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From a street kid to a man who rides the biggest waves on Earth

From a street kid to a man who rides the biggest waves on Earth
Coco in a tube. Picture by Edwin Morales

Carlos “Coco” Nogales is one of the top big wave surfers in the world. If someone has made miracles happen in life, it’s him. He has surfed some of the biggest and most dangerous waves in the world, such as Nazaré and Mavericks and of course the wave of his hometown in Puerto Escondido; Zicatela. When you see this guy riding the monster waves and witness the life that he has created, it’s hard to believe that he has spent part of his childhood in the streets selling bubble gum.

When I was doing my background research about Coco before the interview, I got goosebumps and had tears in my eyes. This man has not only seen all the colours of life, he has experienced them. He has transformed obstacles into opportunities, walked towards his fears, and with determination, created a life of his dreams.

The odds that he would become a world-famous surfer when he was a kid were small. First of all, he was afraid of water! Secondly, he left home at the age of 10 escaping domestic violence and ended up in the streets of Mexico City. He washed car windows, sold roses, and slept at the bus stations for seven months, until he had enough money to buy a bus ticket to Acapulco.

In Acapulco, he became friends with another boy in the streets who told him about Puerto Escondido, a small town on the Pacific coast with a great community of young boys and surfers. This information became handy a bit later, when he got in trouble.

Another thing that happened was that he confronted his fear of water and entered the ocean for the first time. It wasn’t a pleasant first encounter as he nearly got drowned after a big wave broke on top of him. But someone picked him up from the bottom of the ocean and as a result of this incident, the fear disappeared!

Then the trouble arrived. Mexico can be a tough place for street kids, Coco got to witness this in real life in Acapulco. Regardless of his best efforts to try to stay out of trouble, he got dragged in between the police and the cartels ending up having a gun pointed into his head by the local police – threatening to kill him if he doesn’t give them information, which he didn’t have. Quickly after the incident, he packed his little belongings and headed towards this coast town he had heard of.

Puerto Escondido ended up being the magical place he had imagined. Soon after arriving, he saw some local surfers catching the big waves of Zicatela and his jaw dropped. He thought that one day he wanted to be there as well, catching those big waves.

At the age of 11, he started to build a more stable life in Puerto Escondido. He found some true friends who helped him to find a job in a kitchen washing dishes and get a roof over his head. Later he got another job in repairing surfboards and got more closely in touch with surfing. And that’s how the dedicated journey to become a talented surfer started.

Listening to the signs before entering the water

When you are a professional big wave surfer you need a lot of discipline. In the surfing industry, professional athletes have sponsors but often they lack coaches. It means that Coco is responsible for his own condition and development. He needs to practice and maintain the sponsor deals himself and make sure that he meets any obligations he might have. It requires a lifestyle with healthy habits, he needs to be responsible and take good care of himself.

He explains that there are two ways of making money in the surfing industry; either you are very talented surfer winning competitions to build your name and attract sponsors or you are a great big wave freestyle surfer with a healthy lifestyle and the right attitude. Coco counts himself as part of the second group.

The biggest waves Coco has caught are about 15 meters / 50 feet tall. As a comparison, my parent’s three-story house is about 10-11 meters tall. Those are BIG waves.

Preparation for the big wave hunting starts two days before the action. Coco is a religious and spiritual man and connecting with God and the higher powers are part of the rituals. He asks permission to enter the water and protection to stay safe.

“I have believed in God since I was a kid. I left home at a very young age and I didn’t have anyone, so I was praying and asking for help. And I always got help and support. So, when I came to the ocean, I felt like it’s all connected, it’s all one. I feel God is also in the ocean, it is everywhere”, Coco explains.

Despite putting his life at risk several times, he hasn’t had any bad accidents. Coco tells that few times he has been close to drowning but somehow, he has always survived. Once in Tahiti he got into a very nasty washing machine and thought this is it. But he managed to get back to the surface with his last bit of energy, and in the meanwhile, the ocean had turned completely flat. He believes that in situations like that his prayers have been answered. He also emphasizes the importance of listening to the signs before entering the water.

“When you go surfing, you have to learn how to listen to nature, and how to listen to your inner self, intuition. Sometimes I’m not feeling it and I don’t go. Sometimes you can have bad experiences when you don’t listen to your inner self”, Coco adds.

Coco paddling out. Picture by Edwin Morales.

A job that makes you feel alive

Coco’s vibe feels humble, grateful, and kind. He is clearly a man of love, wanting to spread positivity and light around him. With this kind of mindset, it doesn’t come as a surprise that he sees his profession as a gift.

“Every time I go into the water, I feel like it’s a gift. We are always looking for the perfect wave, and when you are able to get the wave you are looking for, go inside the barrel – it’s these best things in surfing that makes you feel alive”, Coco describes.

The feeling of being alive is a good indicator of whether we are doing the right things or not. Everyone should have regular access to that sensation, finding your equivalent of waves and feeling the joy of being alive running through you.

The wise say, that there should be a balance in giving and receiving. Because Coco feels like he has received a lot, he also wanted to give something back. For this purpose, he started the Ahava project. Ahava means love and the project was founded to inspire and motivate less privileged children to believe in their future. Ahava organizes surf camps for kids in the poor communities together with some encouragement and education regarding environmental preservation.

“I wanted to start helping young kids to get in touch with surfing, help them with their dreams. I wanted to give something back as surfing has given me a lot”, Coco clarifies.

Coco is now 44 years old, he has travelled around the world after waves and participated in all kinds of high fly events during his career. But when we talk about success and a good life, simplicity gets the highest score. Success for him is about feeling happy with what he has done with his life, decisions he has taken, catching the one big wave, and helping others. Things that make this man happy are very simple: being healthy, having good people around, his dog, being able to witness the sunset and sunrise.

Always do your best

What is the secret sauce of Coco for making all these miracles happen in his life? Coco describes that since he was a kid, he had the desire to be someone, to make a difference. This desire has pushed him forward through all the challenges in his path.

“Since I was a kid, I always knew that I wanted to be somebody in life. One moment when I was like seven years old, I wanted to be some kind of a hero”, Coco tells.

A man who is used to working hard since the age of 10 of course believes in discipline and hard work. Nothing happens overnight so it’s important to be consistent and persistent with your goals. Another key thing he emphasizes is faith; believing in yourself and your dreams. It’s also important to understand that going after big dreams often requires sacrifices, you have to be willing to put all in. And then there is one more principle that he has followed since a kid; always do your best.

“When I was in my twenties, people were asking what I was going to do when I get older, as if I wasn’t doing the right things. I always answered that whatever you do in life, do your best at that moment and it will bring you something good in the future. I think this principle has brought me a lot of good things”, Coco shares.

One good piece of advice Coco also gave in his recent TEDx talk where he told that it’s important that your dreams are bigger than your fears. It’s indeed a good idea to do a regular sanity check to make sure that our fears are not limiting us too much. Based on my experience, decisions based on fear rarely brings anything great into our lives. Miracles happen when we do things despite our fears.

So, what we can learn from Coco’s story? If you want to make your dreams come true, put yourself out there, and don’t let your fears limit you. Then ask yourself what makes you feel alive. Follow that, be persistent, and do your best. There is an infinite source of potential out there and within us, we just need to tap into it.

For more about Coco and his magnificent wave rides check out his Instagram; @coconogales

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