Adriano de Souza (BRA) is one of the more polarizing figures surfing has seen in recent decades. He exploded out of relative obscurity in 2004, winning the highly coveted Billabong ASP World Junior Championships at North Narrabeen over a field that included Dane Reynolds, Jamie O'Brien, Jordy Smith, Shaun Cansdell, and Alain Riou, among others. He was only 15 at the time.
The victory was the opening shot across the bow of a career that would vault the young Brazilian into the limelight as South America's first legitimate threat to the ASP World Title in the new millennium. His meteoric rise through the Qualification Series (QS), and his solid footing in the WCT Top 10 have earned him supporters around the world. But his youth, passion, and unapologetic competitive tenacity have also created those on the other side of the aisle.
The ASP caught up with De Souza ahead of the upcoming J-Bay Open, the 6th Stop on the 2014 Samsung Galaxy ASP World Championship Tour.
#1 You had a tough upbringing in Guaruja. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
I came from a very poor family in the North of Brazil. They didn't feel that they could succeed and grow while living there so they decided to move to the big city of Sao Paulo for more opportunities.
The job competition for my parents was hard and they couldn't succeed there either. A few years later, I was born in Guaruja -- a coastal area of Sao Paulo -- and started to surf with my brother. Actually, the only reason I am where I am today is because of my brother buying me my first surfboard for $20 dollars. There are a lot of options for young athletes in Brazil. To be honest though, we always liked to surf more than play soccer. I love to watch soccer, but I was never a good player so I never had any hopes of becoming a great player or a professional. Whereas in surfing, in addition to hope, I loved to spend all day at the water.
#2 At 15, you made history by beating the world's best up-and-coming surfers to become ASP World Junior Champion. How did you get to this point and what did winning do for your career?
Things have happened really fast for me throughout my whole life. When I was 14, I won a professional event in Brazil and made some money. This was a big deal for me since I didn't come from much. It was at this point that I decided to surf not only for fun, but also as a profession.
At 15, I went to Australia in search of better waves and different experiences and it culminated in a major career moment for me and a huge surprise -- I won the 2003 ASP World Junior Championships in Narrabeen and became the youngest ASP World Junior Champ in the sport's history. It was a boost in confidence for me. After that title, I knew I had to train a lot, but it also made me think that I had what it took to, one day, be amongst the elite.
At 18, I started competing on the elite WCT where I have competed for the past nine years. I'm only 27, but I've been on the 'CT for nearly a decade so, in terms of experience, I guess I have a lot. I do believe I am still there because I have really worked hard and always improve. You see a lot of guys get to this level and think that their approach is complete, but you always have to take a critical eye to yourself and work on improving weaknesses. When I started, I was probably stronger in the air relative to the rest of the field than I was on rail or in the barrel. Since qualifying, I've made a concerted effort to improve my power and tube-riding and it's resulted in me being a more complete surfer.
Today, I think I'm at a peak -- physically and mentally -- and want to take full advantage of that this year.
#3 In your early years on tour, you had some challenges in terms of popularity outside of Brazil. Describe these for us and how you overcame them. Do you still feel some of that today?
I have Latin blood so I always like to celebrate a great wave as if I scored a goal. I think in the beginning, some fans from different countries thought I was maybe claiming to try and force the judges to give me a better score. But I was just celebrating a good wave or even just a good performance when I was in need of one.
Nowadays there seems to be a lot of people celebrating or claiming so hopefully people now understand that I never wanted to provoke anyone, I just wanted to celebrate because I was happy.
#4 In Puerto Rico in 2010, you lost to Kelly Slater in the non-elimination Round 4 and then he beat you in the Quarterfinals to claim his historic 10th ASP World Title. What were your feelings before, during and after that heat? You and Kelly have had a history of heated battles on tour. What do you think he thinks of you?
At the time, I was having a lot of ups and downs in my career and Kelly (Slater), by contrast, was about to become ASP World Champion for the 10th time. There was a great deal of attention on that event as it was such a historic occasion.
So I knew if I beat Kelly in the Quarterfinals...I knew that it was a heat that could change my life. I was fit and focused and felt like I was surfing really well. My confidence was high. I tried my hardest to beat him that day, but I lost when, even though I had the priority, he caught the best wave of the entire event. At the time, it was like receiving a punch at a UFC fight when you thought you are going to win.
I actually just shut down when I came in. I didn't grab my things, I just left the site and walked 10 miles to the house where I was staying. I was really angry that I didn't win the heat so I had to walk and think of what happened and try to let it soak in. It sounds silly now, but it was a process I had to go through then.
I was devastated at the time, but looking back, that heat changed my life for the better. Even though I lost, I learned how to behave better in a heat, to understand and study better my opponents and try to appreciate their strengths and weaknesses and use that to my advantage. I have a lot to thank Kelly for because he is the athlete that he is. He is an inspiration, not just in surfing, but in all sports. I am always watching him both in and out of the water because, with Kelly, I always learn something. What he thinks of me? Haha, I don't know. I hope he thinks of me as a tough competitor!
#5 We've seen a huge influx of successful Brazilians on tour in recent years when compared to Americans, Australians, South Africans and Europeans. What, in your opinion, are the reasons for this?
I do think Brazil has always had great surfers in the past, but maybe they didn't have the support to go all the way. Now, with the globalization and also having more support from the big companies, I do believe we will even see more Brazilians coming through the ranks. This is just the beginning. It's a country full of passion and athleticism and, with the proper support, I think Brazilian have as much drive and motivation as any other nation on the planet.
#6 Before you, there was Neco and Flavio Padaratz, Paulo Moura, Victor Ribas, Peterson Rosa, Raoni Monteiro, and a host of others. After you came the likes of Gabriel Medina, Miguel Pupo, Filipe Toledo, Alejo Muniz, Jadson Andre, and more. When the history of Brazilian Surfing is written, what will be the story of Adriano de Souza? What will you be remembered for?
I do have a lot of respect to all the Brazilian idols that succeeded on the tour ahead of me like Fabio, Neco, Peterson and Victor. They were heroes in Brazil. My history is still being written and I can only hope to be remembered as well as them.
Only time will tell. When I was a young, my dream was to reach wherever Fabio Gouveia reached during his career. Today, I do have the same number of victories that Fabio had on Tour and I finished the year in the top 5, so today I can say that I reached my goal. But I still have a lot of years ahead of me.
#7 Your surfing at places like Bells Beach and Jeffreys Bay in recent years has impressed a lot of former doubters. You've evolved your surfing from lethal aerialist to legitimate power-surfer in spite of your relative smaller size. How do you view your surfing and how it has evolved since you started on tour?
It was incredible to write my name on those legendary tournaments. J-Bay and Bells are my favorite waves, and no matter what was the wave conditions, no one will remember how was the ocean that year that I was the champion and my name will be there forever. It's hard to explain why I succeed on those type of waves, but they are my favorites. I really feel like home surfing there. My style somehow adjusts perfectly well on those waves. I can flow well there, where I guess is one of the secrets to do well.
#8 You recently switched from long-time shaper Darren Handley to Channel Islands. What was the reason for the move and what has your response been to the new equipment?
I have nothing but gratitude and thanks to [Darren] for all he has done for me. DH produced amazing boards for me for years and I made huge strides in my career with them. Sometimes though, you need to change it up and lately, I was feeling like something was missing in my equipment. I needed a push myself in all areas to improve my surfing.
After years of watching guys Dane Reynolds and Kelly Slater (even knowing the talent they have), I knew their boards were helping them. I'm very grateful to Travis Lee for letting me use the Channel Island boards and bringing me on the program. Today, I can say my surfing has changed for the better because of the boards. The boards are great in waves like Pipeline, Rio and Bells so they are the best surfboards in the world in my opinion.
#9 Jeffreys Bay: You won there when it was an ASP QS 6-Star event and now it's back on the ASP WCT schedule. What are your impressions of the wave, and how do you think you'll fare there this season?
When I won the QS event in 2012, I recognized the difficulties and differences that proved unique to that event as opposed to when it was a WCT event. The QS has a lot of upcoming talents and they're all hungry to take elite scalps and show the world they deserve to qualify -- I know because that was me when I was at that level. Besides this factor, the 2012 event still had guys like John John (Florence), Jordy (Smith), Alejo (Muniz), Brett Simpson and others.
For sure, it was a special event for me and I'm very proud to have won it. However, it was two years ago and winning a QS event there is much different to winning a WCT -- they're just not the same thing. I'm very excited it's back on the schedule and I hope the waves pump because the level of talent on tour this season has been scary good. I really hope to do well again in J-Bay this year.
#10 Who will be the first ASP World Champion from Brazil?
This year, I believe Gabriel (Medina) and I both have great chances. After five events, Gabriel has already won two of them, so I do believe he does have a really good chance. There are still six events ahead of us so I wouldn't commit to anything yet as there is a lot that can happen. I'm here to win it this season, though, it's been my goal since I've qualified -- I'm here to win the title.