Joana Andrade: Portugal's first big wave surfer | Photo: WSL

Meet Joana Andrade, Portugal's first big-wave female surfer.

Big wave surfing can be extremely dangerous and requires perseverance and steady nerves.

For many years, this breathtaking discipline has been represented by extraordinary male athletes and somehow restricted to women who looked "more feminine" riding average-sized waves.

Despite all this, a new generation is changing this false belief and proving that big wave surfing is not a men-only practice.

The World Surf League (WSL) is also promoting gender equality and starting to include women in big wave contests.

If you are lucky, you can spot a very talented, adventurous woman on the massive waves of Nazaré's Praia do Norte.

Her name is Joana Andrade, and she is the first and one of the few Portuguese female big wave surfers.

I met her on a sunny day on the cliffs of Ericeira, the World Surfing Reserve town, from where the light and blue Atlantic offers us an outstanding view.

"When I slid on the waves for the first time, I felt immediately connected with the sea, and I knew that it would be part of me for the rest of my life," Joana tells me.

She speaks with enthusiastic dedication, and I realize that there's a sensitive, brave dreamer in front of me.

"A surfer is someone who feels an indescribable connection with the ocean and not only practices the sport but also embraces it as a lifestyle. In the water, I truly experience the special 'here-and-now' pleasure."

Andrade is friendly, smart, and a natural talent who doesn't consider herself a conventional sportswoman.

Joana Andrade: she is pushing her limits at Nazaré | Photo: Elina Manninen

Body, Mind, and Spirituality

She found the ocean during her childhood when she lived through rough times.

Joana Andrade shows me her tattoo. It reads: "Don't forget where home is," which is not a place but an inner feeling.

"The most difficult journey for me was to connect body and mind, and I found out how powerful and spiritual I can be. Nowadays, love is a big part of my life," reveals the big wave surfer.

"I also don't care how high the waves that I surf are. It's all about feelings and deep respect for the ocean."

Joana often smiles while speaking about her passions. She doesn't crave to beat Maya Gabeira, the Brazilian who set a new Guinness World Record for the largest wave surfed by a woman (20.72 meters in Nazaré in January 2018).

Instead, she wishes to be able to achieve her goals and make her dreams come true.

"I've always had more aptitude and a strong impulse for big waves and, in the last five years, I pushed my limits starting to surf Nazaré," observes the Portuguese daredevil.

"From this moment on, I've not only improved, but I also got to know my body and my mind deeply."

When she rides big waves, a powerful feeling takes over. Joana admits that her biggest fear is to drown at sea, but she's learning how to deal with panic attacks.

"During a surfing session, I always care a lot about my mental stability because, with a clear mind, there is less chance of making mistakes," explains Andrade.

"I am a small woman - 1.56 meters tall - and not very muscular. My strength comes from the head through a lot of meditation and breathing exercises. I train at home to relax, connect with my inside, and find the way to trust myself."

Big Vs. Small

To deal with wipeouts, she trained free-diving under ice, and apnea in Finland with Johanna Nordblad during the shooting of the inspiring movie "Big vs. Small."

The movie director, Minna Dufton, joins the discussion and tells me:

"My documentary is focused on the relationship between Joana Andrade and the big waves that have been her therapy since she was young," stresses Dufton.

"Besides, I'd like to show that under-ice training can be the solution to reduce drowning incidents in surfing, thanks to the improvement of the mind's power."

"The story talks about exceptional courage and shows the self-love research after losing yourself. It's a very special project for me, probably the most touching and interesting I have ever covered, and I will present it in the most beautiful way possible."

Minna Dufton explains the extraordinary role model that Joana is to all girls and women in general.

"We, women, often struggle to see what's 'big' in ourselves and end up putting ourselves down. It's time to stop doing that and pat our shoulders more!"

Women have been surfing big waves for decades. For example, Linda Benson, in 1959, and Margo Oberg, the first professional female surfer who rode big waves in the 1970s.

Joana Andrade: her smile helps her overcome her own fears | Photo: Elina Manninen

Gender Equality is Coming

Every year, more and more women are undertaking this adrenaline-filled discipline, and even if they are still overshadowed by men, they are pushing to be accepted and to establish an official female-only big wave event.

Joana Andrade is making a name for herself, and I asked her what she thinks about the gender gap in the world of sports.

"I think we, women, are growing as heroines thanks to our greater power and ability in many fields. For many years, we didn't have a voice, but I feel that an era of change is coming. We are fighting for our dreams, and we now see the results of equality!"

She teaches me something really important: female surfing is far from being twinkly beauties in expensive bikinis.

Many women will identify themselves with Joana. They want to believe in their inner voice, face their fears, and achieve their goals.

I had the chance to meet a sensitive dreamer, a real fighter, and someone with inspiring perseverance. Women like Joana Andrade start revolutions by simply doing what they love.

Words by Monica Garau | garaumoni @

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