Interview by Ashton Goggans
Filipe Toledo is a man on the move, but after weeks spent tracking him down, I’ve finally caught up with the young Brazilian at his new family home in San Clemente, California. It’s my last chance to get a few minutes with the 20-year-old before he bolts for a meeting with the Brazilian consulate, packs his bags, and boards a plane back to his native coastline for a few weeks.
I’d intended to join Toledo there, in Brazil, to get a real sense for what it feels like to be a national barely-post-teen phenom in a country that knows how to love its stars. But his team managers assured me that was not a good idea. Toledo is a hard man to pin down when he’s on his home turf, prone to disappearing unexpectedly and without a trace for days on end. Hell, while filming for John Florence’s massive movie project, View from a Blue Moon, the Brazilian went AWOL halfway through their trip. Toledo claimed he was sidelined by an ankle sprain, but there were rumors of parties on a billionaire’s yacht with foreign models and rock-and-roll debauchery.
Perhaps the occasional disappearing act is to be expected. Toledo is a nationally renowned sports star in Brazil, having just wrapped up the best year of his life with three World Tour event wins, a fourth-place finish for the world title, a guest spot in a period-defining surf film, and a starring role in his own movie, Spinning at the Speed of Now. But Toledo’s greatest achievement came during the final of last year’s Rio Pro, when the 5’9″, 141-pound welterweight hacked and hucked himself all over his home court, leaving Australian rail surfer Bede Durbidge looking like a lumbering dinosaur.
Do you recall the aftermath on the beach? The boy from Ubatuba chaired up the beach by a mob of tens of thousands of Brazilians fawning, cheering, and groping for their chest-thumping king. His winning board was ripped from his hand and floated atop the crowd like a leaf carried by ants. Brazil had found their champion in Gabriel Medina the year before, but Toledo was their dark horse, radical and confident straight out of the gates, tearing waves apart with wild-eyed abandon.
I’ve come to Toledo’s home expecting cocky, expecting brash. Instead I’ve found a polite, well-spoken young man, looking rather unassuming in a grey hoodie and trunks and in the throes of a FIFA 16 match.
We sit down on the eve of his return to Brazil—where he will attend close friend and current world champion Adriano De Souza’s wedding, and film with a few of his Brazilian brethren for a new reality TV show—to talk about how much his life has changed in the last year and what 2016 has in store for the new Hot 100 winner.
AG: People would probably be surprised by how good your English is when there isn’t a camera and a mic in your face.
FT: Yeah, those interviews can be frustrating. Qualifying for the ‘CT is so hard, and for us to deal with all the traveling and competing, when would we have time to learn English or take classes, you know? Sometimes it feels like they ask questions in interviews that are kind of hard for us Brazilians to understand, knowing we don’t speak the language perfectly. I’ve always tried to keep it really simple in interviews.
But my English has gotten way better this year, just from spending more time in America. It’s been really good for me.
You moved your entire family to San Clemente a year or two ago, right? How’s the transition been?
They love it here. My younger brother and sister are going to school here, and they’re doing great. They both speak better English than me. But it can be hard traveling that much and not being home in Brazil. I miss a lot of my family; my grandma and grandpa live in Ubatuba, along with most of my family on my dad’s side, and then my mom’s side is around São Paulo. A lot of friends give me a bit of a hard time for moving to California. They say, “Oh, you don’t love Brazil anymore. You’re a Californian!” But a lot of my friends are really proud of me, too. They think I’ve done so well, being able to move my whole family here. But I love Brazil so much, and I miss it a lot. The energy of the place never changes. It’s a magical place and full of wonderful people. There’s no better feeling than going back, because it has always been my home and always will be.
I think people knew that surfing was growing in Brazil, but I don’t think anyone was prepared for the scene at the Rio Pro. That seemed like a pivotal event, both for you and for Brazilian surfing.
It was amazing. To surf in that event, with that crowd, and to feel their energy, it just pushes you to another level. That event was important for the whole country, really, and it was the best contest of my life, for sure.
I remember the crowd going absolutely mental, grabbing your board and carrying it off down the beach, and all the security guys trying to clear a path to get you to the stage.
That was actually really scary. Those situations are different in Brazil than in America. The Brazilian people are very passionate about surfing-even more now that we’ve had two Brazilians win world titles. Surfing is one of the largest sports in the country now. But Brazil hasn’t had those idols until recently, and now that they do and they see how surfing is giving joy to the country, Brazilian fans want to touch you and hug you and grab you. They’re so intense, and there were, like, 50,000 of them on the beach in Rio trying to do that at the same time. I thought I was going to die! It took almost two hours for security to get me to my hotel room.
Your dad, Ricardo, is a three-time Brazilian champ, so you were raised around surf competition. Could you have imagined seeing an event like that in Brazil when you were younger?
No way, it’s so different now. For my dad’s generation, or Flavio and Neco’s [Padaratz], it was a whole different mindset. They were barely paying the bills surfing contests, you know? It was much more of a grind back then.
It seems like you and Medina and De Souza are full-on rock stars in Brazil. Why would you guys want to leave that behind and move stateside?
For me and Adriano, Gabriel, Wiggolly [Dantas], and Miguel [Pupo], the fact that we’re even able to surf at this level and leave Brazil with our families, and to make enough money to travel and build a future for ourselves, it’s amazing.
With surfing becoming such a big part of Brazilian culture, what’s the biggest obstacle for the next generation?
Brazil’s economy is really bad right now, so it’s almost impossible for most of the up-and-coming guys to afford to do the ‘QS or travel. But there are some really talented kids right now, like Wiggolly’s brother, Wesley. Lucas Vicente has been ripping, and Jadson Andre’s brother as well. Sammy Pupo, Miggy’s brother, is surfing really well. I’d like to see the brands really support the kids in Brazil and give them the opportunity to travel and become real professional surfers.
It seems like brands have been a lot more supportive of kids in Brazil over the last few years.
Yeah, but it’s still so different for the young Brazilians than for Americans or Australians. You see these little kids in the U.S. and Australia with boards covered in their sponsors’ stickers. They might not even be making money, but they’re getting exposure and they’re being supported and encouraged. I’m excited for the next generation to have that; that’s what excites me most.
I always hear about how supportive the Brazilians are of other Brazilians trying to make it in professional surfing.
Yeah, my dad and I are actually working on a project right now where we will be able to work with these young talented kids from Brazil and bring them here to the U.S. to train, go to school, surf, and travel with me for six months. I’m hoping I can make that happen really soon.
A little Toledo Brazilian boot camp? God help us all. Speaking of boot camp, there’s been much talk of the one chink in your armor: big waves. What do you think of that criticism?
Well, that’s definitely the biggest focus for me right now. Experience in bigger, heavier waves is so important. At Fiji, Pipe, and Teahupoo, you have to spend so much time in those waves to get good at surfing them. Take CJ [Hobgood], for example; he’s been going to Fiji since he was, like, 12. I couldn’t do that. It wasn’t a possibility for me. The first time I went to Fiji was when I competed there for the ‘CT! But I don’t mean for it to be an excuse. I just need to put in my time, keep charging, doing surf trips, and I have to really closely watch the best guys in those waves-Owen [Wright], Kelly [Slater], and John [Florence].
You got to spend some time with John in Brazil working on View from a Blue Moon. Can you tell me about working on that project?
It was a great trip. We went to an area in the middle of nowhere that no one really surfs, and it was cool to check that out with John and get to know him better. The waves were really fun and we had an awesome time. But the whole production was crazy. There were times where, I swear, there were, like, 20 crewmembers with John, getting shots from helicopters and everything. It was so crazy.
How’d you feel about the finished product?
I think that opening scene in the Brazil section had the most beautiful landscapes I’d ever seen. Until that trip, I didn’t know Brazil could be that beautiful. Everyone who sees the film can’t believe it’s actually Brazil.
So, besides the world title, what’s your goal for 2016?
I want to do another film. Nothing massive like John’s-just something really raw with good music and good surfing. I just want to get kids psyched on going surfing.