When Gabriel Medina won Brazil’s first surfing world title last year, he did more than become the second youngest champion ever. He showed that his ascendant nation was now a serious player in a sport that is taking off around the world. From 2001 to 2011, the total number of surfers jumped 35%, to some 35 million, and the sport is projected to become a $13.2 billion global industry by 2017.
That rise mirrors Brazil’s own. South America’s leading economic power has long used athletics to broadcast its ambition. After hosting the 2014 World Cup, Rio will stage the 2016 Summer Olympics. And now a nation used to its soccer players’ being among the world’s best has a new phenom to cheer. By shaking up a sport typically dominated by Americans and Australians, Medina has become an icon in Brazil and is inspiring a new generation to make some waves.
Gregory is a TIME senior writer covering sports and culture