school and get to a college or get a decent job, instead of staying in the streets or getting involved with drug dealing.
Guilherme Tamega: I grew up with this mentality – the more I give back, the more I got. I have nothing vintage or classic because I can’t keep any material with me; other people out here need it. I just usually have my boards that I ride. Back in the day, I always just had the ones I competed with. The rest is for them. Give it away.
Flavio Britto: [At the EGT], we start working with kids at 10 and go up to 16, 17 years old. It’s not that we don’t want to keep them around – but when they get to that age they need to work and help with their family so it’s hard for us to compete with the drug lords. We give them an opportunity, but we can’t give them money. And money makes the world go ‘round. There’s a status for them to be around with drugs. They get access to guns. They’re kings in the favela. The real impact for a good kid coming from the favelas is how he can influence other kids to stay out of drugs, stay out off the streets and try to pursue their dreams.
Socrates Santana: My favourite win so far was the 2016 Nazaré Pro Junior to secure becoming the APB two-time Pro Junior world champion.
Flavio Britto: He’s very focused on what he wants. Since he was small he’s said he wants to do this for a living. There are lots of kids that are good competitors, but they don’t have the eye of the tiger – what it makes to be a champion. Socrates does.
Guilherme Tamega: He’s cautious. Quiet. He doesn’t seem like he wants to go above his limit too fast. He’s taking it step by step. But I’m one of those guys who says, “Hurry”. In your pace, maybe it’s not gonna work the way you want it. You’ve gotta step up, be quicker. But usually the quiet guys outside the water are monsters when they gets in. They grab their boards and they become a totally different person.
Socrates Santana: GT’s influence and support is very important to me. He continues to push me. I have always looked up to Tamega, and I still do.
Guilherme Tamega: I always tell them, I want to know what you’re not good at. Your weakness, that’s what I want to know. If you keep doing what you’re good at, you keep putting your head in a hole. We’ve gotta fight to be perfect.
Socrates Santana: Guilherme says to me, “Now is the time to show the world who Socrates Santana really is – if we do not believe in ourselves, who will?”
Guilherme Tamega: I’m a very short patience guy. If you come stay with me, it’s not ‘gonna be easy for you. And I’m gonna say everything that I’ve gotta say. I was really proud of him at the Pipe contest, because I said, “Man, I’m seeing like you’re taking it easy on your training”. I was kind of losing patience with him. I was kind of like that too – I never wanted to give much at my training stage. But at the contest, when Socrates put the fucking lycra on, it was on. I was so stoked. My jaw dropped, really. I’d never seen him doing that at Pipe, being so mature, in my life. And that’s the guy I want to see... especially coming from where he comes from.
Flavio Britto: When a war explodes in the favela, our streets here in Copacabana close and the shops shut down. Sometimes, we don’t even know if we’re in Syria or Rio. The level of the conflict can scale up very fast. The people that live in the favelas here are not safe.
Guilherme Tamega: We’ve all gotta learn and grow up dealing with the question mark of, “Am I ‘gonna be robbed one day?”. You live in fear because there’s a lot of bad people in there.
Flavio Britto: Last year, there was a big confrontation in the favelas – on the exact same day Socrates was winning his world title, his mother and brothers were back in Brazil stuck in this big drug-dealer-versus-police confrontation. It was sad.
Guilherme Tamega: I know his mum and brothers. They’re really hard-working, good people. Everything they have, everything they do is for Socrates. They deserve everything they can get.
Flavio Britto: Socrates’ dad died when he was eight, so his mother and brothers are basically the supports of the family. The have a kiosk at the beach where they rent chairs, umbrellas and sell drinks. It’s from that business that they keep the family running. Having a world champion in the family was also good for business – people would go there and want to take pictures with him. Then they would rent a chair, an umbrella. He has a very good family background – that makes a lot of difference.
Socrates Santana: Unfortunately, my father is not here today, but I believe that he is very proud of me. In my early years, even though he wanted me to play football, he supported me a lot and today my mother and brothers are the basis for my accomplishments.
Flavio Britto: His career just started. He wants a lot and he has what it takes. Socrates is a name that you should keep around when you’re talking about a future world champion, but I wouldn’t put that on the short term. Maybe mid-term. But I’m making plans without being able to make plans. That’s very frustrating. We managed to send him this year for the tour, and next year I think that he will be able to do it again. But beyond that, we don’t know. Imagine how frustrating it is for you to have a kid that is talented, wants to win, wants to be there but then you’re stuck – not able to pursue your dream because of money issues?
Socrates Santana: I want to be world champion and provide financial security for my family. I imagine myself as a great athlete amongst the elite on the world tour. I want to be a professional who still believes in the growth of bodyboarding.
Guilherme Tamega: For him to be world champ, there’s a very small chance. But, I always like people to prove me wrong. Like how he proved me wrong at Pipe. I thought it would be a disaster. But he really shut my mouth. That’s what I want him to do. It’s just hard to foresee his future. He’s unpredictable.
Socrates Santana: There are many very good bodyboarders in Rio. I am just one of them.
Flavio Britto: These kids don’t have many other options. They need to win. And now Socrates is in the first year of being a pro – it’s harder because it’s a different level of competition and the expenses are higher. It’s difficult for them to come back from an event on the positive side. Usually you spend more than you earn. This is a reality for all riders - but imagine coming from a favela. No money for t-shirts or souvenirs, just enough to pay for food, accommodation and get home. That’s the reality.
Guilherme Tamega: In the favelas, you’ve gotta really step up. Otherwise, who’s next? That’s how life is. There are only a few doors there. You either take them, or you can forget it. Go and find something else to do. The opportunity is only going to knock on your door once in a lifetime.