Stab Magazine | Everything You Never Knew About Italo Ferreira
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Italo Ferreira, moments after claiming surfing's first-ever Olympic gold medal. Photo: Pablo Jimenez/ISA

Everything You Never Knew About Italo Ferreira

A window into the gold medalist’s meteoric rise.

Words by Jed Smith

[Note: This story was published by Stab in 2016—right after Italo’s rookie year, but before his rise to the top of the WSL ranks, and well before his Olympic gold medal. It serves as a window into his life at the time and still makes for a great read today.]

It’s the day after the Margaret River Pro and Brazilian world number three Italo Ferreira is feeling as good as he’s ever felt.

“When I won my first contest my mind changed, my dreams, everything,” he begins. “Now I live the dream, so it’s time to enjoy it and have fun,” he tells me in patchy, though admirable English (my Portuguese is non-existent).

He’s fresh off a bumper start to the year with a pair of thirds at Bells and Margaret River and with the Brazilian storm continuing to look every chance of claiming Brazil’s third world title.

He’s staying in a nondescript semi-townhouse opposite the Margaret River BMX track, his flatmate one of the most important men in the history of Brazilian surfing: Luiz ‘Pinga’ Campos. Luiz is a talent scout and life coach of sorts, who’s responsible for unearthing nearly every Brazilian surfer of note in the last 10 years – Adriano De Souza, Caio Ibelli, Jadson Andre, Miguel Pupo and Italo among them. With help from Oakley, he offers promising young surfers the chance to move to the city, live rent-free, attend a top-flight school, and achieve their professional surfing dreams (or not. Some kids choose university, and that’s fine too). Luiz found Italo in Brazil’s north-east, an area famous for its poverty. Italo grew up on the breadline. His father made a living buying fish from the harbour and selling it to the restaurants in town. When Italo won his first contest just two months after his father had bought him the board, the family started putting money aside for Italo to travel and compete.

Curiously, Italo has one of the best backhand games in the sport right now. And, undoubtedly one of the most unique.

The event at which your author met his subject.

“I remember after I won this contest, my family said ‘Never give up, you need to follow your dreams,’” he sais. “I put these words in my head to keep pushing and pushing. It’s motivation to buy everything for the family. The past was so hard for my dad and my mum.”

Italo’s local spot, a wave called Baia Formosa, with a long right wall good for seven to eight manoeuvres, would hone what is today one of the most explosive backhand games in world surfing.

Luiz stumbled across Italo in a junior contest at Ponta Negra. He’d come to see another special young talent, but Italo stole the show, winning the event. Though it was his form in the freesurfs around the contest that first caught Luiz’s eye.

“My plan there was to watch another kid, but when we arrived at the beach a day early, in the morning I see this kid get a left wave, one aerial, poooof! another aerial, pffff! I’m like, who the fuck is this kid?!” laughs Luiz today.

Italo took the offer to move to Sao Paulo and become a part of Luiz’s program, where one of modern surfing’s great performance movements was underway.

As a junior, Italo was part of a new batch of emerging young Brazilian surfers that included Gabriel Medina. When Gabs shocked the world a couple of years later, winning the world title (Brazil’s first) aged 21, Italo was emboldened.

Italo, sharing a moment with his fans in 2016. Photo: Kelly Cestari/WSL

Since starting 2016 with Rookie Of The Year confidence and a new sponsor (Billabong), Italo’s avoided the following-year slump that so often overhangs a strong 12 months.

“He put some pressure on the rest of us, y’know?” he says. “Some belief. Like, if I can win, you can, kind of thing.”

Italo’s rise through the ranks was similarly meteoric. It took him just four events on the qualifying series to make the World Tour, an achievement that had added significance given the financial situation at home. With his contest winnings he was able to buy a house for his family on the beach, a feeling he cannot describe.

“The past was so hard for my dad and my mum,” he says. “Now, I help them. I don’t have a word to describe this.”

But reminders of his desperate past were never far away. Once, after returning home from a surf, Italo had a gun put to his head in an armed robbery. The man was blitzed on chemicals and Italo was left shaken for months.

“When I came back to the house, he put a gun to my head and said go out, go out, go out!” Italo remembers. “No run! I go, alright, cool, cool! He got in the car and drove. I lost a couple of boards. I replaced them, but it was so scary. I thought about it for so many months. The guy was crazy on drugs. I think a lot about him killing me, but, now, I’m here you know.”

The superstar he became. Photo: Cait Miers/WSL

Like most of the Brazilian class, Italo’s above lip game is well on point. But where he differs is his skill in anything up to eight feet.

His transition to tour life was seamless. The camaraderie and confidence of his countrymen, fresh off their first world champion, made for the perfect springboard. Jadson, his “brother” from up north, dialled him in on boards while the rest of the Brazilians made sure to keep his competitive fire stoked.

“Brazilians put some pressure on, you know? I like that. They put some pressure on and never give up… They give me motivation.”

His first year on tour was a memorable one. He eliminated 11-time world champ, Kelly Slater, in his first event on his way to a ninth on the Gold Coast. The win over Kelly provided a massive confidence boost.

“The night before competing against Kelly my mind was going ta-ta-ta, thinking so many things. It was a good result. After that, I was so confident. Too confident.”

That confidence was quickly ruptured at Bells by a last place finish. “I was thinking, oh my God, what can I do right? I was thinking bad things.”

But, a semis finish at the 2015 Rio Pro re-lit the fire. Italo arrived in Fiji for the first time three days before the contest, with nothing but YouTube clips for preparation, and managed a quarters finish, repeating the feat in Tahiti. Then Portugal, where he stomped one of the great aerials in competitive history on his way to a runner-up finish against fellow Brazilian Filipe Toledo.

Remember this?

While he’s something of a 15-points-every-heat kinda guy, Italo is far more than a savvy competitor.

“That was the best air I’ve done in my life,” Italo says today. “When I saw the video after the contest I was like, oh my god. So big. The best moment in my career.”

He’d finish seventh in the world on debut, winning the WSL rookie of the year. He puts much of his success down to closely observing the work of Gabriel Medina, and the great Australian champ, Mick Fanning.

“I watched Mick, so focused every year on the world title, so consistent,” says Italo. “I follow this guy, and Gabriel. They’re different, Gabriel has a more radical style, with so many manoeuvres, but I’ve learnt so much from both of them.”

Currently sitting third on the ratings, Italo is reluctant to throw his hat in the ring as a title contender. But the pedigree is there. His plan for success is simple: Do better where he didn’t do well last year, and keep pushing. Always push.

“It still motivates me; I see the past. I see everything. I see what my dad did to put me in the contest, my mum, my family, and I’m like, oh my God, I need to put pressure on and run for my dreams. It’s my motivation.”

Semis finishes at both Bells and Margies so far for Italo. It was particularly enjoyable to watch him dismantle big, chunky Bells. But the Main Break Margies game was quite heated, also.

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