Feb 24, 2017

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Let’s play a little game of word association. When I say Italy, you say: Rome, history, architecture, Vatican, wine, pizza, pasta. Now if we were to play the same game with 18-year-old professional surfer, Leonardo Fioravanti, he would likely rattle off a different list: surfing, waves, sea, beach, family, proud, home.

This is because Leo grew up in a small beach town 20 minutes outside Rome. And every summer, his family would spend their days at the Ocean Surf Beach Club, where he first got on a surfboard at the age of 6. “I absolutely loved it. All my friends were at school playing soccer or the sports you play in Italy,” Leo recalls. “All I wanted to do was spend time at the beach and surf. I fell in love with it straight way.”

By the time he was 8, Leo and his brother were taking surf trips to France and Portugal. But after a decade living in Italy, the powers that be in the surf world had bigger plans for him. Quiksilver offered Leo a sponsorship, and the team took him under their wing. The following year, Red Bull signed him, too. So at 12, Leo hung up his book bag and switched to fulltime homeschooling to start travelling and practicing with the Quiksilver surf team.

I had Stephen Bell taking me to a lot of the Championship Tour and World Tour places—Jefferys Bay, Gold Coast, Bells Beach and California. That was an incredible experience for me. I got to spend a lot of time with Kelly Slater, Dane Reynolds and Jeremy Flores, who were all on the Quiksilver team at the time. Imagine being 12 years old, you get to go to these amazing places and you’re staying with your heroes. It was huge not only to be able to surf with them, but to spend time at the house and see what they’re eating, what they’re doing, how they react to things. Those memories I’ll have forever. It was an incredible experience.

Stephen Bell, a.k.a. Belly, is one of surfs’ most iconic mentors. He’s been Kelly’s right hand man for the last 15 years. And he also happens to be Leo’s stepdad. It was all fun and games for Belly—supporting his stepson while cheering on his closest client and friend, too—until this year.

At the start of the 2016 World Surf League season, the Margaret River Pro on Australia’s West Coast, the Italian wildcard, Leo, was slated to compete in the same heat against his longtime hero, Kelly Slater. Leo saw an insider’s perspective into Kelly’s life and routine, being on the same surf team and staying in the same house as the surf legend for many years—an advantage competitors could only dream of having when it came time to throw down in a heat.

I paddled out, looked to my right and I saw Kelly Slater, the best surfer of all time. I couldn’t believe it. It’s a dream come true whether you lose or win against Kelly … just to be able to spend those 30 minutes in the water with him. I tried to tell myself, you’ve got nothing to lose. Worst case you lose to the 11-time World Champion. So I just tried to have fun and make smart decisions. I somehow ended up beating him, which was definitely the best heat of my life. We went back to the house and talked about it for a little bit and he was super cool about it, which was really good to see.

History somehow repeated itself in October at the Quik Pro France, where Leo was again slated to compete against Kelly. The conditions were really hard for both athletes, but Leo came out victorious, leaving the score at Leo-2 to Kelly-0. Not many wildcard surfers on the qualifying series hold that record against the world champ.

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Leo went on to do so well that he became the first Italian surfer to qualify for the World Championship tour, a lifelong dream.

I’ve had so many incredible things happen this year because I have so many people supporting me, especially my family and close friends. I get so much support from all the Italians at home. I can almost hear them in the water. I hope I can make all the Italian fans proud.  I’m proud to represent Italy. It’s an incredible feeling to be the first Italian on tour.

But achieving this goal didn’t come without major trials and tribulations. In 2015, Leo was out of the water for more than half the year with a back injury. He remembers paddling out on Jan. 31, into messy, onshore waves during his first competitive heat on the North Shore at the Volcom Pipe Pro. Leo took off late on his second wave and got pitched straight over the falls and into the reef.  “I instantly felt a crazy pain from my toes to my neck, and I knew that something was wrong in my back or spine,” Leo recalls. He immediately went to the hospital where they told him he fractured his L1 and needed surgery. “That day at Pipeline was scary,” he said. “It was one of those days people get hurt. If it were a free surf day, I wouldn’t have surfed. But because it was a competition, I paddled out.”

The injury only proved to make Leo a stronger, more determined athlete. He is now gearing up for the Australian Open of Surf and the first stop of the World Tour at Snapper Rocks on the Gold Coast.

 

In Bocca al lupo, Leo! Good Luck!