But They Dig Me In So Paulo!

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, November 1998

But They Dig Me In São Paulo!
Meet Guilherme. He's a very famous athlete. In Brazil. Although not in America. Poor Guilherme.

By Mike Grudowski

On a perfect Saturday, off a breezy stretch of southern California shore, Guilherme Tamega is about to show that he is the very best on the beach at what he does — in fact, the best anywhere. He yanks off his dark blue Guilherme Tamega T-shirt and drops it on the sand. He tucks his Guilherme Tamega signature-model bodyboard, looking like nothing so much as a sawed-off surfboard, under one arm. He tugs the straps of his Guilherme Tamega signature-model Mega Blue swim fins snugly around his heels. Then he waddles out to the waterline, lifting his webbed feet with the wobbling gait of a grunion come ashore to spawn.

Paddling out beyond the breakers, stomach resting on the board, the Brazilian expatriate soon proves that this is his element. He speeds down the face of a wave as it starts to break, pivoting his body clockwise in a flash. On the next wave he again instantly accelerates, banks up the face, flies two or three feet in the air, and plops down squarely. Next he spins in the foam like a Tilt-A-Whirl car. Then he kicks; he zooms; he twirls. He banks into a roll. He rolls into a bank. He's half otter, half acrobat.

After each stunt, the hundreds of people lingering here in the slightly scuffed beach town of Oceanside — as if driven by a single subliminal impulse — do absolutely nothing. Guilherme belly-spins! Families sit under pastel umbrellas, oblivious. Guilherme barrel-rolls! A balding father in board shorts and his little boy shave a sandcastle. Guilherme gets rad air! A dozen or so preteens, each with a bodyboard of his own, bob around in the shallows, ignoring the would-be icon. Guilherme rides a meager wave for 200 feet, improbably milking it for every last dramatic inch. A man in an ill-advised Speedo scratches himself and yawns.

"It's kinda weird," Guilherme says back onshore with a shrug, dripping and shivering. "A world champion right next to them, and they're just playing." He glances up the beach, as if hoping a spontaneous uprising of autograph seekers will emerge from the sand and create a mob scene around him ... but no. Nothing but a tubby youngster lumbering into the surf. That's the rub of being Guilherme (pronounced "gheel-AIR-may"). For four straight years he has ruled his niche of the athletic cosmos in obscurity, and nowadays, in the age of cable-TV saturation of even the goofiest pastimes, sports prowess seems somehow diminished if it doesn't bring celebrity in its wake — bona fide, American celebrity. He yearns for the day when a bodyboarding contest makes SportsCenter, the day when he might bag better exposure than some B-list overseas announcer spouting the equivalent of "Guilherme is really feeling his oats today, Jack!" in Portuguese. Here, if people think of bodyboards at all, they think of them as mere beach toys, akin to inflatable rafts and Nerf footballs. Here, people still call them "Boogie boards," a term that makes pros like Guilherme twitch.

"Nobody here realizes bodyboarding is a sport," he says, "that people live doing that and make money doing that. I gotta explain to everybody what the sport is. Like Australia, Brazil, everybody know what the sport is. I go on big TV, on talk shows. In Brazil, I walk on the streets and people recognize me. The guy that sells ice cream on the beach: 'Hey, champion!'"

Although Guilherme estimates that he ranks among the 20 or 30 most popular athletes on his native soil, he has yet to join the hallowed status of Pelé, Chico Mendes, and Carmen Miranda as Brazilians adored by gringos. Born in the Copacabana district of Rio de Janeiro 26 years ago, he took up bodyboarding at age 12. He earned his first world title in 1994 at the championships on Oahu's North Shore, and since the following year, when the sport (in imitation of surfing) switched to a yearlong circuit in which competitors rack up points at each stop, he has dominated. In between events in places like Japan and Guadeloupe, he flies to Fiji or Tahiti or the Canary Islands or Bali for photo and video shoots, spending only two months or so at his condo in Oceanside. "That's what the highlights of my job is," he says, drip-drying in the sun. "Go to paradise and get paid, pretty much." Last year he grossed just over $100,000, almost a quarter of it in winnings, the rest from sponsors. "The more titles I'm getting," he explains, "the more moneys."

With this stirring track record, Guilherme is arguably the Babe Ruth of bodyboarding, a description that implies both triumph and foreboding. It's true that bodyboard sales surpass those of surfboards in the United States, and that prize purses on the world tour total $340,000. In fact, in Oceanside on this very Saturday, every surfer in view is outnumbered by at least 20 kids with bodyboards. Maybe the sport will become the next snowboarding, the next fad that grows into something more. But maybe not. Somewhere at this moment, the Babe Ruth of Hacky Sack and the Babe Ruth of Ultimate are huddled next to each other in a poorly lit tavern, cursing a cold and indifferent world, while the Babe Ruth of lawn darts lies passed out in the corner.

Not long ago, Guilherme got a sobering reminder of his sport's lingering publicity problems when he traveled up the coast to Irvine to meet with the makers of Met-Rx, a protein-drink mix, to see if they might want to sponsor him. "So," the company's rep said, glancing at the amphibious Brazilian's 5-foot-10-inch, 165-pound frame, "you're a bodybuilder?"

"Are you from Oceanside? "I ask the waitress at the Harbor House Restaurant.


"Ever hear of a guy named Guilherme Tamega?"

"No. Is he famous?"

"He's the world's best bodyboarder. He lives here."

She smirks and cracks her gum. "Well, get his autograph and bring it back to me."

It would be easier to swallow, perhaps, for Guilherme to walk the streets unheralded in Malibu, or La Jolla, or Beverly Hills. But to have recognition thumb its nose at you in relatively low-rent Oceanside, a nondescript military town next to the Marine Corps's Camp Pendleton — to be an anonymous resident of an anonymous place — well, that could really stick in a champion's craw.

Fame is a strange and sometimes cruel casting agent, often shining its spotlight on the ignoble and creepy while the truly deserving get snubbed. Rare is the citizen who can cite so much as one cancer researcher or who can recall Boutros Boutros-Ghali's predecessor at the UN; yet sadly, the names Squeaky Fromme, Jim Varney, and Carrot Top continue to resonate with the masses. Now even a bass fisherman — a bass fisherman! — has made it onto the Wheaties box. It is with such forces, forces more frightening than any North Shore reef break, that Guilherme seeks to cast his lot.

Of course, he has tasted the waters of celebrity to some extent. His autobiography, Na Onda com Guilherme Tâmega: As Confissões do Campeão Mundial de Bodyboard, enjoyed three printings in Brazil and in fact, he says, was adapted into a stage production back in Rio (though this is a little hard to picture, particularly the water sequences). Adorning the walls of several Brazilian eateries are framed pictures of him posing, Sinatra-style, with the managers. He has starred in plenty of bodyboarding videos, including the recent Foam Soldiers, in which the exploits of Guilherme and his colleagues are matched to the soothing melodies of Guttermouth, Bad Religion, and the Voodoo Glow Skulls. Like many a sports videotape, this one is perhaps best enjoyed if watched while it rewinds, as riders zigzag backward and giant waves unfroth and retreat from shore like Cecil B. DeMille's Red Sea.

Even at home in Oceanside, Guilherme receives scattered flashes of recognition, moments when he can feel the love. During lunch at Ruby's, a bright diner at the end of the Oceanside pier, Guilherme hoovers down some fish tacos. It turns out that the waiter once met the bodyboarder at a clinic, and recognizing him from his accent and from the name on his T-shirt, he snags an autograph. Then, walking out of the dining room, Guilherme catches the eye of a tall young blond woman in a booth by the window. Guilherme is a handsome fellow — square-jawed and sun-baked, sinewy and V-shaped from hours in the gym and more hours paddling in surf — and when he smiles at the girl, a wide lifeguardy grin, she smiles back.

"That's it — I got to leave her my number," he says. He summons the waiter, scribbles his name on a scrap of paper, and tells him to deliver it to the girl. "So you're not dating that Brazilian bodyboarder anymore?" the waiter asks. "Uh ... no," Guilherme lies, looking down at the floor. His girlfriend's at home in Rio. No need to spoil a banner afternoon with frivolous details.

Threading through the crowds back out on the pier, he's practically glowing. "She'll call," he says of the blond. "That waitress guy will talk me up."

Back on the beach after lunch, a photographer who has driven down from Los Angeles is snapping some action shots of Guilherme in the water.

"Who's that?" asks a lifeguard from his tower.

"The three-time world champion bodyboarder," one of the photographer's assistants tells him.

"Why are they shooting him in Oceanside?"

"He lives here."

"He does?"

OK, so he's not a household name just yet. But perhaps being Guilherme Tamega isn't such a curse after all. What office drone wouldn't switch places with him, given the chance? Who wouldn't take the expenses-paid junkets to tropical islands; the roomful of trophies back in Rio; the brand-new, $4,000 Sony laptop with the arsenal of CD-ROM video games to pass the time in hotel rooms; the five percent royalty on every Guilherme Tamega bodyboard sold; the six-figure income for playing in the waves?

Sure, there are downsides if you search hard enough. Sometimes not-so-cute girls show up at competitions and, as Guilherme puts it, "want me to sign their underwears and stuff." And at the first tour event of the '98 season, he slipped up and placed second to an Australian. (If it's tricky for the world's best bodyboarder to get booked on Letterman, the second-best might as well hang up his flippers.) Also, he says, bonehead reporters from American bodyboarding magazines still pay too much attention to Mike Stewart, the most prominent U.S. pro. "He really hasn't won much lately," says Guilherme, who lost to Stewart in last year's final event. And then there are the screams: For the last decade, Guilherme has been plagued by occasional stress-induced nightmares that cause him to shriek loudly and horribly in the middle of the night. "Sometimes I see stuff — bugs and insects, people," he says. "Sometimes I'll be stuck in a cave. I can wake up the whole neighborhood." But these are minor quibbles. Maybe Guilherme's biggest problem, really, is that humans aren't very adept at recognizing the good times when they're right smack in the middle of them.

After a brief rest onshore, Guilherme ventures back out into the surf. He's just clowning around now, kneeling on his board and riding the foam with his arms raised in a "ta-da!" pose. But this time he doesn't get ignored. Gazing out at him, a pudgy, 60-ish woman with preternaturally auburn hair can hardly contain herself.

"Oh, this is so exciting!" she gushes. "Look at him — he's so confident and sure of himself!" She hops slightly off the sand, clapping her hands like a trained seal. Then she asks, of no one in particular, "Can I give him a hug when he gets out of the water? Can I?"

And indeed she does, gripping the sopping-wet world champion — now visibly alarmed and perhaps anticipating an attack of screams this very evening — in an extended bear clasp. She then poses with him for a snapshot and then gets him to sign an autograph "for my son." Then she hops around some more, clapping and chortling as if she'd just gotten her hands on a lock of Elvis's hair.

Guilherme winces slightly, forcing a bewildered smile. Maybe anonymity isn't so bad after all.

Mike Grudowski is a frequent contributor and a former senior editor of Outside.

Photographs by Michael Llewellyn and Joseph L. Libby

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