CNN  — 

As Maya Gabeira carves a white ripple across the face of a 73-foot wave, two thoughts flash through her mind.

The first: “Why the hell did you put yourself here?” Then the second: “Where is my mom?”

To onlookers from the shore, Gabeira is a tiny, speck-like figure against a towering mass of water. Hunched and squatted on her board, she hurtles across the ocean at a terrifying speed while the wave thunders to the surface behind her.

“It felt super, super, super fast,” Brazilian big-wave surfer Gabeira tells CNN Sport as she recalls the sensations of riding that wave. “It had a particularly loud, loud noise when it broke behind me, the loudest I’ve had a wave break close to me, for sure.

“I think the noise is what will always stick to me from that ride.”

The wave in question, which Gabeira caught at Portugal’s Praia do Norte break in February last year, was the biggest anyone had surfed that season and also the biggest ever surfed by a woman. Measuring at 73.5 feet, or 22.4 meters, it surpassed her own record of 68 feet set in 2018.

But the statistics and the footage only tell part of the story.

Before breaking world records, Gabeira endured three spine surgeries and nearly five years of painstaking rehabilitation having almost drowned at Praia do Norte – the site of both her records – in 2013.

The accident occurred when Gabeira came off what was at that point the biggest wave she had ever surfed. She broke her ankle and was knocked unconscious, becoming trapped in the swirling waters before her jet ski rider, fellow surfer Carlos Burle, was able to help her to the beach for CPR.

“I had a lot of doctors telling me to stop because of the difficulties they had dealing with my spine and the uncertainty that continuing the sport at a high level would have on my future health,” says Gabeira, reflecting on the years of recovery that followed the accident.

That she has been able to return to big-wave surfing, let alone break records, is testament to the 34-year-old’s resilience.

In 2015, she moved to Nazaré – a fishing village north of Lisbon and home to the world-renowned Praia do Norte break – to hone her craft.

Following the accident, she began to view the sport in a different light.

“It humbled me a lot,” says Gabeira. “It showed me how much I didn’t have everything under control and organized, and how much more I had to improve.