A King Amongst Medinas: Inside Gabriel’s World Title Winning 2021 - Stab Mag

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A King Amongst Medinas: Inside Gabriel’s World Title Winning 2021

How a former South Sydney demolition man helped mastermind Gabriel Medina’s Title campaign.

features // Sep 14, 2021
Words by Jed Smith
Reading Time: 11 minutes

Gabriel Medina has just arrived at the beach. 

His supermodel wife is in tow, he’s got a fresh 6’0 Cabianca under his arm, an earring dangling from his left ear, and a smile you couldn’t wipe off with a cricket bat. He might have lost out in the Round of 16 at Margaret River but he’s not kicking stones.

“It’s my wife’s first time here and (she’s) loving it so it’s good to be back,” he tells me.

We’re at a wave called Sewers in Gas Bay, Margaret River, named in honour of the sewage treatment plant that overlooks it. It’s four-to-six feet, supercharged with long period West Australian energy, and mostly closeouts. But the sun’s out, the water is clear blue, and there’s only a couple of guys out.

“I’ve been trying to surf every day to stay in the rhythm and the moment. If you look around you find fun (waves) with no one out. That’s what I’m looking for: less people with more waves so I can practice more,” says Medina.

“You have a lot of options to surf, if you drive, you have so many waves. I feel like there is more power in the wave and more opportunities,” says Medina.

I’ve been here for an hour or so watching two very apt local surfers struggle to find a section, let alone a combination of manoeuvres or a tube. By the time Medina’s done, I’ll be scooping my jaw off the ground having watched him make six or so pits in succession, including a mind-bending under-the-lip fade take off, with a series of scintillating layback jams, finners, and corked punts on the end section for good measure. The punters offer the ideal frame for comparison.

At times, it feels silly to use the term “surfing” to describe both this and whatever it is the rest of us do. Photo: Jack Barripp

“It’s like a Formula One car amongst a bunch of Kombis,” laughs Andy King, former pro surfer and Gabriel’s Australian coach.

“He’s a magician. His ability to manifest something…To a good surfer, it looks like a dead closeout with 30 tonnes of seaweed and he can find a pit and go to the air,” he says.

The session draws to a close when Medina loses his board onto the rocks (he spent most of it without a leg rope). A tourist races to save it but can’t get there in time, so Medina gives him the partially damaged board. “I’ve got five more just like it,” he tells me.

The tourist can’t believe it. “I didn’t even ask him. He just said, ‘Mate, it’s for you.’ I said cheers. I didn’t expect that. I’m happy. He made my day. Medina is a good guy. Good surfer, good guy, good vibes,” he says.

This is the Gabriel Medina of 2021. Nonplussed, selfless, happy, and emotionally stable, a world away from the childish spats and volatility that cost him in previous years.

“One of the key evolutions of Gabe, he’s moved out of that space of reactiveness. And now it’s purely about performance,” says Kingy.

Though he’s quick to put in context the person Gabe was when he was prone to losing his shit. That is, a kid from the breadline in Brazil who won the country’s first-ever World Title at the tender age of 20.

“In Gabe’s defence — and anyone’s defence — getting a World Title that young is different. The emotional maturity doesn’t really kick in until your mid-twenties,” says Kingy.

The WSL was the ASP and Gabriel Medina was just a kid. Seen here, shortly after clinching his first World Title in 2014 at age 20. Photo: Laurent Masurel/WSL

At face value, King and Medina are an odd fit. One is a flamboyant, unashamedly theatrical Brazilian sporting superstar who rubs shoulders with some of the most famous people on earth. The other a blue-collar journeyman from South Sydney who’d rather dig holes and knock down walls than compromise on his coaching methods for some snot-nosed pro or pro junior. During his time on the WQS, there was no love lost between King and some of the Brazilian competitors, and those sentiments might have even lingered a little longer than they should have. His involvement with Medina has cured that, but not in any kind of sycophantic way. That’s not how Kingy does it. Through getting to know their stories, he’s developed a respect for Brazilian surfing that is deep and personally resonant to him.

“(They) come from nothing,” he says.

“They had holes in their skate ramps and the groms were that frothing because they even had half a quarter pipe to have a crack at something. And I went, ‘Aw shit, this is (Don) Bradman relived…you speed something up, you make it more intense than it has to be, then when the reality comes it slows down time,” he says.

Overcoming adversity is something Kingy knows more about than most. It might also be the biggest binding force between he and his young Brazilian charger. King’s father was a career criminal and violent alcoholic who left a disastrous imprint on him as a youth. One that would culminate in King being viciously beaten outside a nightclub by a group of men, leaving him deaf in one ear and ending his surfing career.

Even thoughj his professional surf career was cut tragically short, Kingy still rips. Photo: Ryan Miller

He transitioned into coaching and had some incredible success, including a World Title alongside Mick Fanning in 2013 — though he’s quick to hose down his role in that. “I had nothing to do with that!” he laughs.

Kingy’s coaching method is based around honesty, accountability, and speaking truth regardless of the consequences. It’s not for everyone and he’s not ashamed to admit he’s been fired several times by top-tier talent. “Julian Wilson fired me five times,” he laughs.

Eventually, the coaching gigs either dried up or paid so poorly that he was forced into labouring and demolition gigs to put food on the table for his wife and children.

“It got that bad where I was just scrapping for bananas and avocados, it was rock bottom for sure,” he told the Ball and All podcast.

“I went back to demolition but I would choose to do that rather than go into the masses with coaching to try and bring parents on a journey that doesn’t exist. I’d still choose that labouring,” he says.

The connection with Medina came through Mick Fanning, a mutual mentor to both of them over the years, who Kingy describes as “Uncle Mick” and his “safety net” at different times. Fanning, himself a product of a difficult, trauma-riddled upbringing, maintained a close relationship with Medina during their time on tour together and they remain close today.

Don’t forget who finished runner-up during Medina’s first World Title year. The respect between him and Mick runs deep. Photo: Kelly Cestari/WSL

“Mick called us up because Gabe had approached Mick,” recalls Kingy. “He’s always been a mentor. They’ve always gotten along really well, spent a lot of time together in the Rip Curl house in Hawaii, and Gabe’s super curious and taken on board a lot of what Mick’s done. He’s super observant, like a sponge,” he says.

Initially, Gabe asked if Mick could provide some coaching and guidance but he’d just had a child, ruling him out. He immediately suggested Kingy who was then making ends meet as a demolition man. He’d provided the perfect foil to Mick after he’d won two World Titles and begun his search for meaning, motivation, and eventually a third. With Gabby in a very similar position in his career, having already won two World Titles, it was a no-brainer. The only guy who needed convincing was the one swinging sledgehammers at brick walls.

“You’ve gotta know whether you can actually work together. So then we had to set those perimeters and boundaries before we even started. Because if you don’t get along with someone, if you don’t share something, if there’s no empathetic background that you have, you can’t work together,” says Kingy.

“We set the boundaries on everything. We’d have to explore the reason why you’re doing something, and one of the key things is a purpose greater than yourself because you’re never going to win if it’s about fame and money. You might get somewhere but when shit hits the fan and you’ve gotta be resilient, you’ve got nothing else to pull on, so it’s about finding out what that is and why,” he says.

A certain level of conflict and confrontation is also inevitable at this level. So he had to know they could trust each other to have it out and then be able to move on immediately.

“You’re gonna argue. In high-performance sport there will always be clashes. That was the thing, I was like, ‘I’m going to constantly keep asking more from you. I’m never going to stop asking you to do more, give more,” says Kingy.

So began King’s journey through the Brazilian surfing underground. Medina’s story, in particular, hit home on a few levels for King. Where his father was a gangster, Medina’s was absent from a young age forcing him to work his first job as a six-year-old, parking cars, to help his mother put food on the table. It was her second husband, a humble surf shop owner from Maresias, Charles Rodriguez, who Gabe calls dad, and who would coach him to his two World Titles.

“Everyone has it. How do you find that empathy? How far do you have to go back before you can relate to that person? It’s the only way you’re going to get along,” says King.

Gabe, opening up to Uncle Mick.

The dynamic he’s employed with Medina is much the same as what he did with Mick. Both had won two World Titles by the time King came on board and both knew a lot more about performing at this level than he ever will. His job is simply to keep them at their peak.

“How do you wanna win, firstly? You wanna win that way? And I’ll find that way for you to win with what’s happening, obviously the intel with the refractions on the banks, the tides. Then it’s customising that. Giving him the power instead of telling him what to do. It’s just like, ‘What did you learn? What did you do well? What could you improve on?’” says King of the process.

“You own this mate. You’re a man. I’m not going to dictate to you. You’re not going to be choreographed now. This is the process it will take for you to move into this space,” he says.

The Margaret River event brought the first hiccough in their time together. When day one of the event saw 10-to-15-foot waves, Kingy was mortified to find Medina arriving at the contest site with nothing more than a handful of 6’0s.

Fortunately, a 6’6 will not even be hypothetically necessary at Lowers. Here’s a look at Medina’s blades for the big Final. Photo: WSL

“He comes down with his shortboards, which he was riding in Narrabeen. I’m just going, ‘What didn’t you get out of my debrief that it’s 15-feet and offshore out there?’” laughs Kingy.

He politely asked for Medina’s car keys and the keys to his apartment, sped back there, and burst through the door only to find all his big boards unwaxed without grip pads. King returned to the contest site fumbling boards, grip pads, and wax, trying to get them ready as the bemused competitor watched on.

“(I) completely broke our routine and everything we had because I couldn’t mentally break up with the fact he needed a 6’3 or 6’6. It was such a realisation that he backs himself that hard and is that skilled that he rode his Narrabeen board in 15-foot Margaret River,” says Kingy.

Medina took the heat win on his 6’0 and Kingy was only too happy to apologise for second-guessing his instincts. It proved a landmark moment in their relationship.

“That blew my mind and then I had to break up with my own biases. It made me question everything,” he says.

“In our debrief I had to explain to him the reasoning empathetically — if I’m wrong, I’m wrong. You have to apologise and then you move on. We don’t take that into the next day. I’m like, ‘Well, I fucked that up but let’s move forward,’” says Kingy.

After watching Medina’s clinic at Sewers that day, it was unsurprising to see him canter to victory at Rottnest Island the following event and leave Australia with a record-breaking lead over the rest of the field. His next best result would be runner-up at Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch Pro to go along with runner-up finishes at Newcastle and Pipe Masters. Then things took a bit of a turn.

Despite taking some of the best form ever seen into the Tokyo Olympics, Medina failed to medal. He lost to Owen Wright in the bronze medal match while his countrymen and reigning world Champ, Italo Ferreira, took out surfing’s first-ever gold. He followed that with an uncharacteristic fifth-place finish in Mexico, leaving the door ajar for his nearest rival, Italo Ferreira yet again, to build on his superb back half of the season. This isn’t the first time Medina’s form has dipped as Italo’s spiked. Who could forget Medina’s acrimonious priority bust-up in Portugal, 2019, that saw him cough up the ratings lead followed by the World Title at Pipeline to Italo? 

The WSL’s new playoff format is likely to see Medina face off once more against Italo in the final. If so, the pair will be starting from scratch, despite Medina’s unquestioned dominance this season. Kingy’s confident Medina won’t be overawed by the situation this time around.

“He’s a completely different human this year. That was the young Gabe. He’s evolved a lot past that reactive space. That’s been a huge focus. I don’t see that (happening),” he says.

Different attitude, same ridiculous form at the Surf Ranch. Photo: Tony Heff/WSL

Speaking on my podcast, Ain’t That Swell, after having just watched several days of high-performance Trestles hot laps by the contenders, the Cronulla journeymen also said the dip in form was necessary. It’s just not possible to run that hot for an entire season.

“There’s no way you can maintain that kind of momentum throughout a season,” he says.

“It was like he was buying time for this ‘cos he can’t keep that kind of foot to the floor as he had early in the season for a whole year…he took some time out. I’ve never seen him look this sharp and on point,” he says.

His performances in the lead-up to Trestles, in which surfers were greeted by four-to-six-foot “skatepark” conditions, have left the rest of the field for dead, says Kingy.

“He’s been absolutely on fire. He’s been schooling everyone for the last week,” he says.

“If you give them (the judges) everything you can and don’t give them any chance to subtract any points, then that’s pretty much it,” he says.

“So we’re making things harder, faster, more intense, more progression, more rail, more of everything than he’s actually going to have to deliver on that day. He’s more than prepared for that. That’s the space we’ve been in, pushing harder and making it harder than it actually has to be,” says Kingy.

Weaknesses? No, thank you. The two waves you see here (starting at 2:29) were caught within two minutes of each other. Good luck besting that in a heat.

While Toledo’s gone missing at Lowers, Medina’s run into the final couldn’t be smoother. He’s had longtime friend and mentor, Mick Fanning, in his corner and maintained the same calm, happy demeanour I observed back at Margaret River.

All that remains to be seen is how he will handle the new high-pressure finals format, in which Medina will have to watch and wait for his competitors to earn the right to match up against him.

“Gabe doesn’t have a weakness. In any other sport you profile your competitors. He has an opportunity to profile what’s been done and what’s been delivered. He has an opportunity to deliver something that’s missing, something that the person who he does come up against isn’t going to be able to deliver. It’s going to give him an opportunity to figure out what he’s gotta bring out in his menu,” he says.

As for the King’s passage, Medina’s success this season has given him all the validation he needs to stick to his guns. Not that he ever considered doing otherwise.

“I’m just way more confident. I really recognised those values and what I have. I’m willing not to falter. I’ll eat and live in the gutter before I falter on those values,” says Kingy. 

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