New Documentary Highlights Barrier-Breaking Big Wave Surfer Maya Gabeira's Battle to 'Be The Best'

·3 min read
RIO DE JANEIRO, RIO DE JANEIRO - MAY 12: Maya Gabeira of Brasil competes only to be eliminated during the Billabong Rio Pro in Round 2 at Barra da Tijuca on May 12, 2011 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Kelly Cestari/World Surf League via Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, RIO DE JANEIRO - MAY 12: Maya Gabeira of Brasil competes only to be eliminated during the Billabong Rio Pro in Round 2 at Barra da Tijuca on May 12, 2011 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Kelly Cestari/World Surf League via Getty Images)

Kelly Cestari/World Surf League via Getty Maya Gabeira

A new documentary premiering Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival takes viewers on a ride through the thrilling — and sometimes chauvinistic — world of big wave surfing with one of the sport's most accomplished athletes, Maya Gabeira.

Gabeira, 35, has navigated the sport's complicated physical and social barriers for more than two decades on her path to becoming a two-time world record holder, with many of the pivotal moments in her career captured on film by documentarian Stephanie Johnes.

"At the very outset, it was like, 'Okay, we have a really interesting sport, we have a great athlete, but this could go nowhere,' " Johnes, the filmmaker behind Maya and the Wave, tells PEOPLE ahead of the film's debut, noting the dangers and uncertainty around the extreme sport.

But soon, Gabeira's story unraveled into territories the director didn't expect.

The Brazilian-born surfer not only broke the world record twice for the biggest wave ever surfed by a woman, but her efforts to get both the World Surf League and Guinness World Records to recognize her feats have garnered attention around the globe. After her first world record in 2018, when she commanded a 68-foot wave off the coast in Nazaré, Portugal, it took nine months for Guinness World Records to officially recognize the record through the World Surf League.

The drawn-out process, which becomes a primary focus of Johnes' film, is "indicative" of the sexism embedded in surfing's male-dominated, machismo culture, according to the director.

"Unfortunately it's just a very misogynist sport," Johnes says. "And it's a magnification, I think, of what generally happens in [our] culture."

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IMAGE Maya and the Wave Image credit: Courtesy of TIFF
IMAGE Maya and the Wave Image credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Courtesy of TIFF Maya Gabeira

At times in the film, Gabeira is shown frustrated at her counterparts' dismissals of her and at her struggles to earn respect in the broader surfing community — despite the records and the scars that prove she belongs.

"Maya is unique in that she can be a very open person, and I really admire her willingness to share her mental health struggles, because a lot of people hide that, and they're ashamed," Johnes says. "And I think she realized that that was important for people to see, because a lot of people struggle with mental health issues and it was really brave of her to be willing to open up like that."

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MARCH 12: Maya Gabeira attends The Launch of The New Connected Watch by TAG Heuer at The Caldwell Factory on March 12, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Brian Ach/Getty Images for TAG Heuer )
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MARCH 12: Maya Gabeira attends The Launch of The New Connected Watch by TAG Heuer at The Caldwell Factory on March 12, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Brian Ach/Getty Images for TAG Heuer )

Brian Ach/Getty

Courage is never in question throughout the hour-and-a-half documentary. One of the most harrowing scenes comes when Gabeira nearly dies chasing the glory of a big wave — crashing hard into the water, nearly drowning as she lies limp in the water for over a minute, before she's dramatically resuscitated on the shore.

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Two years later, Gabeira returned to the water and rode a 73.5-foot wave, breaking her own world record and besting all competitors — men and women — by riding the biggest wave of the year.

And the documentary's crescendo shows the impact she's had on young fans around the globe, by following her dreams.

"I had a journal when I was a teenager and I had things written that I was going to be ... the best big wave surfer in the world and I was going to surf the biggest wave ever," says Gabeira. "I was born a dreamer."