The World Surf League kicks off the Samsung Galaxy Championship Tour on February 28th at the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast. There are many plot lines heading into the season, none more heralded than the arrival of the Brazilian Storm. Since last year’s Snapper event when Gabriel Medina, the new Brazilian World Champ, made clear his intentions for an historic 2014 title run by taking down hometown favorite Joel Parkinson, the buzz surrounding the rapid ascension of the Brazzos over the past three years, and more notably, the past twelve months has reached a crescendo.
This year, with seven Brazilians on the CT, Medina returning to make his title defense, and some of the current CT elite getting up there in years, will we witness the Brazilian Storm evolve into a veritable force of nature or watch this impressive run-up dissipate into something far more mundane?
Rest assured, I’m not a hater. I admire the Brazilians for their tenacity and passion. I used to date a girl from Rio when I lived in south Florida. She and her friends lived packed together in a tiny little apartment with barely any possessions but the clothes on their backs. But they were all intelligent, kind people who loved life and weren’t shy about showing it, regardless of what may have been occurring around them at any time. Little Claudia and her friends always talked about their home–their deep love for it, as well as the heartbreaking political and socio-economic problems its citizens faced (and that was a long time ago. Clearly, things have been too slow to change). But no matter where our conversations went, they always returned to just how special her people and her country were.
So, I’m not here to disparage the Brazilians. Just to offer some balanced perspective in the face of media hype, and before the rest of us Americans, Hawaiians*, Australians, South Africans and Europeans cede the next 10 years of CT glory to the Brazzos. Here’s why bustin’ down the door doesn’t necessarily mean Brazil will be taking over the house.
Dantas and Ferreira: Back Seat, Rookies
The Brazilians begin the year with two rookies, Wiggoly Dantas and Italo Ferreira, both coming from the QS. Both are very talented, with Italo looking particularly sharp in small waves and Dantas with a history of nutting it up in larger surf. That said, the shift from the QS is still notoriously hard. The CT features larger, more powerful waves than what QS’ers are typically accustomed to.
In addition, the event seeding system pits lower-ranked surfers against the highest, most talented and often most experienced CT ones. That means these rookies will be facing not just the best in the world, but the best of the best, right off the bat. This year, that includes Medina, who Dantas will face in his very first CT heat. It’s just a tough ladder to climb, although Snapper will give both a fair shot. Ultimately, both Ferreira and Dantas could easily find themselves fighting to stay on tour by the end of the year.
Andre, Pupo and Toledo: Muddling in the Middle
…Ditto Jadson Andre. Jadson is a extremely talented surfer and by all accounts, a great guy. But he has ambled inconsistently along the WCT since arriving with fanfare in 2010 when he finished 13th. Since then, Andre has finished 22nd (2011), 32nd (falling off tour in 2012 and having to re-qualify in 2013), and just making it back this year by securing the final 22nd CT-issued slot by the skin of his teeth (or CJ’s foot). He also qualified via the QS, and may well wind up having to do it again this year. But will he ever break away from the lower third of CT performers? He seems to be stuck in the same rip as Alejo Muniz, despite Alejo’s valiant year-end effort.
What about Miguel Pupo and Felipe Toledo? I loved seeing more of these guys, here. They’ve been on the cusp of breaking out, with Toledo showing a bit more promise both in small waves and larger ones. Felipe finished 17th overall last year (15th in 2013) and also won the QS while he was at it. He finished with two 5ths at Pipe and Portugal, which bodes well for his future. On the flip side, Toledo himself has admitted that he needs to work on his heat strategy. And head games can often prove to be more of a lingering problem than things like acclimating to larger surf. I do believe Toledo will crack the top 10 and that we may see him end up swapping places with Adriano De Souza this year.
As for Pupo–I’m pulling for him. He seems determined to keep up with his peers. He’s had his moments, but has been plagued with significant health problems (now corrected). Most of all, he has battled inconsistency with a 36th, a 17th and two 19th place overall finishes, including one year off the CT over the past five years. If Miguel can just get rid of one or two more of his 25th place event finishes, then he could potentially become a long-term fixture in or around the Top 10. Otherwise, his career begins to look much like Jadson Andre’s and Alejo Muniz’s–promising, without ever really being able to really pull it all together in a way that fulfills that promise.
De Souza: Battle-tested. Battle-weary?
Adriano De Souza is a battle-tested CT elite. He’s a perennial top 10 guy, never finishing lower than 13th in the past seven years with three top 5 finishes, a 7th, 10th and an 8th last year (even while missing Pipe). Adriano has been criticized for everything from a squatty stance to over-claiming. But he’s a plenty stylish, sure-footed surfer who rips in all conditions. Most impressively, he has always risen to the occasion, no matter what was required, including elevating his aerial game over the past years as rising talent levels demanded. But De Souza has a persistent knee problem and a pack of hard-charging young talent hot on his heels. He could easily slip out of the Top 10 this year.
Gabriel Medina: Under Pressure
He earned his title, even despite Kelly’s seemingly diminishing desire and John John’s late charge. But as one astute pundit pointed out on The Inertia, it’s one thing to win a crown. It’s quite another to wear it. As great as the pressure was on the boy king to win the title last year, will it be any less to repeat with the pride of his nation overflowing, the death of Ricardos dos Santos heavy on hearts and minds, and the global surf media beside itself over the prophesied Brazilian apocalypse? He is still 21, after all.
It is also worth mentioning that two of Medina’s wins last year came by .03 points, each over Joel Parkinson at Snapper and Kelly Slater in Tahiti. That’s not to suggest that luck had anything to do with it, only that they were that close. Slater won his first title at age 20 in 1992, but didn’t win his second until 1994. I believe that entrenches himself in the Top 5, but will be surprised if he repeats this year, given the weight upon his shoulders… again.
Old Guys Rule
Kelly Slater (age 43), Taj Burrow (36), Joel Parkinson (33), Mick Fanning (33) and right behind, Josh Kerr (31) are the core CT elders who continue to clog up the Top 10 each year, making it extremely difficult for lower seeds to make their way up the competitive ladder. And these guys should never be asked to apologize for their enduring health, talent and competitive drive. The question for their competitors is how long does desire last for each? If success equals talent less motivation, then you have to wonder if Kelly’s recent comments in Surfer are indicative of the beginning of the end, as even Slater himself finds it unusual that his losses aren’t bothering him as much these days. And I can’t help thinking that if Slater finally declares himself satisfied, that it might have a domino effect within this group. For the time being, these are the guys who really dictate the world order, year in and year out.
Brazilian Storm: You’ve Got Company…
Finally, Brazil is hardly the only nation with rising young prodigies on the brink of fulfilling their destinies. Although credit goes to Gabriel for being the fastest to punch through, South Africa (Jordy Smith), Australia (Julian Wilson and Owen Wright), America (Kolohe Andino and Nat Young) and Hawaii* (Who da guy?) all have young guns in contention to step into those top rung spots and potentially secure a championship for their respective countries.
Every one of these guys are rock solid in big waves or small, and all of them are coming on strong right now. But at the end of the day, there are only so many spots at the top.
*Hawaii is America’s 50th state.