Remember the lanky kid throwing mind-bending airs over Maldivian lips in Volcom's "True to This"? Or how about the full spectrum of grabs, rotations and inversions he busted out in the 2015 epic "Psychic Migrations"? Well, the guy responsible for all those hammers shifted gears last year, built an itinerary around QS events rather than swell chases, and qualified easily after just 12 months of focused effort. At 20 years old, with a deep bag of tricks and a newfound competitive savvy, Yago Dora is going to be a scary draw for the rest of the Top 34. I sat down with Dora at the Volcom house on the North Shore to talk about his trajectory as we watched messy, hulking peaks detonating on the reef out front.

You know, most surf fans probably didn't even know you competed until you made the Tour. Everyone thinks of you as "that Brazilian kid who does the crazy airs." When did you decide to make competition your focus?

I actually always wanted to compete, but it wasn't really my focus and I didn't do it so much. At the start I'd just lose all the time, though, which made me angry and want to just keep doing freesurfing trips. Working on video parts and shooting photos was always so much more fun than competing and losing in the first round every comp [laughs.] I don't know, I just had to get used to it and try to work at getting better. I didn't want to just go, "f–k, competing sucks, its too hard, I'm just gonna go freesurfing now." Instead I just started trying to observe things more, figure out what I needed to do and improve at every event. Last year I had a couple good results, and then this year competition was my whole focus--I think I only did one freesurf trip all year.

So what was the turning point? What did you do differently and who helped you work it out?

Well, my dad is a surf coach. He actually coaches Adriano [de Souza], so he's always been around and had good advice. But he was also fine with me being a freesurfer and never put pressure on me to start competing or to try to get on Tour. He was just happy that I was doing what I loved, and he wanted me to be the best surfer that I could be. I've always really wanted to improve my surfing before diving into competition, and I got to that point where I felt like I was ready and just needed to figure out heat strategy. So I guess it started coming together about three years ago, then last year I had some good results and heading into this year my dad said, "OK, you're ready. Next year you can do this. You can make the Tour."

How many years were you really taking the QS seriously and going to all the events?

This was really my first year taking it seriously. I've been competing on the QS for four years, but just a few events, really. And if there was a freesurf trip that popped up at the same time as an event, I just did that instead.

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Wow, that's a trip. Most guys grind on the QS for years and years before they make the Tour. What do you attribute that quick success to?

I don't know, sometimes the QS just clicks and even the guy you'd never expect anything from will get a lot of good results back to back and qualify. I think its way more in your mind than in your surfing. There are some people who stay on the QS for years, but their surfing isn't really improving, and then a random guy will start competing and just qualify their first year.

You're probably best known for doing really tech, hard-to-make airs, which are obviously a risky proposition in the competitive format. Have you had to rein in your surfing to make heats?

Yeah. I learned that to succeed on the QS, you almost never want to be surfing at 100 percent. You have to be really good at surfing 60 or 80 percent. When you're freesurfing, you're gonna go 100 percent all the time because you want to land the best thing, and you have the time and the opportunity to work on that. In heats, you only have a few opportunities so you can't take the same risks, and you probably only need to be at 60 percent to get through. This year I got better at surfing on a lower level, and knowing when to turn it up, if that makes sense. It's difficult, because the heats go really fast and you need two scores, but you don't need two 10s.

It's kind of a shame, though. When I hear you say that, it just makes me think that competitive surfing would be so much better if the format encouraged you to always surf at 100 percent, because that's what people love about your freesurfing. That's what people want to see.

I don't know. Sometimes you do get up to 100 percent in a contest, though. If you're doing well and making heats, you can start building on your performance. That's what I like to do. If I make a heat at 60 percent, I'll try to make the next one at 80, and if I end up in the final, then maybe that's when I go 100 percent. And I think that's a good way to do it, because in each round you are hopefully showing the judges something different and not just getting stuck in a routine.

Getting on the Tour means a huge upgrade in terms of venues. Where are you most excited to compete next season?

Pipeline, for sure. It's a really difficult place to compete, and it will be a big challenge for me, but it's probably the most prestigious event on Tour. I've been surfing the Volcom Pipe Pro for the last three years, and I've never gotten a great result there, but I want to work at it. It's a wave where you really need to put in your time, and I'm excited to do that.

Dora, with no shortage of steez above the lip. Photo by Ellis

How about Slater's pool? I'd imagine you'd do pretty well in that thing.

I don't know, I haven't surfed that wave yet. It's going to be a big test for all of us. It's so weird to think that the wave didn't exist a few years ago and now it's on the Tour. I don't think any of the surfers were expecting that. We had a meeting a few days ago, actually, and everyone was trying to figure out how that contest is going to work. It's hard to know how it's going to go without having surfed it, but I'm excited to try. I think the pool is a really good thing for surfing, though. Just being able to go there and surf the same wave every time, I think it's going to be a great training ground for surfers.

I'm guessing that now that you're on Tour, freesurfing is going to have to stay in the backseat, at least at first. Is that the plan?

Next year I'll definitely be more focused on the Tour, but if I do well and I get comfortable, I'd like to be able to do both. There are a few places I want to go to film, but there's no specific projects in the works right now. I just want to do the best that I can in whatever I'm focused on, not to prove anything to anyone else, but just for myself. Long term, I just want to do it all, competitive surfing and freesurfing, and feel like I'm doing my best in both.

[Top image by Ellis]