From Rome, to Shred: Italy's Surfing Phenom Beats the Odds on Tour
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s high tide in the Mediterranean.
By Matt Foley
There’s a moment on his way to placing first at the World Surf League Qualifying Series in Martinique in March when Leonardo Fioravanti seems to be taunting the waves. For most of his run, the 20-year-old phenom is crouched low, whipping and flipping his board in ways that should send this land-dweller tumbling into the shallow reef. And then, he stands up straight, arms stretched wide — proof that maybe reality does move more slowly when you’re in the zone.
Before he earned a ranking on the WSL’s Championship Tour, Firoavanti lived a much different life from many of his peers. A native of Rome, he grew up squishing into the back of his brother’s Mini for the hourlong trek to the coast and a chance to paddle into the Mediterranean surf. Fioravanti has been on the road since age 9, hitting junior circuits and taking up temporary residence in various parts of the world. Now, recovered from a horrific 2015 crash and approaching his athletic peak, the only Italian professional surfer wants more. His first goal is to be a consistent top finisher on the championship tour. Then? The first-ever Italian world champion.
“Everything is possible for him,” says Stephen Bell, Fioravanti’s stepfather and Quiksilver global team manager. “He wants to be world champion, and he has the potential.”
When you get a guy like Leonardo who has nothing to lose, he knows he has to go out there and have fun and be smart.
Kelly Slater, 11-time world champion
Still, Fioravanti recognizes that achieving his goals will take time: “I still have so much to learn. Of course I want to win now, but my goal is winning a world title in the next five to 10 years.”
That projection might have sounded conservative a few years ago. In 2014, Fioravanti’s debut season, he only competed in the second half of the year and still reached 28th on the WSL Qualifying Series, surfing’s equivalent of Triple-A. Afforded more time, Fioravanti likely would have qualified for the WSL Championship Tour — reserved for the sport’s 34 top athletes — and at 16, he would have been the youngest ever to achieve such a feat. In hindsight, he’s happy he didn’t. “I was much too young, but I was fired up for 2015,” he says.
His first event the following year, on Jan. 31, 2015, was the Volcom Pipe Pro at Hawaii’s famed — and deadly — Banzai Pipeline. But in his third-round heat, the kid from Rome was late on his wave. He wiped out hard, getting violently twisted and compressed against the reef. He remembers darkness and the wind being punched from his body. “I’ve never experienced a crash like that,” says Fioravanti. “Luckily the lifeguards did an incredible job, and the Jet-Skis towed me out of there.”
Fioravanti never lost consciousness, but he had a fractured L1 (first lumbar) vertebra. A week later, he went under the knife, doubtful he’d ever surf again. The surgery was successful, and then he endured four months of intensive rehab at France’s Centre Européen de Rééducation du Sportif. “Every day, 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.,” he says. “All of the work actually helped time pass quickly.” By November, he was back at Pipeline. And despite feeling “a little uneasy,” he won his first heat. In the third heat, Fioravanti crashed again. The lifeguards began to mobilize when a head popped up from the surf — not a scratch to be seen. Since then, Fioravanti has tried not to look back.
Nearly 500 surfers earned at least one point on the WSL Qualifying Series in 2016. The top 16, who rack up points in the 20,000 range, are elevated to championship tour status for the following season. As the only Italian in the bunch, Fioravanti might appear to be an outsider, but his inner circle is as connected and accomplished a crew as there is. When Fioravanti’s mother, Serena Martini, saw that her 9-year-old son was serious about surfing, she moved with him to France for better opportunities. Fioravanti’s father, who runs a restaurant in Rome, stayed behind, and Martini, divorced from his father, met and married Bell, an Australian expat. As it happens, Bell is best friends with surfing legend Kelly Slater. “He’s been my idol my entire life,” Fioravanti says of Slater. “Suddenly, he’s sleeping at my house in France!”
Fioravanti cites his relationships with Slater and Bell as key to his development as a surfer. He finished 2016 ranked sixth on the qualifying series with 20,800 points. That year, he also got a major confidence boost after beating Slater not once but twice in head-to-head world tour heats — a significant upset considering surfing’s Michael Jordan lost to his wet-behind-the-ears teen buddy. For his part, the 40-something Slater was supportive, but measured, in defeat: “When you get a guy like Leonardo who has nothing to lose, he knows he has to go out there and have fun and be smart. He had a game plan, and it worked out for him.”
Last year, Fioravanti ranked 26th on the championship tour (meaning 26th in the world), but he still hadn’t won an event since 2014. The breakthrough came in Martinique this March. “It’s one thing to think you can do it,” says Fioravanti. “It’s another to actually do it.” More fame and sponsorship opportunities — on top of his current deals with Quiksilver, Red Bull and Gucci — are sure to follow if Fioravanti does well on the championship tour, but a world title is far from guaranteed. Since 1983, when the WSL became surfing’s premier governing body, 16 surfers have claimed the WSL Men’s Tour titles. Not one has come from Europe.
There’s no shame in making a living on the waves. But for Fioravanti, it’s a legacy he’s after. “There are a lot of young Italians interested in surfing,” he says. “I want to inspire the growth of that culture.”