Hot 100 – Tatiana Weston-Webb
Tatiana Weston-Webb was born with tenacious surfing in her DNA. But growing up in Kauai’s world-class lineups didn’t hurt either
By Ashtyn Douglas
On a Hawaiian winter morning in 1996, then 33-year-old Tanira Guimaraes Weston-Webb sat out the back at Pipeline on her bodyboard, waiting patiently for a solid set. Although she’d surfed Pipe many times before, she was feeling anxious this particular session. Since relocating from Brazil to Hawaii, charging Pipe had become second nature to her, but pulling into heavy barrels while five months pregnant was uncharted territory.
A few years earlier, she and her sister Andrea left their hometown of Porto Alegre to travel the world as professional bodyboarders. During a visit to Kauai, they met Doug and Kevin Weston-Webb, two handsome towheaded surfers who, as fate would have it, also happened to be brothers. One thing led to the next, and soon enough Tanira married Doug. Andrea and Kevin were following suit. The two couples bought a house together in Kauai on a tropical plot of land dotted with banana and avocado trees, which they’d use as a home base while chasing the occasional swell to the North Shore of Oahu.
Back in the lineup at Pipe, a bump appeared on the horizon. Tanira positioned herself as deep as she possibly could and swung around. Leaning hard into the face of the wave, she held a high line through the cerulean drainer with her soon-to-be daughter along for the ride. You could say this was Tatiana Weston-Webb’s first solid barrel, but it certainly wouldn’t be her last.
“It was so much fun surfing with my two kids when I was pregnant,” recalls Tanira 19 years later on a bright January morning on Kauai. “Because of that, I think they have water knowledge in their veins.”
Tanira doesn’t frequent harrowing reefbreaks too often anymore. When she does, it’s to watch her daughter Tatiana charge with the same fearless approach that she once had. Although Tati, as her mother likes to call her, opted for the stand-up approach to riding waves, she still inherited a passion for the ocean and is following in her mom’s wake, taking on heavy tubes and translating her skills into a competitive career.
As we talk in the kitchen of the same home the Weston-Webbs purchased two decades ago, a new swell is slowly filling in on the northern shore of Kauai. In the other room, Tatiana is gathering her effects so we can go check the waves before the wind comes up. Unfortunately, Tanira, now 52, won’t be joining us, as she’s preparing a turkey for tonight’s month-belated Christmas dinner.
“So sorry for the mess,” Tanira tells me, juggling pots and pans radiating mouth-watering smells. Her English is nearly flawless, but her delivery is still wholly Portuguese, singsongy and rhythmic. “The whole family didn’t get to spend Christmas together because some of us were in Brazil. So we thought we’d celebrate it tonight before Tati’s season starts again.”
The Weston-Webbs are a tight-knit bunch and most still live under one roof: Tatiana’s aunt, uncle, and 9-year-old cousin Lucas take the upstairs (along with their German shepherd, Dio), while Tatiana and her parents occupy the downstairs. Tatiana’s older brother, Troy, a local ripper, recently moved into a place of his own, but he returns often, usually when there’s food or a family surf session to be had.
I make my way out to the driveway and help Tatiana load our gear into the back of her Nissan Pathfinder. As she shuts the rear hatch, she calls to Andrea, who’s rummaging through the garage, looking for her swim fins: “Titia, are you ready?” Like her sister, Titia—”auntie” in Portuguese—Andrea, 47, is more spunky and fit than most 25-year-olds. She recently started bodyboarding again, after her son, Lucas, caught the bug. “I just hope my muscles remember what to do,” she laughs as we pile into the SUV.
Tatiana is at the wheel, her platinum-blonde hair pulled up into a bun. She drives us along the island’s winding coastline to one of Kauai’s premier reefbreaks, weaving through lush, balmy landscape. It looks like we’ve trespassed onto the set of Jurassic Park, but instead of animatronic dinosaurs running amuck, feral chickens lazily cross the road. Overgrown hills give way to jade valleys, surging waterfalls, and open-armed bays. It’s easy to see what drew the Weston-Webb clan to the island; as we pass along a bend that overlooks a few breaks pulling in crystal-clear blue teepees, it’s even more evident why they stayed.
When we arrive at the wave, the reef is serving up clean, punchy left-hand tubes. I follow Tatiana and Andrea through an uncomfortably narrow keyhole, glad to be in the company of women who know their way around heavy reefbreaks. “My dad took me out here for the first time when I was 10,” says Tatiana. “It was actually pretty big and scary that day, but I’m really good at hiding my fear. He thought I was chill when I was actually terrified.”
Tatiana’s in position for the first wave that rolls through. Without flinching, she whips around and paddles confidently as the wave grows more menacing behind her. She drops in deep, stalls for a barrel, and gets ejected into the channel a few heartbeats later.
It’s a scene reminiscent of the Fiji Women’s Pro in 2014, where Tatiana showed the world her plucky approach to heavier surf. She was the injury-replacement wildcard at the event, which had just returned to the Women’s Tour schedule. At the start of the season, competitors had urged the newly formed WSL to return venues like Fiji and Honolua Bay to their roster. They got what they wanted-and then some. Tavarua delivered some of the most critical contest surf the women had seen in years. Tatiana, a relatively unknown surfer at the time, threw caution to the wind, hounding hollow sections and attacking steep faces without hesitation.
“After I got a taste of what the Tour was like, I was absolutely going to try my hardest to qualify,” recalls Tatiana. “So I got down to the nitty-gritty and did four-star events to climb the ratings. A few months later, in Praia de Baía, I made the cut.”
Despite being only 18 at the start of her rookie season in 2015, Tatiana held her own against World Tour veterans and adopted a sage outlook on her new career. “On Tour, you have to take things day by day,” she explains. “You can’t be thinking about what result you want. Anytime you put a number in your mind, it’s just added pressure. All I wanted to do was make heats and re-qualify.” Her strategy proved successful: Tatiana finished the season ranked seventh in the world and was named Rookie of the Year by the WSL. At places like Fiji, Margaret River, France, and Honolua Bay, where serious surf was on tap, she was always sitting the deepest, waiting for the biggest set of the day.
Tatiana’s moxie was palpable long before she qualified for the Tour. According to Kahea Hart, a Pipeline specialist and an assistant coach of the ISA Hawaii Surf Team, Tatiana has always held an edge in heavy surf. “I remember during her first ISA event in Peru, the waves were 6-foot and pumping, and she was getting bigger waves than all the boys in the warm-up surfs, just blowing them away. She was never scared.”
Although Tatiana’s natural ability in the heavy stuff has certainly helped, raw talent alone didn’t get her where she is today. “I always knew there were girls better than me and I’ve always just wanted to beat them,” she says. “And the only way I could do that was by becoming a better surfer. While other girls leaned on their natural talent, I put my mind towards improving what I had. I guess I’m just a little extra competitive.”
Tatiana has spent countless hours refining her technique at some of the most demanding breaks in the world. She soaks up advice from her family and her peers, dissects video footage from her sessions, and has developed a knack for adapting to any conditions. Fortunately for Tatiana, Kauai’s diverse mix of top-notch waves serves as the perfect training ground for any surfer looking to iron out any kinks in their approach.
After a couple hours of our group trading tubes, the swell notches up a bit and a few lines eclipse the horizon. We dig toward the outside, where a particularly meaty wave is building. Suddenly Andrea is quickly kicking into position, dropping in under the lip and claiming one of the best barrels of the day. The Weston-Webb lineage couldn’t be clearer.
After the session, we head toward Hanalei for a calorie refuel. We grab lunch at an all-natural-food store, and then Tatiana drives us to Pine Trees to show me where she and every other Kauaiian keiki first get their feet in the wax. On the sand, we meet Tati’s uncle, cousin, and grandfather, who’s visiting from Washington for the week. Her cousin, Lucas, is learning how to surf, and what was meant to be a quick meet-and-greet with the family quickly turns into a second session. Tatiana can’t resist the opportunity to show Lucas the ropes on the inside sandbar. It’s this same family dynamic that’s likely pushed Tatiana to where she is today.
I ask Tatiana if she thinks her competitive nature stems from her Brazilian heritage. While she says that she does identify with the highly competitive aspect of Brazilian surf culture, she believes her drive has more to do with her upbringing on Kauai. “There were a lot of groms growing up on Kauai and we were all really competitive with each other,” Tatiana explains. “We all grew up watching guys like Bruce and Andy [Irons], who were so talented and fearless. So naturally we all wanted to get the biggest and best waves. Every time we went surfing, it was like paddling out for a heat.”
But if Tatiana could credit a single person for igniting her competitive fire, it’d be her older brother, Troy. “He’s always been the one sitting in the channel, screaming at me to go on bigger waves,” she says. “I’m sure a lot of it has to do with the fact that my mom competed back in the day, but only so much can come from your DNA, you know? I’d say it’s a little bit of that and growing up surfing in this place.”
Hearing Tatiana’s bubbly laughter as she moves through the lineup, calling her cousin and other local groms into set waves, it’s hard to believe that this is the same fierce competitor who made such a splash on Tour last year. She seems giddy and completely at ease once you remove jerseys and scores from the equation.
“Balance is huge,” she explains. “People can get too relaxed or too competitive, and it hurts their surfing. Of course I take heats seriously and I work really hard, but when surfing’s your job, it’s really easy to forget how fun it is. I’ve watched a lot of people get burnt out at a young age and it’s really frustrating to see. For me, it’s a matter of taking time to be thankful for what I do, and sometimes just putting away my shortboard and taking out my longboard, or going switchstance on a funboard. But I always try to enjoy what I’m doing and not let it get too intense.”
Suddenly the wind kicks up, sending Pine Trees into disarray. After her kin bid adieu and retreat to the family compound, Tatiana and I stand on the beach watching a few weightless groms convert onshore chop into launch ramps. Two preteen girls with small, stickered boards in tow shyly approach Tatiana and introduce themselves before jumping in the water. I ask Tatiana if she’s acquired a lot of young fans after her success last year. “I have, but I try not to think about it too much,” she says. “Too much pressure.”
She’s talking about the burden of being a role model in the digital age. A few months ago, Tatiana posted a photo on Instagram of herself in a smallish bikini. The image was innocuous, but that didn’t stop online trolls from taking to the comments section. “Someone commented on the photo saying, ‘I can’t believe you’re taking this route. I hope my daughter never turns out like you,'” Tatiana recalls. “I do wear small bottoms, but I have my standards; I’m not going to compete in a thong or anything like that. I just think people don’t have enough respect for women and what they choose to wear.”
Tatiana knows that sex sells, and that she could use her physique to attract more brand sponsorships and social-media followers if that were her intention, but she’s more concerned with inspiring her adolescent fans with her surfing. She’s had numerous offers to star in Stab Magazine’s controversial “Hotter than Fish Grease” pictorials, but she’s declined each invitation. It’s not that Tatiana feels that showing skin is inherently wrong; she’d just prefer that it not be what she’s best known for. “I want girls to see how I push myself and work hard,” Tatiana explains, “and that surfing is taking me places, not my body.”
It’s this focus on improving as an athlete first and foremost that earned Tatiana an unexpected level of celebrity back in Brazil. Last year, while being interviewed for a television segment on Canal OFF—a Brazilian extreme-sports channel—Tatiana impressed the show’s producers. “They had been looking for someone like me, because they really wanted to start inspiring younger girls from Brazil to get out and chase their dreams,” Tatiana explains. “Before I knew it, I was signing a deal for a reality TV show and we were filming two weeks later.”
The show, a spinoff of Gabriel Medina’s TV show, “Mundo Medina,” documents Tatiana’s life on the World Tour, and the first season is set to air in April. In a few months, she’ll be back on the road competing with a camera crew in tow for a second season. But for now, she’s happy to be taking a break from the spotlight, focusing on her surfing and unwinding after a big year.
We leave Pine Trees and head back to the Weston-Webb abode. Later that night, Tatiana’s cramming extra place settings and chairs around the dinner table while her mom is putting the finishing touches on the belated Christmas dinner.
The rest of her family slowly starts to make their way into the dining area, along with their dog, Dio, and a few friends visiting from Brazil. Soon the entire space is filled with a melodic mix of Portuguese and English conversations centered primarily, at least from what I can understand, on how good the waves were earlier today.
From across the kitchen counter, Tanira tells me how lucky she feels to travel the world with her daughter during the World Tour season. “I think it’s so important for bonding,” she says. “When you’re 19 years old, most girls want to go out and do their own things. But Tati, she loves being with mom and dad.”
Before Tanira mentioned Tatiana’s age, I had almost forgotten that the young woman I spent the entire day with is still a teenager. At only 19 years old, Tatiana has become one of the best surfers on Earth, she’s made a mark on the World Tour, and she’s done it all with the grace and confidence of someone well beyond her years. But, in a way, her achievements are wholly unsurprising. After all, everything in her life has pointed her in this direction, ever since that first Pipeline barrel.
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