Oi Rio Pro

The King's Counsel Embraces New Guard: Stephen Bell Interview

Anna Dimond

Stephen "Belly" Bell is one of the most recognizable faces on tour, which is ironic being that he's never surfed a heat. But Belly has had a hand in hundreds of CT heat wins, as trusted counsel to many of the world's best surfers. He's most recognized standing next to surfing's king, Kelly Slater, who he's been working with for years. But today he's passing his wisdom to a new breed, including rookie Kanoa Igarashi and longtime student, Leo Fioravanti.

In Leo's case, Belly has the added advantage of being step-dad: He started working with the Fioravantis when Leo was nine, and started dating Leo's mom six months later.

Leonardo Fioravanti with Belly after his Round Three win over Adriano de Souza. Manager, mentor, step-dad: Belly started working with Leo Fioravanti (left) when he was just nine years old, and became more than just a connector to a career. Leo surfed as an injury replacement at the Margaret River contest in April, and proceeded to smoke his elder competition. - WSL / Ed Sloane

Belly's been in the surf business for more than 30 years. In the late 1980s he moved from Australia to Hossegor, France, and opened a surfboard factory that became an instant hub for traveling pros looking to fix and tune boards.

His expertise in the service department (and endless patience) helped him build a rapport with Slater, among others, which led him being offered a gig as one of the first Quiksilver team managers -- or, as he lovingly calls it, "pro babysitter."

At the Oi Rio Pro, Belly sat down to talk management philosophy, tour trends, how Kelly is doing, and how he nabbed Mrs. Fioravanti.

Kelly Slater (USA) has a routine of high-fiving his team before a heat, Belly gets the first.   ASP/Cestari Like the Yoda of surfing, Belly (left) started working with the Quiksilver team in the late 1990s when Kelly was taking time off. They needed somebody who knew Slater and he was the guy. The rest, as they say, is history. - WSL / Kelly Cestari

WSL: Is part of your job identifying new talent?
Stephen Belly: That's definitely part of it. You try to set up a structure for them around the world. A lot of the ex-pros have set up surf schools, or have networks around with the schools. I try to scout too, so if someone has potential -- Jeremy Flores is one, Pierre Agnes (the original Quik team manager and current CEO) found Jeremy when he was very young, at 10, guided him and his family, and helped him become a global citizen.

What I've tried to do with Leo is to travel around the world and understand why these different cultures think like they think. So when you're competing against a Brazilian or a European or an American, you can understand.

What I've tried to do with Leo is to travel around the world and understand why these different cultures think like they think. So when you're competing against a Brazilian or a European or an American, you can understand, why do they think like that in those circumstances? I think you see that the people on tour who are really comfortable outside their one area are the ones that become most successful.

WSL: How did you arrive at that philosophy, about becoming a global citizen?
SB: Through Kelly. Like I said, a lot of people say, ‘Oh, Kelly wins because he's a freak of a surfer.' And he is a freak of a surfer, but it's so much more than that. And to do it for how long Kelly's been doing it, there's got to be more to it.

Slater, In His Element
When the 11-time world champ gets frustrated with a few less-than-stellar contest results, it's Belly who reminds him of performances like this one. In February, Slater won the 2016 Volcom Pipe Pro on Hawaii's North Shore. He went on to suffer early losses at the first three events of the 2016 CT season.

Surfing's a very unique sport. It's the only sport where you never know when you're going to compete. The best way to adapt to that is to be comfortable wherever you are. So that's what we try to do: Every spot on tour around the world, try to make it like your second home. And enjoy that place -- friends, the culture, the food, so you're comfortable there and you want to be there.

WSL: And how do you do that?
SB: At most places ideally they get a house, you get a cook, get a physio. A lot of the brands are doing it. Kelly and I went to a golf tournament in St. Andrews last October. But the golfing world is: Into a hotel, start work on a Tuesday, practice, competition Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and then they're out. Those guys don't have a life compared to surfers, and the tournaments are back-to-back.

Surfing is the only sport where you never know when you're going to compete. The best way to adapt to that is to be comfortable wherever you are.

With surfing, you try to have a more adaptable lifestyle -- a bit of normality. At the end of the day, everybody wants normality. Especially when you get a family and children, you need a routine. So to get that on tour gives you a massive advantage.

WSL: How do you help create that for Leo and your team?
SB: Try to get a good group of people working around. We've sorted these places, so it's easy to get through the airports, pickups, cars, with minimum fuss for the surfers. And some spots are easier than others. And Leo helps -- he speaks five languages, so he's quite comfortable in most of the areas. Kanoa's following down that path: He's Japanese, his family brought him up in the US, and now through Leo he's been brought into the European culture, he's been learning Portuguese for the last 18 months. It grows your wealth as a person.

Kanoa Igarashi getting some last-minute advice from Belly before his Round 5 heat. Invisible but ubiquitous, Belly is ready for heat strategy as much as possible. At his first-ever event as a member of the CT, Quik team member Kanoa Igarashi made it to an impressive Round 5. In contrast to surfing's earlier years, says Bell, rookies are no longer, quote, scared shitless, unquote. - WSL / Steve Sherman

WSL: What do you see as your main role as team manager?
SB: Just to guide them. Share the experiences that you've had, get the best from the opportunities that they're getting. I tell them you don't have to be the 11-times world champion to be successful. Life's a long journey.

I tell the team that you don't have to be the 11-times world champion to be successful. Life's a long journey.

So these unusual experiences, traveling around the world meeting people like yourself or myself -- one of these can pop up, you never know, and you make a massive right turn or left turn. There are so many of those experiences and you never know where that could lead them.

WSL: What's the biggest challenge in the journey for some of these up-and-coming athletes? Like Leo, who's on the cusp of making the Tour, or Kanoa, who's in his first year on the CT?
SB: You try not to let the defeats get to you too much. Because you can come all the way over here to Rio, compete the next morning, lose. And oh, it's a bad surf forecast so you go straight through to the second round, lose again. And 'oh my god I came all the way here, I didn't even have dinner yet and I'm out of the contest.'

Kelly vs. Kelly
By all accounts, Kelly is analytical guy. After this loss -- to Leonardo no less -- imparting some of his wisdom to Leonardo was part of approach to processing things.

WSL: How do you work on that with them?
SB: That's the tough part, not letting it get you down. You need good people around you. Winning is what you're here to do, you're a professional athlete, but it's not the be-all-end-all of what you do.

Kelly's in a bit of that situation at the moment. And we've spent long periods of time talking about it. We were at the same house in Margaret River when Kelly lost, and he spent the next day with Leo giving him his wisdom. And that was one way of dealing with his own frustrations. I wouldn't go past frustration, period, to describe it.

For the kids, losing can feel like the end of the world.

He won the Pipe contest at the start of the year, and came in fifth at the Eddie Aikau. I said, ‘Hang on a minute. Just because you've had three tough events, you're the greatest surfer on the planet.' I think he realizes, it's a frustration point, he didn't get good waves, versus ‘Oh my god, it's the end of the world.'

But for the kids, it can be like that. And the QS is worse -- to get to those stages, and come so close to qualifying. It's like having my surfboard business two week away from bankruptcy.

WSL: There's an academic named Angela Duckworth who took this idea of grit and has circulated it in popular culture as the defining factor in success. The idea is that, once you control for socioeconomics, education and training, it's grit that sets people apart.

Leo at the 2015/2016 World Jr. Champs
In Belly's world, the drive to win can outweigh talent every time. Luckily for Leo, he's got a lot of both.

SB: I think that's a matter of how badly you want something. I will not be beaten and I'm going to do whatever morally correct thing it takes to get me there, and I'll be smart about it. That goes with every facet of life. With my staff at the surfboard factory, I say if you want something, go and do it.

I say the same thing to the younger team riders. There's a rider I invited to Hawaii. He said, ‘I don't have the money.' I said, 'I'll give you a free house and food, all you have to do is get a ticket. Go out, work two jobs -- you get what you want in life.' Talent comes in many forms, and I've seen much less talented surfers make it further competitively than more talented surfers who don't have that drive or resourcefulness.

WSL: In terms of the day-to-day, it sounds like a lot of your work is psychological.
SB: It is. And to get to the finals of an event -- we're right in the crisis now of a massive generation change. From 2004 to 2011, you had your quarterfinals with Andy Irons, Kelly Slater, Joel Parkinson, Mick Fanning, Taj Burrow. You'd have -- pardon my French -- kids shitting themselves, scared shitless of being there. And the other guys would eat them alive.

Until recently you'd have -- pardon my French -- kids shitting themselves. And the other guys would eat them alive.

And then those five guys have pretty much retired, or just about on the edge. And with the Matt Wilkinson and others, they're not afraid to win anymore. You see it in golf all the time.

WSL: If you had to pick one thing, what do you think has been the key to Leo's success, as well as Kanoa's?
SB: Both those kids, they've been brought up to learn to adapt to performing in every culture around the world, and all those differences. They're going to come onto the CT now and they're not going to be rabbits in headlights, they're used to this. The surfing contests, and the people they've been competing against, since they were 8, 9, 10 years old. It's second nature to them. They're not nervous, this is what they've been training for. They think, 'This is what I'm meant to be doing.' Kolohe Andino is a classic example, Jordy it's the same thing. I've known Jordy since he was 12, doing the pro juniors.

Jordy Smith during Round Four. Gone are the days of up-and-coming surfers living out a Lord of the Flies-like free-for-all. The new generation starts getting trained for pro-hood from an early age so that once they arrive on the big stage, they (mostly) feel like they belong. Exhibit A: Jordy Smith at Margaret's. - WSL / Kelly Cestari

They didn't have this before, you did this on your own. It was a bunch of kids traveling around the world having a blast. Because the sport was young -- and then the companies making money off them in the late ‘90s thought, we'll put money back into this. And then when there's more money, it becomes a bit more serious. Then we'll invest in the next one. So we'll invest in that and then we'll pay a guy like Belly to go and scout and Belly goes, ‘I met this good 12-year-old, Jeremy Flores. He's not going to progress in the French winter, let's set him up in Australia, and that's going to cost a bit more money.' And we put him in school.

Jeremy on Fire
One of Quiksilver's first team managers put Jeremy Flores on the team at a tender age. But the guidance and education in global citizenship have clearly paid off. Flores is one of the most successful European surfers of his generation.

And then you've got the ones where the family invests in them, like John John John Florence, his mom took him all around the world, and did a fantastic job.

WSL: What did you see in Leo's mom? When did you know you wanted to date her?
SB: She was fiery, there was never a dull moment! Strong character, very Italian. You knew when you were with her that person was never boring. Still isn't. There's a lot of emotion and character, and that's part of what drew me to her.

WSL: But did you take her out on a proper date?
SB: I might have had lunch with her one time. I might have slipped it in there, asked if she wanted to have lunch. She's a beautiful lady and has a beautiful family. I know Leo's father, too -- he's in Rome. And Kanoa's parents, they're good friends.

WSL: But you haven't taken them out on lunch dates.
SB: No, I haven't. Just got the one.