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Inspiring on the Payette

Blind surfer Derek Rabelo competes alongside athletes from all over the world

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Derek Rabelo's pupils look a little like opals. The 22-year-old professional surfer from Brazil has been blind his whole life, so the 2014 Payette River Games in Cascade included a lot of firsts for him: first time in Idaho, first time surfing on a river, first time in a kayak.

Another Brazilian athlete in Idaho for the games, Marcelo Galizio, pulled a lifejacket over Rabelo's head and helped him step into a kayak sprayskirt on the afternoon of June 21, the first day of events in the weekend-long event. They walked down to the river bank at Kelly's Whitewater Park, Rabelo keeping his hand on the kayaker's shoulder--less like a guide and more like a close friend.

They chatted with each other in Portuguese as Galizio explained the tandem kayak to Rabelo, who couldn't see its bright red color or the river he was about to paddle through. A group of Rabelo's supporters seated him in the front of the boat, and it took a team to secure his sprayskirt around the cockpit.

Galizio sat close to Rabelo, their helmeted foreheads touching as the latter explained what to do if the kayak flipped over. Galizio placed the paddle in Rabelo's hands, which the former ran his fingers along until he hit the blades, tracing their outlines, feeling where they fused with the grip--the same way he figures out everything in his life.

Galizio cleaned off the lens of his GoPro camera and stuck it on the front of the boat, facing Rabelo, and they took off upstream, Rabelo clumsily dipping his paddle blades into the water, oblivious to a near miss with the shoreline. They pointed the boat downstream and rode through Kelly's Whitewater Park to the cheers of thousands of spectators.

This is how Rabelo lives--entrusting his life to the hands of people he can't see, and listening to scores of others cheer him on.

"His father is a huge surfer and his dream in their little Brazilian town was to have his son become a professional surfer," said Kristina Pickard, who organized the Payette River Games and founded Kelly's Whitewater Park with her husband, Mark.

Rabelo received his first surfboard when he turned 17, and hit the beach. Since then, he's fulfilled his father's dream; as a professional surfer, he has ridden the Pipeline of Oahu among some of the biggest names in the sport.

"As soon as I got the first wave, I fell in love with surfing," Rabelo told Boise Weekly, as translated by Galizio. "I feel pretty blessed to be able to surf."

Getting him into the wave on the Payette was a process. Rabelo always has someone on a boogie board nearby, yelling directions to him. He said he also listens to foam piles and waves forming. After that, it's all about feeling.

"I'm led by God," he said.

The Pickards heard of Rabelo through Beyond Sight, a recent documentary featuring the young surfer. After seeing the film, they invited him to Idaho to compete in the elite men's river surf event.

"We said, 'You can surf at Kelly's independently, because we have a standing wave,'" said Kristina Pickard. "'You can come in and surf that wave until you get exhausted.'"

Organizers said river surfing competitions haven't taken off yet, and theirs might be the biggest yet, with a record total $6,000 purse.

"We're kind of pioneering [river surfing events] in the United States," said Mark Pickard, whose event--now in its second year--drew 550 athletes from more than 17 countries, vying for a piece of the world-record $100,000 in individual purses. More than 35,000 spectators crowded the banks of the river June 20-22.

Pickard said he was excited to feature an athlete like Rabelo, whose commitment to the sport is so evident.

"If you don't get a tear or a goose bump, I'd be shocked," he said.

That was the goal of the event, the theme for which was: "inspiration." And during the weekend, Pickard announced that Kelly's Whitewater Park had been inspired to sponsor Rabelo in his surfing career.

The "inspiration" didn't escape other athletes who competed in the surf event. One was overheard telling Rabelo, "That's crazy man. You're an inspiration. I can't imagine getting in that wave blind. I'm having trouble in it and I can see."

Kai Lenny, a Red Bull-sponsored surfer from Hawaii, met Rabelo on the north shore of Oahu, but this was the first time he'd competed against the Brazilian.

"I think it's just incredible that he has the courage to do it," Lenny said. "A lot of people are really scared in the dark, and he's in the dark all the time. So for him to be here, that's so rad."

This was Lenny's first time at the Payette River Games as well, and he found this style of inland surfing to be shockingly different from the sport he knows in Hawaii.

"The only similarity is that you're on a surfboard," Lenny said, explaining that in the ocean, the water comes toward surfers, pushing them in. In the river, it's reversed. The water pushes the surfers back.

Lenny spent a few days before the games practicing at the Boise River Park, trying to pick up tips from the locals.

"It's definitely cool to be a beginner again, you know?" Lenny said.

Rabelo struggled like Lenny with the new dynamics of river surfing. During his practice runs, his coach would follow on a boogie board as they tried to cross the swarming froth of the wave to the surf spot. Rabelo would quickly hit the wave wrong and his board would fly into the air without him, leaving him flushed downstream. He tried over and over again, only standing up twice.

In the main competition June 22, he managed to stand up and ride the wave, but only for seven seconds--a fraction of the time of the other surfers. Despite that, Rabelo was named the most inspirational athlete and best ride in the men's surf open; however, he didn't place in the main event. Neither did Lenny, but the Pickards asked him to stay at Kelly's Whitewater Park for the next week, teaching Kelly's Academy students how to river surf.

Rabelo wanted to talk about his tandem-kayak ride down the whitewater park more than what it's like to be a blind surfer. Even though the boat flipped and Rabelo had to swim out of it, he said he wasn't scared. Another kayaker quickly swooped in and Rabelo hung onto the back of the boat while he was towed to shore.

Spills and rolls aside, Rabelo was inspired to push himself further.

"This is a small river with small rapids," Rabelo said. "I'm already ready to go bigger and do bigger rapids. I want to drop a big waterfall with [Galizio]."