Italo Ferreira is sitting underneath a boom mic and a florescent studio light in the front of his house in Baia Formosa when he lets out a big yawn and blinks a set of heavy eyes. It’s been a long day for the 2019 World Champ, to be sure, but it’s also sort of a funny sight, considering how Ferreira tends to come across on the World Tour — an endlessly-energetic, spring-loaded ball of fast-twitch muscle fibers, more akin to an avatar from Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer than a flesh-and-blood wave rider. Joel Parkinson once described him as a “minion who can bounce everywhere.” But while Ferreira can light up multiple heats in a day and backflip off the podium afterward, being a newly-crowned World Champion in Brazil is draining even for him.
When he returned home to Brazil the week after the Pipe Masters in December, Ferreira stepped off the plane with his world title trophy in hand (he brought it as carry-on) and arrived to a chanting crowd of family, friends and fans, who proceeded to parade him through the busy streets of Rio Grande do Norte’s largest city. His day-to-day since then has been a barrage of interviews and TV appearances with some of the biggest news outlets in Brazil. He just finished filming his new reality TV show — “Parque do Italo” — for the Brazilian sports channel “Canal OFF”. Just in the few days before my visit, he pin-balled between sponsor photoshoots in Los Angeles and São Paulo, and within a half hour of arriving back home, he was mic’ed up and at it again — this time filming an ad for, of all things, a fintech startup that helps middle-class Brazilians secure personal loans.
Being a Brazilian World Champ courts a type of sponsorship seldom seen elsewhere in the surfing world. Look at the heavily-stickered boards of Gabriel Medina, Adriano de Souza and now Ferreira, and you’ll see the logos of Ford, Mitsubishi, Audi, Ralph Lauren, Bridgestone Tires, Guaraná Antarctica, Corona, Oi, an orthodontic company and — let us not forget the brand behind Medina’s dolphin-smooth armpits — Gillette.
Waiting for the startup’s shoot to end, so that my interview can begin, I settle into an extra director’s chair towards the back of the space. When it’s not filled with cameras and interviewers, it serves as Ferreira’s gym and board shed, and I spot Ferreira’s money-making sleds sitting in a pile just behind the production crew. Propped up next to them is the famous cooler lid—a weathered, 3-foot chunk of foam that Ferreira learned to surf on when he was a skinny 9 year old and has since become a favorite point of discussion among interviewers like myself. His dad, who bought fish from local fishermen and sold them to restaurants, constantly had these coolers lying around the Ferreira household. It’s easy to understand why the lid gets so much attention, considering that Ferreira is the first World Champ in history who learned how to surf on a food storage container.
In a sense, Ferreira’s humble rise to surf stardom reflects the larger shift in Brazil from a third-tier surfing nation on the competitive circuit to its most dominant force. In just the past 6 years, Ferreira — alongside Medina, de Souza, Filipe Toledo and the rest of the generation of rippers dubbed “The Brazilian Storm” — have led Brazil in claiming four world titles and winning 30 out of the past 66 ‘CT events. And while Brazilian surfers have maintained a presence on Tour since the ‘80s, with some even cracking the top 10 in the mid-’90s and 2000s, this generation represents a seismic shift for Brazilian competitors onto an entirely new plane.
Medina’s first title in 2014 marked the moment when Brazil effectively planted its yellow, blue and green flag in the sand. Suddenly there was a generation of young Brazilians who could not only win in 2-foot Rio but also cavernous Teahupo’o, who could huck technical airs and also powerfully lay it on rail. And, most importantly, they could win world titles.
Outside of Brazil, many of these surfers were completely unknown before they qualified for the Tour. Within a few short years, they’ve overthrown the Tour’s old guard and established themselves as the surfers to beat at any given event. Whether or not Brazil is the World Tour’s most dominant surfing nation isn’t even really a debate — the results speak for themselves. So how, exactly, did Brazil suddenly become the biggest exporter of world-beating competitive surfers, and will its dominance last?
You’d never know it from Ferreira’s Instagram posts, which regularly show him doing things like throwing rooster tails of sand in his supped-up dune buggy along the local beaches, but Baia Formosa is a rather sleepy little town. The 8,000-person coastal enclave is a tangled web of cobblestone streets that lead to a beautiful bay. Ferreira’s house—a modern single-story with a huge rectangular pool—sits just up the beach from Pontal, a rippable right point he grew up surfing multiple times a day. “We have three rights here, which is why I can surf good on my backhand,” he said with a laugh as we spoke in his backyard.
After Ferreira made a few attempts at surfing on the cooler lid, his dad bought him a real surfboard, paying a local shaper half in cash, half in fish. It didn’t take long before Ferreira was competing in local amateur competitions, even securing a small local sponsor. “I started winning events and I would take the money and help my dad and my mom,” said Ferreira. Sometimes he’d sell the prizes he won at contests — sunglasses, boardshorts, T-shirts — to pay for airline tickets to get to other contests, using the remaining money to help support his family.
Around the time he was 13, a talent scout and manager named Luiz “Pinga” Campos spotted Ferreira at a local contest and offered him a sponsorship with Oakley. Campos, now in his 50s, grew up surfing in Rio de Janeiro and began working in the surf industry in the mid ‘80s. After stints with Lightning Bolt, Quiksilver and Hang Loose, Campos became Oakley’s Latin America Sports Marketing Director and team manager and built a structured program for groms that altered the trajectory of the Brazilian Storm.
When a grom joined his program — usually between the ages of 9 and 13 — Campos would use their sponsorship dollars to enter the kids in contests all over the country, enroll them in private school and would even send them abroad to live with a family in Australia so they could improve their English. For those who lived in the northeast of Brazil — like Ferreira — he’d move them south to the wave-rich town of Guarujá, just an hour’s drive from the surf industry center of São Paulo.
By the time Ferreira joined the program, Campos was already working with de Souza, Miguel Pupo, Jadson Andre and Caio Ibelli.
Guarujá — with its sky-high apartment buildings lining tourist-filled beaches — is drastically different from Baia Formosa. Ferreira preferred being home with his family as a teenager, but would spend months at a time living in Guarujá in an apartment Campos had rented for the boys in walking distance from the town’s best surf spot.
Ferreira remembers Jadson Andre constantly getting scolded by Jumar — an older surfer Campos had hired to live in the house as chaperone — for spending too much time on the computer. Apparently, Andre had a bit of a poker addiction as a teenager. “He was on the computer for like, more than 24 hours straight sometimes,” remembers Ferreira. “He went surfing then back to computer, surf back to computer.”
“If you were with Pinga, you were the guy,” says Ibelli, who was taken under Campos’s wing when he was 10 years old. “At that time, I had a small sponsor and a local coach, and [my coach] was like, ‘Man, Pinga came to talk to you? Drop everything and go with Pinga.’ At the time, Pinga was like…there was God in the sky, then Pinga on earth. The platform he built for us was never seen before. If Pinga said, ‘That guy’s gonna be good,’ it [happened].”
“Pinga was a visionary in the early 2000s because he realized he could get the young guys and train them,” says Steve Allain, a longtime Brazilian surf journalist and founder of the online publication “Moist”. “He had an eye for talent. He would go to these junior contests, go, ‘This guy is going to be a champion’, and boom. If Pinga hadn’t seen Italo and hadn’t brought him to Guarujá early on, he could be just some fisherman from there.”
One of the cornerstones of Campos’ program was sending his crew of rising talents out into the world to gain experience in waves of consequence. With 4,800 miles of continental-shelf-obstructed coastline, Brazil isn’t home to much consequential surf, and past generations of Brazilian competitors generally got their best results in waves that were head-high and under. Campos helped make sure this generation was also able to perform at heavy, barreling spots like Pipe and Teahupo’o.
“I remember in the same year going from Portugal to the Maldives to J-Bay to Indo on back-to-back trips,” says Ibelli. “At that time, no 16 year olds were doing that. We wouldn’t be where we are if Pinga did anything different.”
Ibelli remembers one of his first visits to Hawaii as a teenager. “We were all kind of scared, [because] we were out of our comfort zone,” says Ibelli. “We’d get to the beach at 6 in the morning and we wouldn’t leave until 4 p.m. Pinga would bring a pack of water and a giant box of cereal bars. No lunch or anything. And we could never surf Rocky Point. It would always be Off the Wall. Rockies could be epic and Pinga would say, ‘Rockies is like a wave you surf in Brazil. You want to surf a wave in Brazil, you can stay in Brazil. Here we only work Off the Wall, Backdoor and Pipeline.’ Today, you can ask all of us — we love surfing Backdoor and Off the Wall. We were forced to like it and today we appreciate that.”
In addition to pushing this generation of kids out of their comfort zone, Campos helped them think like athletes first and foremost. “Everything just got more professional in the early 2000s,” says Allain. “Before them, all the other guys [in the ‘90s and early 2000s], they were rock stars, partying at night and surfing during the day. It wasn’t like an athlete state of mind. Adriano was the first that had that attitude — sleep early, train hard and all you think about is beating the next guy. I think this new mentality and way of sculpting these athletes just brought results. It was only a matter of time.”
One of the stereotypes Brazilian surfers have faced outside their home country is that they’re naturally “hungry” and “passionate” competitors because they’ve had to claw their way out of poverty in order to achieve success — which is simply not true for most of the Brazilians currently on Tour. But it is for de Souza. Growing up in a favela on the outskirts of Guarujá, de Souza started surfing on a secondhand board his older brother had purchased for 30 reals ($7 USD). Campos discovered de Souza when he was just 9 years old, and over the next decade, de Souza kept his nose to the grindstone.
“Before Adriano, there was a generation of guys who were amazing surfers and they paved the way for Adriano to show up,” says Ibelli. “But Adriano was the first guy who showed us that hard work would actually get us somewhere.”
The Brazilian Storm grew up in an environment that fostered competition. In 1987, the Association of Brazilian Surfing Professionals (ABRASP) formed a national pro tour that, in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, evolved into one of the most successful national surf circuits in the entire world. At one point, each event winner would pocket $25k and drive away in new car.
“We weren’t winning shit overseas, but people still wanted to go to the beach to watch surfing,” says Allain. “The scaffolding was humongous, there were huge VIP areas, you’d have to fight for a place to stand. It was like Huntington during the U.S. Open.”
While the Brazilian Storm grew up watching ABRASP and local ‘QS events, they mainly competed against each other on the amateur circuit, ran by the Brazilian Confederation of Surfing (CBS), and in brand-sponsored events like the Volcom Qualifying Series. “When I was a grom, I remember having contests pretty much every weekend, or at least three times a month,” says Ibelli. “We didn’t have to travel far to compete with high-level surfers.”
By the time they reached the Pro Juniors and then ‘QS — which also had nearly a dozen events in Brazil each year during the late 2000s, early 2010s — the Brazilian Storm was well-versed in a variety of conditions and had competitive savvy well beyond their years.
“Once we showed up to the international events, it wasn’t a shock to us. It was like, ‘Right on, we can do this,’” says Ibelli. “Brazilians by nature, we’re so competitive and we just want to win. More than wanting to win, we want to prove people wrong. I feel like we were always on the wrong side of the table — there’s the cool people and then there’s us. And we have that mentality of [proving] people wrong.”
Of course, not all of the Brazilian Storm was groomed under the tutelage of Campos. Filipe Toledo, who was raised in the quiet town of Ubatuba, a 3-hour drive north of Guarujá, was born into a surfing family. His father Ricardo, blessed with the loudest whistle in all of South America, was a two-time Brazilian national champion. He was able to help Toledo get dialed with sponsors and the contest scene at an early age. Same with Yago Dora, whose father, Leandro Dora, was a Billabong-sponsored pro in the early 2000s and coached de Souza to his first world title after de Souza stopped working with Campos.
Gabriel Medina’s biggest influence, of course, has always been his stepfather, Charlie Rodrigues. Medina grew up also not too far from Guarujá, in the city of Maresias. According to a 2012 “Surfing Magazine” profile, Medina’s mom Simone divorced his father when Medina was 8 years old, leaving her job cleaning the houses of wealthy people to work in a surf shop. The shop’s manager was Rodrigues. When Simone and Rodrigues fell in love and got married, Rodrigues quickly assumed the role of Medina’s coach, bussing him to contests and presenting him to interested sponsors.
Medina became the posterchild for the Brazilian Storm, epitomizing just what can happen when you foster immense natural talent in a hypercompetitive surf environment. He was the youngest person to win a major ‘QS event at age 15, qualified for the World Tour at 17, and became the first Brazilian to clinch the World Title just before his 21st birthday.
Medina’s 2014 World Title was a watershed moment for Brazilian surfing, of course, signaling to his fellow Brazilian surfers that a new era had arrived on the World Tour—one where they stood center stage. But no one could have predicted the significance Medina’s title would carry beyond the world of surfing.
“Brazil hosted the World Cup earlier that year and we lost 7-1 to Germany,” says Allain. “That was so humiliating for Brazil. It was huge. So Globo [Brazil’s biggest television network], which has about 70 million viewers daily, sent a crew to cover this kid who might be a world champion. Brazil had been licking its wounds from the beatdown of the World Cup and I think they needed a feel-good story.”
According to Allain, the Globo film crew shot profile pieces on Medina and his family throughout the event’s 10-day waiting period. “And then he finally won,” says Allain. “All of a sudden, all these people who have never seen the ocean knew who he was and became fans. He blew up in a matter of a couple of weeks.”
Medina occupies a place in mainstream culture that no surfer — Brazilian or otherwise — ever has before. He’s constantly making television appearances and turning up in gossip columns. He pals around with soccer stars like Neymar Jr., who has over 130 million Instagram followers. Medina himself has 8.4 million followers at the time
of this writing (for perspective, 11-time World Champ and ex-Baywatch star Kelly Slater has 2.6 million).
The year after Medina’s first title saw de Souza clinch a second World Title for Brazil — it also saw the ‘CT berth of another eventual Brazilian World Champ. With endless energy and a perpetual grin, Italo Ferreira was as much a loveable and charismatic performer as he was a fierce competitor — throwing flamboyant claims towards the beach, doing backflips off podiums and dancing on stage after a win. In the water during heats, he seemed capable of anything, like he could will a full rotation air into fruition regardless of if a section even presented itself. Frequently he did.
The 2019 title showdown—Ferreira vs. Medina — marked an important moment in Brazil’s history. Never before had the World Tour season concluded with two Brazilians surfing head-to-head for the title — and in the Pipe Masters final, no less. But by the time Ferreira got chaired up the beach by a mob of people waving flags with his face printed on them, it certainly seemed like Brazilian surfers winning world titles had become the new norm.
Considering Medina’s rise to mainstream fame — and the many yellow and green flags waving on the beach at any given ‘CT event — you’d be forgiven for assuming Brazil has morphed into a surf-crazed nation, with brands in surfing and beyond it pumping marketing dollars into all levels of the sport to capitalize on the moment. But that’s not necessarily the case.
“A lot of people overseas have this idea that surfing is mega-popular in Brazil,” says Allain. “It’s not. Soccer, Formula 1, MMA, volleyball — those are much, much more mainstream. Surfing is just on the sidelines. Brazilians, they like to be fiery and like to support [athletes]—that comes from our soccer culture, to have flags and yell and chant. But that’s definitely not a reflex of our [surf] industry right now.”
When the Brazilian Storm started making waves, the surf industry in Brazil was healthy. Brands were sponsoring events, which allowed that generation of surfers to both hone their competitive skills and earn ‘QS points on their home turf. Plus, Brazil’s economy was doing well — the exchange rate between the dollar and the real was 1 to 1 in the late 2000s, which made traveling to waves of consequence and international contests more accessible.
After Medina won his title, many expected the surf industry in Brazil to balloon, resulting in even more support for future generations. But with the surf industry worldwide resembling a dumpster fire even before the global pandemic, and Brazil’s sluggish economy (the exchange rate between the real and the dollar at the time of this writing is now 5 to 1), there’s actually less financial backing for surfers and events than Brazil has seen in decades. Many are worried that the lack of investment in the next generation could compromise the future of the sport in Brazil.
“Brazilian surfing, nationally and locally, is in dire straits,” says Allain. “We’ve never had such good results internationally, yet, if you look 10 years back, surfing was doing much better than it’s doing now. A lot of surfers are unsponsored, brands have no money to sponsor media or events. We used to have 10 ‘QS events a year and now we have like two. There’s a big crisis in the surf industry here in Brazil now.”
Many hoped that big-name brands’ sudden interest in the Tour’s top Brazilians would have a trickle-down effect. “The result has been great for Gabriel, Italo, Filipe, Adriano — for about five guys,” says Campos. “But the big mainstream brands — the banks, the car companies, the health companies — they want to use the big names now to sell their products. They don’t know what’s going on with a kid who’s 8 years old and surfing out here. It’s OK that surfing is more famous — the guys get more famous, get more money. But it didn’t really bring any benefits to the sport. We don’t see any development in the sport, we don’t see a larger investment in the kids, surf schools or in amateur events.”
Aside from the likes of young rippers like Matteus Herdy, Samuel Pupo and Joao Chianca, who are all currently competing on the ‘QS, many of the Brazilian surf establishment worry about the lack of younger surfers able to follow in the Brazilian Storm’s footsteps.
“There are a number of reasons why we don’t have that next generation, but it’s mainly because of sponsorship,” says Ibelli. “In Brazil, families aren’t able to take the kids out of the country, because the [real to dollar exchange] is almost 5 to 1 now. A ticket to California costs almost 10,000 reals, and some people work all year for that [minimum wage in Brazil is 12,540 reals a year]. So sponsorship not only helps kids compete, but it’s like what Pinga did for me—taking kids to waves to learn how to surf, taking them to new experiences, to train, to learn English. There are a lot of potential groms that could be even better than Gabriel, but without the work that won’t happen.”
On my last day with Ferreira in Baia Formosa, the two of us stood in his backyard, overlooking a volleyball court and a vacant lot sitting at the bottom of a hill beneath his house. He was planning to buy both lots to build a skatepark, or maybe a center where kids can come to train or learn English.
In order to help the next generation of surfers, Ferreira sponsors a handful of local groms, paying for them to get to contests throughout the country — at least to the contests that are still around. He explained how the cost of a flight from his city down to São Paulo can cost more than what the average person earns in a month in Baia Formosa.
The assumed formula for the Brazilian Storm’s success on Tour equals intrinsic talent multiplied by financial support and competitive experience. But while a lack of investment and opportunity to compete might change the equation for future generations, Allain believes that they have a positive variable that the Brazilian Storm didn’t: “The kids here now, they have idols. They grew up seeing these guys winning, which we never had before, and I think that inspires kids.”
Ferreira himself had told me that when Medina won the title back in 2014, it was like he had kicked down the door for the rest of the Brazilians on Tour. “He did like this,” he told me, picking his foot off the ground and pretending to boot open an invisible barrier. “When he won his title, it was big, and I wanted it too because I was competing with him in the past and he’s a good surfer, and I [knew] I can be a good surfer too if I dedicate myself.”
The next generation of Brazilian surfers may have been dealt a tougher hand than the Brazilian Storm, but considering that the current world champ learned to surf on a cooler lid, it shouldn’t be a stretch for them to believe that anything is possible.