RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) – It's dawn and barefoot boys are hustling down the inclined alleys of Rio de Janeiro slums, surfboards under their arms. They're heading to nearby Sao Conrado and Arpoador beaches, where they catch waves and momentarily leave their impoverished lives behind.
The youngest boys use pink, yellow and neon green bodyboards of foam, while the teens strap leashes from their short, sturdier surfboards to their ankles before gleefully paddling out to the waves.
Not long ago, many of these kids were begging on the streets or engaged in crime, but two surf schools serving youth from Rio's largest slum, Rocinha, have helped change that.
Marcio da Silva founded the Rocinha Surf Association a few years back and hundreds of kids have gone through his school, which he funds through donations and by doing some repair work on surf boards.
"We rescue the youth from inside the community, taking them to the beach to teach them the sport while at the same time socializing them," he says. "When they join the surf school we give them full support, providing boards, clothes, everything, totally free of charge."
Take 18-year-old Cristiano Gomes. Before he learned how to surf at one of the Rocinha schools, "life was pretty bad," he says. He would juggle for spare change from motorists at the busy highway intersection at the base of the shantytown.
Now, he ranks in the Top 10 in Rio's junior surfing league. Inspired by the recent rise of Brazilians among the global surfing elite, he says he's focused on becoming the first professional to come out of the school and make a life out of the waves.
"A lot of my friends who aren't surfing don't have anything, they don't know what to do with their lives," Gomes said after recently riding waves at Sao Conrado, where pro events have been held in the past, but where sewage pollution has also kept them away. "I don't know what would have become of me without surfing."
Still, making a career out of surfing remains an elusive goal for many of surfers from the slums.
Magno Neves da Silva, a 23-year-old from the Cantagalo slum, surfs nearly every day at the nearby Arpoador beach, one of Rio's chicest. He discovered the sport at age 8 after a surf teacher spotted him skateboarding in the slum and taught him how to surf.
"My dream until today is to be a pro surfer," said Silva, who works as a dog-walker to make ends meet. He says Rio's relatively underdeveloped pro-surfing infrastructure is largely to blame.
"I still compete in championships, but there aren't many of them in Rio, so it's not easy," he said. At this stage, Silva acknowledged, his dream of living off his passion are "far from becoming reality."