The first of a wavepool generation, Rahma discusses what the Wadi Adventure Wave Pool has meant to his life and career
When the ISA World Games in El Salvador kick off in May of 2021 (delayed one year because of the COVID-19 crisis), 33-year-old Mo Rahma will be there in hopes of qualifying for the Olympics and representing the United Arab Emirates on the world’s biggest stage. And while Rahma will be one of many surfers vying for a limited number of Olympic spots, he will be the only one that learned to surf in a pool.
Yes, you read that right. Rahma, an ex-professional Rugby player, didn’t even know what surfing was until age 24, and now he’s competing for surfing’s biggest honor. And all thanks to a wave pool. “As an athlete that has competed in a few different sports, surfing is the sport that got me hooked and I can’t get out of it,” Rahma tells us. “The culture, the people, the places…everything is just insane.”
Tell us about your surf background. Growing up in the UAE, how did you get interested in surfing?
Rahma: So I started surfing really late. I used to be a professional football player, then I moved to Rugby, and so I didn’t start surfing until the the Wadi Park opened up in…I think that was about 10 years ago. But what got me into surfing was my injury. I played Rugby for the UAE and I had a bad knee injury. Part of my rehabilitation was running in the water. At that time I had a friend tell me I should try surfing. I was like: What’s surfing? [laughs]. He told me it was a fun watersport. In Dubai we only have super small waves but I signed up for a lesson. They pushed me on a small wave — well really it wasn’t even a wave, it was a ripple — and that was it, I was hooked. I heard about the Wadi Park opening up for trials and test runs, and that’s how I started surfing. That’s where I learned and that’s where I fell in love with the sport.
Did you surf exclusively in the Wadi Park early on?
Yes. It was only four of us — the two people that used to work there, and me and one other guy. The park wasn’t open to the public in the beginning and so we were testing the settings, and that’s where I learned.
Did you feel like you were able to condense years of progress into months because every wave was the same and you got so much repetition?
Oh, absolutely. 100 percent. I don’t think I would have ever progressed so fast if I was just surfing in the ocean. In the UAE, we don’t really have waves. In the winter we maybe get a swell once a month, and winter in our country is only three months. If we are lucky we get five or six swells a year. So I would have never been able to compete or get to where I am now if it wasn’t for the wavepool.
How long before you were ripping and doing airs?
That took awhile. I didn’t have anyone to teach me so it was just me picking it up myself. So yeah, it took about four years to do my first air.
Who were you looking at for inspiration in those years? What surfers were you watching?
Julian Wilson was my favorite for sure. He was doing massive airs. Julian and John John were the surfers I was watching the most. I would watch all their videos and get excited.
Were you there when Dion Agius came over to film Electric Blue Heaven?
Yes, I was. That guy ripped! He did things I never thought were possible in that pool. When we surfed it we were very limited in what we knew how to do. When he came, he just opened new channels and ripped that wave apart. But also the Gudauskas brothers. They came over and actually helped me learn how do to an air. In the pool it’s so cool because they would show me what do do, give me tips, and then I could go straightway and try. My first air was one of the highlights of my life [laughs].
How about transferring what you learned in a pool, to the ocean. What was the hardest part about that process?
Here in the UAE we don’t get real waves. My first surf trip was to Sri Lanka after 6 months surfing in the Wadi pool. It was very difficult to move from the pool to the water, because I didn’t know how to read the waves, I didn’t understand what was under the water, and man, I got so worked. I fell off on my first wave, ate it on the reef, stepped on a sea urchin, and ended up in the hospital [laughs]. It was a nightmare.
Later on I went to Australia for a job and spent two years there. I started taking surf lessons there and that’s really where I learned how to surf in the ocean. From there I just got better, started surfing big waves in Ireland — I’m sure you saw that clip, maybe it wasn’t the best idea [laughs], but I just kept trying again and again and again and now I’m hooked. I’m hoping to go to Nazare soon.
Do you ever think about how cool it is that you’re the first of a generation of competitive surfers that learned in a wave pool?
Yeah, the wave pool platform is great. It’s an insane thing, especially for countries like us, because the wave pool is the best place to start. If you go to the ocean, it’s so hard to learn. I got super frustrated. Most of the places it’s crazy crowded. I still remember that when was in Australia I would catch like one or two waves every hour. It was driving me crazy. If that was how I had to learn how to surf, I would never be where I am now. So I give all the credit to the wave pool.
How rad would it be to represent the UAE in the Olympics roughly 10 years after having learned to surf?
That would be an amazing achievement. Like, even going to the ISA World Games and winning two heats was a highlight of my life. Everyone is always tripping out that I started surfing so late and that I come from a country with no waves. But the surf culture is such a beautiful culture. As an athlete that has competed in a few different sports, surfing is the sport that got me hooked and I can’t get out of it. The culture, the people, the places…everything is just insane.
And for you, it all started because of a wavepool.
That’s absolutely correct. I had never seen a surfboard in my life. I only knew surfing existed when I was 24. And it’s so funny: When I try to get sponsors in my country to go out and compete, I go to the companies in the UAE and they think surfing is like Water Polo or something. So I had to show them videos. To this day people don’t know what surfing is over here. But hopefully, because of wavepools and future generations of surfers from the UAE, that will all change.