Brad Sterling checks in with Leo Fioravanti on lockdown in Byron Bay, far from his European home, to see how the global coronavirus pandemic is affecting his surfing and his life.
Leonardo Fioravanti is not a typical professional surfer. For starters he was born in Rome, Italy, a country not exactly famous for its surf. He is fluent in five languages and in 2018 became an ambassador for luxury fashion label Gucci, a sponsorship that sits somewhat at odds with his other, more typical sponsors in Quiksilver and Red Bull.
Whilst Leo admits that the surf in Italy is “not very consistent”, he says in winter you can get “pretty incredible waves sometimes” and says on occasion in Sardinia he has been “fully barreled”. “When you do score good waves in Italy”, he says, “it’s so rewarding because it’s (something) you are not used to getting”.
Leo grew up going to Oceansurf Beach Club in Cerveteri just outside of Rome with his parents, a club mainly focused on windsurfing and kite surfing but luckily with “a little bit of a surfing vibe”. Whilst his parents went there mainly to hang out with friends and enjoy the view, Leo was fortunate to be the youngest of a group of kids that loved to surf. Along with his older brother Matteo (who would later become a member of the Italian National Team) Leo started surfing at the age of six.
He got picked up by Quiksilver at just nine years of age and started spending summers with his mum staying at the Quiksilver house in France, granting him access to the wave-soaked coastlines of Hossegor and Biarritz. It was around this time that his mum met, and eventually married, Quiksilver global team manager Stephen “Belly” Bell. Belly became stepdad and mentor to Leo and France became his “home and training ground” for several years. “The best training ground ever”, he adds.
This lead to a youth spent travelling all over Europe (hence the five languages) competing in Pro Junior events and, under Belly’s careful guidance, winning many of them. Of course, by then, he was no stranger to winning – he won the first event he ever entered at the age of just eight and his résumé of junior wins is impressive including Under 12 Champion in Portugal, the 25th Quiksilver Maider Arosteguy, the Rip Curl Search in Biarritz, the Italian Leg of the King of the Groms in Marina di Masse and the Occy Grom Comp at D-bah on the Gold Coast. Add to that making the Final in the European Under 14 in Lacanua and the World Championships in Panama, as well as selection for the Italian National Team, and you get the feeling that Leo’s mum may have started needing a bigger trophy room.
“I was really lucky to be able to travel and do all the young comps everywhere. That’s how we realised I had a bit of talent. Winning those events gave me confidence and my sponsors realised this kid might have potential”.
Potential indeed. Leo qualified for the Euro QS in 2014 where he finished 2nd and earned a wildcard for the Quiksilver Pro in France where he came up against a very in-form Mick Fanning. Leo says “that was a huge moment. The most exciting moment ever. That’s what you dream of, to surf a world tour heat. My first wave I got an 8.9. I was kind of shocked. I nearly beat Mick but Kolohe (Andino) smoked me. So my first year on tour lasted about eight hours but it was a really cool experience and I’ll always remember it”.
After finishing the year strong on the QS, Leo went into the Volcom Pipe Pro in 2015 in good form until disaster struck. “I spent three months in Hawaii. I was getting comfortable with Pipe. Probably too comfortable”. On the day of his heat he says “the waves were a bit onshore. It was one of those days that’s sketchy for Pipe. Definitely scary. My first wave I was too deep, I took off really late, the wave broke on my head and I went straight over the falls, got sucked back over and slammed into the reef. I knew something was wrong. Luckily the lifeguards on the North Shore are so amazing.”
Leo underwent surgery for a broken vertebrae in his spine and spent six months in the gym with his physio working through a serious rehab regime. That Leo was able to overcome such adversity and get himself back on tour within eight months speaks volumes of his determination and strength of character.
“It was a good awakening moment, that this life can be taken away from you in a blink. After six months I came out of it way stronger, physically and mentally”.
Eight months after the injury Leo was back competing again and won the ISA World Title in Oceanside in California and then, in 2016, he came up against the GOAT, Mister Robert Kelly Slater via a wildcard at the Drug Aware Margaret River Pro (on the same day that local hero Taj Burrow announced his retirement)…and won. Suddenly the whole world knew the name Leo Fioravanti, and not just the surfing world.
“I told myself I don’t care what happens. If I get smoked, I get smoked by Kelly, the greatest of all time. I just went out there having fun and waited for the best wave and beat Kelly. I was surprised and stoked. It was a crazy moment I’ll remember for the rest of my life”.
Leo admits that his rookie year on the WCT in 2017 was a tough one. He finished the year in 26th, his best result a fifth at the Outerknown Pro at Cloudbreak in Fiji, a wave Leo calls “my favourite wave in the world”.
“First year that I got on tour I ended up missing out by one spot which sucked. The first four events I didn’t make a heat but my heat scores were eights and nines (yet) it wasn’t enough. ‘I cannot make a heat. What is going on?’ It was a learning curve. It made me want to push my level (and) gave me a good awakening of what to work on. In 2018 the main focus wasn’t to get back on tour, it was more about improving my surfing. I didn’t want to go back on tour and get smoked again. (When) I get back on tour I want to know I belong here!”
In 2018 Leo won the trials on the Gold Coast to earn himself a place in the Quiksilver Pro where he lost to Gabriel Medina in Round 2. He performed well in a number of events on the QS including an emotional win in the Martinique Pro that he dedicated to two people that he had recently lost, his grandmother and Quiksilver CEO Pierre Agnes who disappeared at sea, his empty boat washing ashore some time after.
Back on the WCT for the second time in 2019, Leo’s dreams of winning a world title hit their second major stumbling block as a shoulder injury side-lined him for roughly half of the year’s events.
“It was tough. I worked my arse off to get back on tour and then a stupid injury happens”.
With a mental strength that belies his years, Leo makes overcoming his second significant injury sound like a walk in the park, drawing on experience from his 2015 injury at Pipe.
“I’d already been through that. I know what it takes to come back. All it takes is working hard. That’s the only way you get past it. It’s part of the game and you’ve gotta deal with it. The people that surround me have helped me through that. My family (and) my coaches have been so important”.
By the time 2020 rolled around Leo was fighting fit and in good form, taking out the second event on the QS calendar, the Sydney Surf Pro, in fairly average surf in Manly. With 10,000 points up for grabs, it was Leo’s biggest ever win and he did it in style, landing an impressive air with just seconds left on the clock.
Then the whole world changed. The very day that Leo was handed the trophy in Manly, the WSL announced that the ironically rebadged Corona Open on the Gold Coast had been cancelled as the world slipped deeper into the grips of the coronavirus pandemic.
With the remainder of the Australian leg of the tour also postponed indefinitely, Leo found himself faced with a dilemma – to return home to France, head to Hawaii to his girlfriend’s home or stay in Australia. A visa complication ruled out Hawaii and with Europe on lockdown he chose to stay in Australia, ending up on the Gold Coast and Byron Bay.
When asked how this has affected his life Leo is typically optimistic. “It’s been exciting this month knowing I’m not competing. I’m lucky enough to be in Australia and to be able to surf. I’m just really working on my surfing and pushing my level”.
He timed it right for a swell on the Gold Coast and says people are trying to do the right thing in the water in terms of obeying the social distancing rules. “People are definitely trying. It’s been a bit tough for me surfing and knowing that my whole family is locked up at home so I’ve been playing my part, only really going to the beach to surf and coming home. If we all play our part I think we’ll get through this”.
With Leo you get the feeling that not surfing isn’t an option. Like most of us, he is crossing his fingers that people continue to do the right thing and the authorities don’t elect to close beaches. “France has had some pumping waves and not one person out. When you’re out (surfing) you leave all your problems on the beach. (In Australia) surfing is the one thing that is keeping everybody sane”.
When asked about the postponing of the Olympics Leo says “it’s a real bummer. For me that was one of the main things I was looking forward to this year. It was going to be my last chance to qualify for the Olympics. That was going to be huge for me and I was excited for it but that has been put on hold as well. I hope we can get back to doing that”.
Leo remains optimistic that there may still be a 2020 WCT year. “There’s a bit of hope. It would suck to have a year of nothing but if it happens it happens. We have bigger problems in this world to focus on. There’s not much we can do except be positive”.
Positivity appears to be something that Leo has in endless supply and, with a proven track record of overcoming huge mental and physical obstacles, you get the feeling that, when the WCT does resume, Leo is about to launch an assault on the Top 34 that could be both precise and deadly for his opponents. With a focused and level approach to his mental game and a nagging desire to continually improve his technique, you start to sense that Italy’s first-ever World Title could be merely a matter of time.
Cover Photo: Trevor Moran / Red Bull