At the start of the 2015 season, it wouldn't have surprised many surf fans to see a Brazilian leading the Jeep rankings in the Oi Rio Pro, the fourth event of the year. But few would have thought it would be Adriano de Souza. He boasts a decade of solid, elite-level surfing, and has always been formidable but his surfing is far from flashy. It's been all the more surprising, then, that the yeoman of Brazilian Storm will be leading the charge in Rio.
When the 2015 Samsung Galaxy Championship Tour (CT) season kicked off, Gabriel Medina was the man of the moment: As the reigning World Champion and the first one Brazil, he not only inspired a nation but realized the promise of the so-called Brazilian Storm. After facing down massive barrels at the 2014 Billabong Pro Tahiti, Medina proved that he was the real deal: Sure, he could boost on a dime, but he could also take on tubes with the best of them. With a competitive IQ that merits comparison to Kelly Slater (USA), his rise was meteoric and his momentum seemed unstoppable.
He wanted to be the first Brazilian World Champion. Gabriel stole that from him.
That is, until the first contest of 2015. At March's Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast, Medina was eliminated by perennial underdog, Glenn Hall (IRL), amid a controversial interference call that saw him later apologize on air. Before the shock had even faded, the limelight was quickly stolen by Filipe Toledo (BRA), whose high-performance victory earned him new respect. Toledo put in a lot of hard work during the offseason, both physically and mentally, and it showed. Suddenly fans had a new hero to love, and with a mixture of showmanship and mind-blowing precision, Toledo loved them back.
But by the end of the third contest, the Drug Aware Margaret River Pro, he too seemed to falter. Toledo's relative stumble after such a huge season start left the door wide open for De Souza. For longtime followers of the Tour, his recent success has been a curveball. Yet for his fellow competitors, it was inevitable.
"I'm not surprised to see him on the top," said Toledo, who is now No. 3 on the rankings. "I'm stoked for him because he pretty much spent his whole life on the Tour. I'm really passionate about it as well, but he's kind of triple what I have. It's crazy when he gets a sick wave and he's yelling and screaming, it's kind of scary."
Jadson Andre (BRA), who used to travel with De Souza, may know the current world No. 1 better than anyone else on Tour. Like Toledo, he's anything but surprised to see De Souza on top.
Adriano's one of the best, he's just so underrated.
"I did an interview with the Brazilian TV Globo [before the season], and I said Adriano is going to be the one," said Andre. "He wanted so bad to be the first Brazilian World Champion. Gabriel stole that from him. I know how competitive he is, every heat he makes you can see it."
It isn't just the Brazilians who know they'll have a hungrier, more focused De Souza to contend with. The notion of the "Brazilian Storm" is alive and well among the elites, and De Souza's determination has been impossible to ignore. Aussies Matt Banting and Matt Wilkinson were quick to tout his competitive edge, even if it came at their expense.
"Adriano was sort of the underdog Brazilian, but he's still so talented," said Banting. "He's probably one of the best, he's just so underrated. When you match up against him you just know it's going to be tough one."
Said Wilkinson, "He's such a fighter. He knows his weaknesses and makes up for them with passion -- so he doesn't really have weaknesses in the end.
...that pressure just makes him do things out of his skin
"He's such a feisty competitor that there's nowhere in the world where you'd come up against him and feel comfortable. You always feel like you can beat anyone anywhere but he fights back in heats where he's comboed. That pressure just makes him do things out of his skin."
The added pressure of expectation in Brazil, however, may just be the X-factor in play. De Souza knows it -- and so do the other surfers on Tour.
"It's going to be crazy for all the Brazilian guys," said Andre, his former travel partner, "but especially Adriano and Gabriel and also Filipe."
In a recent interview with the WSL, De Souza said, "You're in the front row and everyone wants to catch that spot. I'm proud but at the same time, there's pressure, with my whole family and friends will be watching this event."
This isn't De Souza's first time at the top. In fact, Brazil has been a sweet spot for him in the past: He left Brazil leading the rankings in both 2011 and 2013. But by the end of those years, he had dropped to fifth and 13th, respectively. The 13th place was his worst-ever finish on the Championship Tour.
This time around, De Souza is in pretty good shape, regardless of how he performs in Brazil. If he finishes dead last he'll leave Rio with 25,000 points, and there are only two surfers who could overtake him: World No. 2 Mick Fanning (AUS) and Toledo at No. 3, who would each have to win the event to do so. As long as he survives the first two elimination rounds he'll earn himself another event in yellow.
The question that remains, then, is whether Brazil will be the real start of his Title campaign -- or the beginning of the end?