The life and lessons of a Portuguese pro surfer: Urban Sport of the Week // Surfing

Our Urban Sport of the Week Portugal edition continues with our gnarliest activity yet: riding the crushing blue waves of Cascais. Kind of.

It’s 4pm on a hot afternoon on Praia Morena Beach in Almeda 40 minutes outside Lisbon. I’ve been standing on a stretch of white sand at the designated meeting point for several minutes when I get a phone call. It’s our teacher and pro surfer Tomás Valente. “Did you get my email?” He says. “We’re meeting at a different beach.” I had not got the email. “Okay don’t worry – do you see a guy teaching surf lessons on the beach? Pass the phone to him.” 

I pass the phone to a small guy in a wetsuit who’s standing a few meters away finishing up a surf lesson. He takes the phone unquestioningly even though he has no idea who I am. He speaks in Portuguese for a few minutes and hands the phone back to me. “It’s okay,” the man says in a soft Portuguese accent. “I’ll give you a lift.” It turns out this is Tomás’s business partner António Ribeiro. The two of them launched their surf school Lisbon Surf Connection in summer 2015

Me, Onya the Photographer and about four teenage boys pile into António’s van and head into the city. It’s very much a surfers van. Seven boards are stacked on the roof and inside the windows, seats, seatbelts, even the roof, somehow, is covered in a fine coating of sand. 

As today is my first ever surf lesson we’re relocating to a quieter beach with waves more suitable for beginners. António and Tomás are both lifelong surfers. They began their school initially to guide tour groups around Portugal, spending half the day surfing the world-famous waves and the other half showing sites of their home country. But recently the pair have gravitated towards teaching people of all ages the sport they adore on beaches near Lisbon.

After 30 minutes of driving we pull up to the garage that Tomás and António share. “Alice!” Tomás says, totally unfazed by the fact he’s had to wait over an hour. “Glad you made it!” As we drive to the beach Tomás chatters animatedly, super excited to have us on board as it were. Tomás is small too and his eyes are bright hazel, as if he’s been looking directly at the sun his whole life which, I soon learn, he basically has. 

“I surfed all my life professionally,” Tomás explains to me through his rearview mirror. “I started out just skateboarding and playing on the streets in my home city trying to imitate Jackass.” When he was 11 he had his first surf lesson. “I was addicted from day one.”

Tomás Valente was 17 when his first sponsor, surf and skatewear brand Volcom, approached him to join their surf team. They wanted to fund his trips and support him to become a professional surfer. Tomas couldn’t believe he was going to be paid to do what he loved – and since then he’s lived his dream, touring the world and competing in international competitions.

“Back in the day I competed in Nationals and the Europeans and I did two years qualifying for the World Tour. But it’s very hard. Too many distractions.” I ask him what he means by distractions. “You know – you’re young, a lot of parties, you are alone.” 

Tomás explains that although pro surfing is a dream come true, there are downsides to the lifestyle. “It’s a very lonely sport, especially when you compete at a higher level. You go to Australia and you have half an hour to show what you can do and if you lose then you go home. A lot of people get pissed off with it and quit surfing.”

More recently Tomás has travelled the globe filming surf documentaries in remote and exotic surf spots all funded by his sponsor Deeply, a Portuguese-based surf brand. “The documentaries cover the story of the place, the food, the people, the waves. The next one is about Angola.” 

Tomás loves surfing just as much now as when he first started. And, despite travelling to exotic places around the world and competing in global competitions, he adores teaching beginners like me how to surf.

We pull up to the beach. It’s windy but the waves are less than a meter high. I pull on my wetsuit, by far the most unflattering look I’ve sported in this blog series so far, and Tomás and I walk towards the waves. “I can tell just by looking at people how soon they’ll stand up on the board,” he says. “You’ll do it on your third try.” I laugh. There’s no way I’ll be able to stand up on that board today, but he seems so confident I don’t contradict him. 

“I’ll show you the basics, then we’re going straight in the water.” Tomás lies the surfboard on the sand and demonstrates how I should lie on my stomach, put both hands by my chest, pull my back foot up and push myself up to standing. “Stay low.” He says. “Three more tries and we’re going in.”

I feel very much as though I have not got the hang of it when we head towards the water. It’s so cold my feet feel like ice blocks – but the wetsuit protects the rest of my body from freezing. We swim a few meters away from shore and I lie on my stomach on the board. Tomás, holds on to it and says ”Okay – when a wave comes I’m going to push you along it. I’ll tell you when to stand up.”

I feel emotionally unprepared but I before I have time to think Tomás is pushing me forwards. I feel the momentum of the wave gather below me. “Stand up! Stand up” I put my hands by my chest, my foot behind, push upwards, lose my balance and fall in the water. “You okay?” He asks. “I’m fine.” I splutter as I wash up on the sand near Onya’s feet. “Okay back on the board, let’s try again.”

Wave two. I feel it gather below me, faster, then Tomás’s voice “Stand up!” I try again. Hands, back knee, front leg, almost up but I lose my balance. “That was so much better than last time!” Tomás says. He is extremely positive about literally everything. He tells me my stance is almost there, that I’ve nearly got it, that my hands are well-positioned, that my back knee is looking great. “Back on the board. Next time stay low.” 

Wave 3. “This is a nice one!” He says. “Get ready!” This time I listen to what he told me – I’m determined to do him proud. The wave gathers behind me, I go faster. “Stand up! Stand up!” Hands down, push up, knee back, front knee up, I come to stand and I keep low. Joyous shouts from behind me. “I knew it!” Tomás yells delightedly. “I knew it would be your third wave!” 

After nearly fifteen years of professional surfing Tomás adores sharing his passion by teaching people how to surf. “I love to teach people who are completely outside surfing,” he says. “Maybe someone who never did sports before or someone from a bad neighbourhood. Because these people don’t expect anything – and then they try it and they get so addicted. They didn’t even know they would love it and when they do it brings so much joy.” And over the course of the hour, as I try to catch more waves and fail a lot and succeed a little, I totally get what he’s talking about. 

Take a look at Lisbon Surf Connection’s website to find out all about their courses and surf lessons and get to know Tomás a little better here.
And check out Urban Sports Club’s surf partners in Portugal

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