Lying on her surfboard on the sands of Arpoador Beach in Rio de Janeiro, Nicole Pacelli poses for a photographer in her bikini when a kid on a bicycle stops nearby. From over the concrete divider separating the beach from the sidewalk, he whistles. “Now that’s a mermaid,” he says, loud enough for anyone to hear. Pacelli, still lying down, flips him off. The bicycle quickly turns around and disappears.
Last year, at just 22, Pacelli became the inaugural champion of the Women’s Stand-up World Tour, winning the “wave” category—in which paddleboard surfers drop down the waves and actually ride them instead of just crossing distances. After its maiden voyage last year, the tour began season two with another Pacelli win, at the Turtle Bay Women’s Pro in Hawaii in February. She followed that with a runner-up finish on the following stop in Rio, and a third-place performance in round three in Abu Dhabi. A repeat championship is looking likely.
Born in the Brazilian coastal city of Guarujá, Pacelli moved to São Paulo and grew up in the waves of Maresias Beach. Her father, Jorge Pacelli, is a former professional surfer and her mother, Flávia Boturão, a former bodyboarder. “I grew up inside this world, with boards everywhere, hearing my father’s friends telling stories of their adventures,” she says.
Before heading off to a tour stop, Pacelli spoke with The Red Bulletin on how she’s embarked on her own.
THE RED BULLETIN: Your parents are surfers. Have they always wanted you to also be one?
NICOLE PACELLI: My mom always supported me in everything, but she wanted me to also study. Surfing came naturally; she could see I also loved it. But life’s hard for a surfer, especially a girl surfer, so I can understand her concerns back then. Parents never want to see their children go through hard times. My dad also said I ought to study, but he pushed me on to the surfing side a bit more. When a big swell came in he’d say: “Stay here, keep surfing, you don’t have to go to school today!” [Laughs.]
So your dad gave the advice any surfer would give …
Exactly. And my mom would get desperate, “No, you’re crazy!” So when I came back from being an exchange student in New Zealand, at 17, I started surfing more and more. I knew I liked surfing big waves but I had no frame of reference—I’d never taken a proper surf trip, I had no idea what the level of the other girls abroad was. I always had my sister [Alana, the second of five siblings; Nicole is the eldest] with me; we’d surf with some dudes and had no idea if we were any good. I only knew I loved it and my parents supported me.
You started out with regular surfing, not stand-up paddleboarding. How did you make the transition?
It happened because of my dad. He brought a stand-up board from California about five years ago and I started paddling. It was a lifeguard’s board, a bit different from a stand-up, and it had a giant “RESCUE” written on it. But it was big, a gift given to my dad, and I started using it as a stand-up board, using my dad’s paddle. I rode some small waves and loved it. Then my dad partnered with a local factory and began to manufacture stand-up boards. I use the boards he makes. At the beginning I used some giant boards, 9-foot-something. Then he made a “small” one, 8’10”, and I began to develop my surfing more.
What does SUP offer that regular surfing doesn’t?
With the small boards I often felt frustrated. I’d go to the breaks because I loved to have fun, just being in the water. But you know when things get too crowded, and everybody begins to battle for each wave? Sure, I’m a competitor now, but back then if anyone paddled next to me to try and cut into my wave, I’d just stop and let it go. The fact is, I saw stand-up as a challenge. I wanted to evolve because I saw guys surfing quite well with SUP boards, so I wanted to do the same. With each fall I evolved a little. With regular surfing this challenge didn’t exist—this search to develop more and more, you know? Stand-up gave me this challenge. When I went into the water most people did not know what it was; very few people were doing SUP back then. Guys would say, “What are you doing with that paddle?” And I’d go into the water any day, big waves, small waves, didn’t matter. It was all about the challenge for me. Then I went to Hawaii, back in 2010.
How was it your first time there?
I was already doing SUP and had entered college. There were [sponsorship] offers popping up, I was doing well, and standup was gaining momentum. So I told my mom, “C’mon, I’ve done my part in college, can I be a surfer now?” That’s when she understood that there’d be no other way for me. So I spent two months in Hawaii, in 2010-11.
That’s when it all changed for you …
Yes, because that’s when I started having references. I’d go into Sunset on a big day and there’d be no other girl but me. I arrived and went straight to Jaws instead of Oahu. It was me and my sister, and before we got to know the more famous waves, like Waimea, Pipeline, and Sunset, we went headfirst into Jaws. I only dropped the smaller stuff, but still, we’re talking about 30-foot waves here! Massive! That’s when I knew I could do it.
What did it feel like dropping in to those monsters?
Just rad, incredible. I don’t feel fear in advance on those days, only when I’m actually there. Some people can’t sleep the night before a day like that, but I’m calm. I sleep like a baby. Once I get there, though, that’s when it dawns on me, the sheer size of the stuff. I was scared.
SUP has evolved a lot recently. How do you see this evolution?
It’s changed a lot, from the boards to the number of people doing it. I think it’s great. And in my opinion, it’s growing a lot because it’s not restricted to the sea. Some people paddle in dams, lakes … and it’s easy to do it. If you start with a big board, you can stand up and paddle right away. There are inflatable versions; everyone can do it. This popularity will help the sport grow, will bring more media attention and investment, more events, more people showing what they can do. What good is being a great SUP athlete if there are no good championships to compete in?
And how’s the relationship between stand-up paddlers and regular surfers on the outside?
Well, some people don’t really like us … [Laughs.] I’ve been kicked out of the water in Hawaii. In Brazil I’ve never had problems, but in Waimea a local came and told me to get out and not come back, that me being there was dangerous. That’s a downside to the increase of SUP’s popularity, with people who never surfed in their lives all of a sudden doing SUP surfing. Because it’s a lot easier to stand up on a SUP board in the beginning, so some newbies just start riding all over the place, and it can become dangerous.
You became the world champ last year, but when did you start competing?
During my second season in Hawaii I took part in a championship with men in Sunset Beach, in 2011-12. I found out that there was going to be a world championship for men and just a demo for women. They put the girls on Turtle Bay, a beach with small waves, and I won. There were some 15 girls there, all Hawaiian. After I won, I asked the organizer if I could compete in Sunset with the guys. He said I could, but in a “well-this-girl’s-crazyand- I-better-not-argue-with-her” way. He let me take part in the trials. And I wanted that because I knew that meant a chance to surf Sunset with only three people in the water. But the waves that day were big, over 12 feet. I thought, “What have I gotten myself into?” I went in and was hit on the head by a huge series of waves; I couldn’t get back. When I finally managed it, I surfed a really good wave one second after the heat was over, so it didn’t count. I finished third out of three but they told me that if that last wave had counted, I would’ve qualified for the next round. Everybody came and spoke to me, complimented my attitude of facing that heat—guys I admired said those things to me. So I thought: “Well, I must be doing things right.”
Have you ever been underestimated by men?
Some people see my size and don’t believe the size of the swells I manage to face. Back in Hawaii sometimes guys would stop me on the way in and say, “Are you sure you can do this?” and I’d be like, “Yeah, get out of my way, let me go in.” [Laughs.]
Do your parents ever come along on your trips?
Not anymore. In the beginning my dad would travel with me to the Brazilian championship, but not anymore. When he sees me surfing he always gives me some tips, and he pulls no punches—he’s super demanding. Sometimes I get out of the water thinking I’ve killed it and he comes and says I did this and that wrong, you know?
You are the woman to beat right now. Is that tough to deal with?
I’m cool with it. I thought it was going to be worse. Everybody’s advancing so fast, and the girls are surfing so well now. There was no world championship before, so that’s become a goal to everybody else—“Oh, Nicole’s a world champion now, so that means I can also be one.” Imagine, every stop of the tour now, the announcer goes: “And now, the world champion, Nicole Pacelli!” so everybody wants to see whether this worldchampion girl really is the real deal. At the first stop of this season in Hawaii, my photo was on the championship’s poster, so I said to myself, “OK, it’s time to bring it.” But then I go into the water and I feel calm. That’s one of my qualities, I feel calm, lay low and do what I have to do. I thought the pressure was going to be an issue this year, but so far it hasn’t affected me. If I started to overthink what I have to do in the water, thinking about how many seconds are left in a heat and such, I probably couldn’t do it anymore.