Ricardo dos Santos, at the 2012 Billabong Pro Tahiti. Photo: Joli

After back-to-back victories at the Teahupoo Trials and wins over Kelly Slater and Taj Burrow at the Billabong Pro in 2012, Brazil’s Ricardo dos Santos was rightly recognized as a world-class tube-rider after his breakthrough performance in Tahiti. On what would be Ricardo’s 27th birthday, we look back at the Brazilian’s 2012 interview with SURFER Hawaii Editor Jeff Mull, conducted just weeks after he beat Slater and won the AI Award at the infamous left-hander.

So you’ve got two wins in the trials at Teahupoo and a very impressive performance at the Billabong Pro under your belt. I think a lot of people who don’t know you were taken by surprise last week. Tell us about yourself.

I’m from an area in southern Brazil called Guarda do Embau. I'm 22 and I’ve always really loved big barrels, but I also love small waves as well. Big tubes are always special—and that's what I guess I've built my reputation on—but I really love working on my surfing in small waves and trying to get more technical and progressive. Where I live and grew up, in the south of Brazil, we don't get a lot of barrels. Mostly just beach breaks. But I want to work on getting better in all types of conditions. Big and small. I don't want to be known as just a barrel guy or an air guy. I want to be a great surfer.

Talk to me about your relationship with Teahupoo. What’s it take to surf the wave well?

There really is no secret, but you have to be okay with hitting the reef a lot. I think you've also got to be a bit lucky, too. I've been going to Tahiti for about five or six years now. I can completely recall my first trip there. I was about 16 and it was 10- to 12-foot and I was asking myself if I could really do this, you know? Bruce and Andy and some of the other big guys were out there and they were all really charging. I remember just being in awe of Andy out there. So they were charging really hard and no one was killed so I figured I could give it a shot. I remember I paddled out there and just tried to take it all in. I wanted to get one, but it wasn't easy. After a while, I finally got a little nugget and pulled in, but CJ [Hobgood] dropped in on me and I ate it. But I wasn't even bummed at all. I was just really happy to be out there and to have got one. From there, I kept coming back to Tahiti and getting a little more comfortable out there and just tried to pull in to every wave I could and really learn the wave. I've also been smashed on the reef pretty bad every time I go out there. Every single time I hit the reef. I guess you've got to bleed if you want to surf Teahupoo.

It was pretty amazing to watch a wildcard take down Kelly in Round 3. It was a really tight heat and you pulled off the win in the last few seconds. What did that feel like to beat the most accomplished surfer ever?

At Teahupoo, anyone can get two 10s. Anyone is capable of winning that event, so you have to treat every one like they could be a potential winner. When it comes to that heat with Kelly, I surfed against him last year in the event and actually almost took him down but he won the heat in the last few minutes. This year, I knew that I couldn't make any mistakes if I wanted to beat him. I had to be perfect. But you know, he's not unbeatable. I told myself, "You only need to get two really good waves to make the heat. That’s it. Two waves. He can be beaten.” I knew he was going to drop a few good scores right away and when he did, I wasn't really surprised. I just tried to focus on what I had to do to win. About halfway through the heat, Kelly pretty much caught the wave of the day and I expected him to post a really high score, like a 9 or a 10. I thought he pretty much had me when he caught that wave, but then he fell and posted a 3. It felt like the hand of God knocked him down or something. I know that sounds weird, but for the rest of the heat, I just kept saying, "If I can just get one more chance, I know I can beat him. Just get one more wave." I kept thinking about that famous heat with Kelly and Andy when Andy came back in the last few minutes to win. And then when my wave finally came in and I got that tube, it all came together and I won. It was pretty amazing.

What was Kelly’s reaction when you took him down?

When my last wave came in, I was completely focused on getting it. I didn't even look at him as I was paddling for that wave. Afterwards, I'm not really sure what his reaction was as I was too busy celebrating. I heard he was a little bummed, but Kelly hates to lose and that's what makes him great. I'm sure he was upset—of course he was upset—but I don't really try and worry about what Kelly does. It was a big deal for me to beat him, that's for sure.

In addition to winning the trials, you were awarded the AI award as well. Judging from the webcast, you looked a little emotional when you received the award. What did winning that mean to you?

Winning that award was one of the greatest moments of my life. To me, it was just as good as winning the contest would have been. It was a true honor. Last year, I got to become friends with Andy's wife, Lyndie, and their son, Axel, while I was staying at the Billabong house in Hawaii. She's a great woman and I felt like I really connected with Axel. While I was in Hawaii, I was really trying to prove myself in big waves and hopefully I did that there and this year in Tahiti. So to win that award was sort of a validation. I think to win that award, you have to not only impress the judges, but the surfers as well. So it's a huge honor for me and Brazil.

There’s a video of you on the Internet getting a reef cut sprayed down by the ASP docs between heats. Do you have to physically make some sacrifices to succeed out there?

You've got to forget about it, because it's gonna happen. Your arms and leg are gonna get smashed on the reef. You're gonna lose some skin. Right now, I'm out of the water for 10 days from some reef cuts that got infected during the contest. It seems like any cut you get in Tahiti gets infected. At this past event, I think I hit the reef hard every single heat. So, if you're gonna surf Teahupoo, you're gonna hit the reef and you’ve got to be okay with that.

Some are claiming that Brazilians have been so successful in competition recently because they want it more than anyone else. Do you see any truth to that?

Yes, I think so. I really do think that as a country, we want it more than everyone else. And I think that's because we've never had a title. I don't want to say that we just want it…we need it. The Americans and the Aussies have had it for so long, the whole country is pulling for a Brazilian to win the world title. We have a few surfers now who I think can do it. Between Gabriel, Adriano, Miguel, and Filipe, I think we're gonna see a Brazilian win the title in the next five years. I really do.

How has your win at the trials and your showing at the WT event changed your career?

I think most people are pretty aware of how hard it is to do well at Teahupoo. So to have done well there two years in a row feels really good. It’s great to come home and to see my friends, sponsors, and family—all of the people who believed in me—stoked on my performance. And to be honest, it's great to get some exposure in the American media, as well. It's really not easy to get your attention [Laughs.]

What do you want to get out of professional surfing?

Well, I think of myself primarily as a freesurfer, so it's hard for me to say that I have any specific goals other than to get big barrels and surf great waves. I love the idea of being a freesurfer and how it connects to my view of surfing. I love to surf the contest at Teahupoo, but I'm really a freesurfer. I don't want to fight and hassle guys for waves. I like the idea of it just being me and the ocean. It’s more simple that way.