“Let’s go. Come on, I have to go. We have to go. Let’s go.”
It’s lunchtime in Portugal, just after the WSL World Junior Championships, and Leonardo Fioravanti is desperately trying to convince Noe Mar McGonagle to surf in the 2016 Volcom Pipe Pro with him. It’s been months since Noe’s spent a decent amount of time at home in Costa Rica, and he’s trying to get back to train for the first few big QS events of the season (The VPP is only a QS 3000 — a result there pays you in pride, not points). Noe shrugs his shoulders, grabs another piece of bread and answers with an unenthusiastic maybe. In other words, Leo’s advances aren’t working. So much for that Italian charm.
“Fine, I’m going without you. I have to go.”
The event doesn’t offer much to a man trying to qualify and none of Leo’s sponsors are pushing him to attend. But when he speaks of it, his eyes light up the way a soldier’s do when he’s on about to fight a war he might actually believe in. He recognizes it as an almost inconceivable challenge and is ready to face it the best he can, with focus and conviction. There’s something more here.
Leo’s career almost ended at this contest last year. He broke his back and was out of the water for months. Sidelined and sad. But after a long and metallic road to recovery, he’s back, maybe better than ever. And he feels like he has something to prove.
After lunch, I jammed a recorder in his face and asked him to elaborate. Here’s how that went. —Brendan Buckley
SURFING MAGAZINE: HOW EXACTLY DID YOU HURT YOURSELF LAST YEAR?
LEONARDO FIORAVANTI: It was one of those big, weird, kind of stormy days. Scary Pipeline, you know? This bomb came through in my Round 3 heat and I thought it looked pretty good, but I was in a bad spot. If I had been deeper, I could’ve rolled in and stalled for the barrel. Or if I had been wider, I could’ve gotten under it as it doubled up. But I was stuck in the middle. I took off under the lip, it pinched and then doubled up. It threw me straight into the reef.
I was in a seated position when I made impact and I pretty much went numb. When I came up, I took my leash off and waved for Jet Ski. They put me on a stretcher on the beach and that’s when the pain kicked in. It hurt so bad it was outrageous. An ambulance took me off to the hospital after about 20 minutes.
SO YOUR BACK WAS BROKEN?
Yeah, I fractured and tilted my L1 vertebrae. It it were tilted a little more towards my spinal chord, I would have been paralyzed. They had to put two plates in to move the vertebrae back into position and stabilize it. The surgery went well, but it was nearly as painful as the actual injury.
HOW LONG WERE YOU OUT OF THE WATER FOR?
I didn’t surf at all for four months, but it was about six months until I felt like I could actually surf again.
WHAT WAS THE HARDEST PART OF THE INJURY?
The two hardest things were watching the waves go off and not being able to surf any contests. I saw swell going everywhere, and I hated not being able to go score. As far as competing goes, I watched this guy [he points to his dear friend Kanoa Igarashi, who qualified for the CT last year and more recently ordered steak at lunch] get all these big results. I felt like I was missing out on everything.
DID THE INJURY MESS WITH YOUR MINDSET AT ALL?
Ever since it happened, I’ve have these visions of myself underwater. My eyes are closed and everything is black. I’m in that seated position and I feel like I have no control as my body gets tossed down. Then I hit the reef so hard that it breaks. It kind of happens a lot. Especially when I’m thinking about Pipeline. I know what that wave can do to me. I know how strong it is now.
WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS RETURNING TO THE SAME EVENT THAT ALMOST ENDED YOUR CAREER?
I want to get a good one. I don’t care about making the semis or the final or anything. I care about getting a 9 or a 10. Once that happens, I can reevaluate from there. But I’m not going over there in competitive mode. I’m going there to get a bomb.
Watch the event live at volcompipepro.com