When 22-year-old Brazilian surfer Filipe Toledo won the Rio Pro competition last year, fans on the beach in Rio De Janeiro went full Beatlemania. Flags waved. Victory chants were sung. Grown men cried. The beach was so packed that Toledo had trouble getting from the water to the podium as the throng of emotional fans embraced him.
Dave Prodan, VP of Communications of the World Surf League for more than 10 years, was on the beach that day and says the scene was unprecedented.
"That was the craziest crowd I've ever seen," he told me. "Brazilians fans are probably some of the most rabid and passionate on tour."
Surfing's popularity has exploded in Brazil. In 2014, Sao Paulo-born Gabriel Medina became the first Brazilian ever to win the World Surf League Men's Tour at the age of 20, tying Kelly Slater as the tournament's youngest champion. More than six million Brazilians watched the final competition on TV. The victory landed Medina on a popularity level nearly on par with Brazilian soccer star Neymar. Today he stars in two nationally broadcast reality shows, Mundo Medina and Medina 360.
The next year, Brazilians won six of the 11 competitions on the WSL's Men's Samsung Galaxy Championship Tour, with four Brazilians finishing in the top 10 for the first time in pro-surfing history. Toledo won more competitions last year than any other pro on tour. At the top, though, is 29-year-old Adriano De Souza. Standing just 5'6", De Souza claimed the No. 1 ranking in a dramatic final day victory at the Billabong Pipe Masters last December in Hawaii. His victory sent a message to the surfing world: the Brazilians have truly arrived.
"Brazil has become undoubtedly a superpower in surfing," said Zach Weisberg, founder of The Inertia and former editor of Surfer Magazine. "Systemically, the country is creating top talent across the board, and that is undeniable."
While the presence of Brazilians in pro surfing isn't new, their recent, unmatched success is a ripple effect of the economic boom Brazil experienced during the early 2000s. A series of reforms enacted by then President Luíz Inácio Lula da Silva strengthened the country's working class, which meant that families could now afford leisure sports and that children, who might otherwise have had to work, now had time to surf.
"The reduction in inequality in Brazil really opened up spaces for a lot of families and individuals from those families to do things they wouldn't of been able to do before," explained Juliana Barbassa, Brazilian journalist and author of Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink.
"It used to be soccer was the only sport available to a lower income young person in Brazil. I think more and more are seeing that surfing offers the same possibility as well."
Perhaps no other Brazilian surfer exemplifies this new Brazilian working class success story more than Gabriel Medina. In 2009, at age 15, Medina got a sponsorship deal from Rip Curl—something that, Barbassa says, would not have been really possible a decade before. Little over a week after signing with Rip Curl, Medina became the youngest male winner of an open age pro competition. Then, at 19, he won the World Junior Tour. His success opened the floodgates for a new generation of young Brazilian surfers, christened the Brazilian Storm (there's even a Brazilian surfing reality show by the same name), to obtain big-name sponsors, which provided them with equipment and travel funds.
It's not just the hardware Brazilians are winning on tour that's notable, though; it's the way they are doing it. This new crop of Brazilians, along with a rabid fan base that faithfully follows them all over the world, has quickly upended the surfing establishment with an energized, highly competitive and vocal approach that is exhilarating to watch, but has also stirred controversy and created tensions with others on the tour.
This came to a head at last year's Quiksilver Gold Coast Pro in Australia, when then reigning champ Medina was disqualified for interference in a heat against Australian Glenn Hall. Frustrated by the decision, Medina vented his anger during a post-match interview.
"The next time Glenn say 'fuck you' to me, I will teach him—," Medina said in the interview before being cut off by the reporter. Medina was later fined for his comments. As a result of the controversial interference call, Brazilian fans came to Medina's side, and Hall received a number of death threats.
"Brazilians like to win. They like to see their country well represented," said Barbassa, who sees this type of incident as part of a long history of Brazilian fans passionately rallying around the success of other Brazilians.
"When a Brazilian breaks into that rarified sphere of international recognition, a whole host of Brazilians will cheer for them. And the Brazilian success in surfing is tapping into that same energy. It's something that is making us feel proud, and so we'll turn out for that person."
That passionate support, though, sometimes chafes the surfing establishment. After De Souza claimed victory at the Billabong Pipeline Masters last December and took the lead in the WSL standings, flag-waving Brazilian fans once again mobbed the beach, carrying De Souza on their shoulders to the podium. De Souza was in tears, but the rest of the crowd was not so enthralled.
"I was on the beach, and no one else seemed very excited," said Weisberg.
Weisberg was quick to point out that a lot of the surfing world was pulling for Mick Fanning, who had endured a highly emotional year. In July, Fanning made international headlines by nearly becoming shark lunch during the J-Bay Open in South Africa. Then at Pipeline in December, Fanning's older brother died suddenly the day before the finals. Fanning chose to continue in the tournament, but he looked visibly shaken and lost to Medina in the semis, setting up an all-Brazilian final heat.
Adriano De Souza enters the 2016 season, which begins today with the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast in Australia, as the top-ranked surfer in the world. And, as Weisberg explains, there's plenty to celebrate about his success.
"De Souza's story is interesting not just as a perspective of surfers but of human beings. He had to overcome a lot to be in the place he is today," Weisberg said.
De Souza grew up in a poor neighborhood in Florianópolis, a beachside city in the state of Santa Catarina. He received his first surfboard from his brother, who paid $7 for it. Last year, just months before winning the world title, De Souza lost a close friend and fellow surfer Ricardo Dos Santos, who was shot dead near his home outside of Florianópolis. The incident was a stark reminder of the very different reality many Brazilian surfers come from.
De Souza's is the kind of story that Weisberg thinks the surf world could have rallied around, but the typical fanfare of a world title was muted by Fanning's loss.
"It shouldn't have really been a concession to celebrate Adriano winning the world title that day," Weisberg said.
The lack of enthusiasm for De Souza's victory, though, may also speak to the tension that's been brewing over the past several years between Brazilians and the rest of the pro surfing community, which is dominated by English speakers and has not always been friendly to outsiders.
In the 2007 Pipeline Masters competition, Brazilian Neco Padaratz became involved in a fight with North Shore regular Sunny Garcia in the water after an incident similar to Medina and Hall's last year. When the pair arrived on shore, Brazilian fans and Hawaiian locals fought as well. In the mini documentary Brink: Surfing's New World Order, released last year, Brazilian surfers spoke candidly about being the target of racist taunts, including being called monkeys, in the water by fellow surfers.
Despite these ugly instances, Weisberg thinks surfing is shifting toward a more accepting vibe.
"The thought that English-speaking populations are dominating surfing is just no longer true. In the early days of that transition, there was clearly some resistance, but the dynamics are definitely changing," he explained. "It's making the surf industry more mature, and we are seeing more acceptance."
Embraced or not, Brazilians aren't going anywhere. As the 2016 tour kicks off, nine Brazilians, including newcomer 22-year-old Caio Ibelli, who won the World Qualifying Series last year, are charging the lineups.
The difference this year is that Brazilians are no longer viewed as fringe competitors. Instead, they're considered the favorites. Expectations are high for the Brazilian Storm in the new season, but Dave Prodan thinks the surfers are more than able to live up to them.
"They've had to bite, scratch, kick, and fight for every bit of credibility and respect they've earned. I don't think that goes away overnight."