Adriano De Souza hails from Guarujá, Brazil, a touristy beach city 40 miles from São Paulo, Brazil's economic epicenter. But he grew up worlds away from the luxury beachfront apartments where São Paulo's upper-class families spend their weekends. De Souza comes from a neighborhood straddling the line between favela and working class—what could be called a ghetto—in an environment that grounded him and helped instill his fierce determination to succeed.
De Souza was raised in a two-room house that also served as the family business; his hardworking parents ran a small liquor and grocery store from their home. "My father's bar was literally inside our house," De Souza recalls. "Only one wall separated it from our small living room and kitchen."
Angelo De Souza, Adriano's brother, is 11 years older and was the first surfer in the family. "As a kid, Adriano hung out on the street all day because my parents had to work and didn't have time to take care of him," Angelo says. "So I started taking him to the beach with me to get him out of that environment." It was Angelo who purchased Adriano his first surfboard—a secondhand thruster that cost 30 reais (about $7). That surfboard changed their family forever.
Fast-forward two decades and, against all odds, De Souza is a world champion and a Pipeline Master. A few days after his return to Brazil following the two biggest victories of his career, I sat down with the newly crowned champ in Florianopolis, Brazil, to discuss how far he's come.
JF: You qualified for the World Tour in 2005, when you were 17. What were your first impressions of the "Dream Tour" as such a young competitor?
ADS: The conditions were challenging, and so different from the 'QS. I had a hard time adapting, especially because I was the youngest surfer on Tour. When other young guys like Jeremy [Flores] and Jordy [Smith] qualified, I started feeling more comfortable and relaxed. It was nice to have guys my age to push me and to learn from. During those first few years, I was just fighting to keep myself on Tour.
When did you realize that you had the ability to win a title?
Once I finally started getting good results. At first, all I thought about was gaining more experience and winning the judges' respect. Back then, the 'CT was like jiujitsu: you had to work hard if you wanted to be a black belt. Everyone knew that it took years to climb up the ranks and fight for a world title. I finished between the top 10 and top five for a few years, and started feeling way more confident. But all of a sudden Gabriel [Medina] stormed onto the Tour and broke all the rules! [Laughs.] He won two events in his first year. I grew up listening to older Brazilian guys telling me about patience and how you had to work your way up. But Gabriel changed all that. He brought a new dynamic to the World Tour.
Who were you looking to for inspiration when you first made it on Tour?
I looked up to the previous Brazilian generation, who set an example for me—guys like Peterson Rosa, Fábio Gouveia, Pedro Henrique. I had the same struggles they did, and I learned a lot from them. But Gabriel took it to another level. He was very important for us because he broke through all these barriers that had existed for years and he created a new path for the younger Brazilians, like Filipe [Toledo].
Have you ever felt any kind of prejudice toward Brazilians on the World Tour?
Yes, of course. Maybe it's because Brazilians don't speak English very well, or because we have a different cultural background, but for us, it can be hard to make friends on Tour and feel like you belong there. The fact that Brazilians are labeled as "loud" or "rude" by so many people perpetuates this pattern. The prejudice comes from way back, though. Previous generations of Brazilian surfers didn't have a good relationship with gringos. Some had problems in Hawaii, and I've heard plenty of stories about fights on the beach. So, when I qualified for the Tour, I felt that tension. But I wanted to change it. I wanted to be respected for my talent and my competitive ability. I learned to speak English and pushed myself to surf and compete at the highest level.
You've really made a point of putting in time on the North Shore as well. Why is that so important to you?
Hawaii has always been my greatest weakness, so I made it a priority. I've always known that world titles are decided there, so I focused on training for those waves. Back in 2013, when I competed in the Volcom Pro at Pipe, I proved to myself that I could do well out there. I competed against some of the best Hawaiians and I made the finals. I needed to feel that momentum, which is hard to get at the Pipe Masters. Not that the Volcom Pro is any easier than the Pipe Masters, but it was nice to get more heats under my belt. As hard as it is for me to admit, in 30-minute heats, talent alone is not enough to win. For example, Hawaiians are the best at surfing Pipe, but if they don't hustle and work for it, they leave an opening for the competition. If you don't give everything you've got, you're not going to win heats. I've worked hard my whole life, and I applied that same energy to surfing Pipeline.
I study all my faults and weaknesses. I've always looked in the mirror and told myself, "I am nobody; I need to learn." I always work to improve my flaws. Winning a world title doesn't mean that ends for me.
You stayed at Jamie O'Brien's house this year. Was that part of your strategy to improve at Pipe?
I wanted to stay at Jamie's house so I could be right there on the beach at Pipe for the whole season. I knew that only Jamie could help me do that, since I'm not sponsored by brands that rent houses along that stretch. I didn't really know Jamie at the time, though. We respected each other as surfers, but we didn't have a close friendship. Basically, I had to swallow my pride and knock on Jamie's front door to ask him. He was reluctant at first, but I insisted and explained to him how important it was for me to stay at Pipe. I almost begged him! [Laughs]. A week later he called and said he had a room waiting for me. I immediately felt that a huge door had opened for me. I was really blessed to have that opportunity. Others have tried the same thing with Jamie, but were refused. I think Jamie looked at me and thought, "OK, I'll believe in you." It wasn't something our sponsors coordinated or anything like that. He took me in sincerely.
Do you think staying with Jamie at Pipe paid off?
Yes, but I still had to put in the hard work. I surfed Pipe five times a day. Jamie would see me grabbing my board and say, "Are you really going out again?" Jamie and everyone that hung out at his house were super cool to me. He made it clear to everyone that I was his guest, and that made things easier. All the locals at Pipe stop by his place all the time, and I started to feel like they weren't looking at me as a total stranger anymore. For example, Kai Garcia is like a sheriff at Pipe, and he's always paying attention to what's going on in his backyard. When the Pipe Masters was over, he came up to me and said, "You're one of the most dedicated guys that I've ever seen surf this wave." That meant more to me than anything I have ever accomplished in Hawaii.
How did you feel during the Pipe Masters? Clinching the title there must have been nerve wracking.
It was an amazing event. We had very good waves at first, which was like a dream come true already. I remember thinking, "Oh my God, it's all happening! This is all I ever wanted!" At the same time, my coach [Leandro Dora, Yago Dora's father] was always reminding me to stay focused. He "kept my foot on the ground," as we say in Brazil. We just took it heat by heat, and he helped keep me free from anxiety. Lots of surfers get caught up in the waves and all the hype at Pipeline. It's easy to forget you're in a heat and just go for the big ones when it's that good.
Was it hard to watch from the beach during Mick's heats?
It was actually fine for me. I love watching Mick surf. When he and Kelly Slater were fighting for the title in 2013, I was on the beach the whole time, and I saw how Mick reacted in heats and how quickly he adapted when necessary. It's hard to learn from Kelly because he is just too talented to relate to him. [Laughs.] But Mick is like a teacher to me. I've always admired how strong-minded he is. And last year, even during his final heats at Pipe, I always paid close attention to him. I never stopped watching his heats.
What was going through your mind at the end of your heat against Mason Ho, when the horn sounded and you realized you'd won the title?
I'll never forget that moment. I'd dreamt about it for such a long time, and it finally happened. My life has never been easy. I've achieved my goals by fighting for them, and I knew a world title wouldn't be any different. Winning the title wasn't something I did for money or fame. It's always been personal. I wanted to write my name in surfing history. Everything I worked for my entire life added up to that moment. It was the best day of my life by far.
Was winning the Pipe Masters one of your goals, too?
I never really thought about winning the Pipe Masters, but if there was one guy who wanted to win that event more than anything, it was Ricardo dos Santos [a close friend of de Souza's who was murdered in Brazil in 2015]. Winning at Pipe was a way of honoring him. He was on my mind the whole time.
Now that you're the world champion, do you consider yourself the best surfer in the world?
I think that John Florence is the best surfer in the world. He's the best in all conditions, and he blows me away. The lines he draws on a wave are beyond comparison. He's like Kelly Slater 2.0. The only difference between them is that Kelly is as competitive as he is talented. That's why Kelly has accomplished so much in his life. Gabriel is like that too—both extraordinarily talented and competitive. I think that John and Gabriel are proof that the WSL's world champion—me, in this case—is not always the best surfer in the world.
So then how do you beat the best in the world?
With my will to learn, always. I study all my faults and weaknesses. I've always looked in the mirror and told myself, "I am nobody; I need to learn." I always work to improve my flaws. Winning a world title doesn't mean that ends for me.
What's next? How do you follow a world title?
Surfing wise, I think I've reached my peak. But that doesn't mean I won't win another world title. I just need a new approach to keep my momentum going. I'll have to change everything in order to maintain my standard. I want to keep surfing at the same high level, and I'll keep doing everything I can to be a champion again. But I'm taking everything as it comes. I'm thankful for my health and the opportunity to surf another day. So I'll make the most of it and move on.