Leonardo Fioravanti is, at 18, well ahead of the game. He surfs with the world's best, has passport stamps for days, and speaks more languages than James Bond. He's benefitting from a serious mentor of a step-dad, an enviable charisma a huge smile that turns casual acquaintances into instant friends. Oh yeah -- and he's also currently at No. 1 on the Qualifying Series.
Leonardo has already proven he's ready to make the leap to the big leagues. Surfing this week as an injury replacement at the Oi Rio Pro, he opened with a Round One heat victory over 2014 world champ Gabriel Medina and standout Stu Kennedy. Last month at the Drug Aware Margaret River Pro he eliminated his friend and hero, Kelly Slater, in Round Two, reigning world champ Adriano de Souza in Round Three, and took down two more tour vets on his way to the quarterfinals.
Of course, it has not all been barrels and acai bowls for Fioravanti. He broke his back at Pipe at the end of 2015, and spent the better part of the year learning to walk, paddle and surf again.
In Rio, he sat down to discuss his impressive run, his long recovery, his world-class mentors, and the pros and cons of being an 18 years old wandering the world.
WSL: Is your approach different in a CT event, versus a QS?
LF: Coming to a CT, I have no stress, I have nothing to lose. The CT guys have everything to lose because they're on tour. Some are trying to stay on tour, some are trying to win a world title, some are trying to finish on the top 10, whatever their goals on the CT are. I have no goals like that -- the more heats I make, the better it is. If I lose, I've lost to the best surfers in the world. I go out there to have fun, surf smart, surf the way I do, and see what happens.
WSL: The last time we spoke, you were in a hospital bed, having just broken your back at Pipe. What was the toughest part of your recovery?
Leo Fioravanti: At the start the doctors told me I didn't need surgery and gave me a back brace. They said all I needed was four-to-six weeks of rehab. But in France they said it was way worse than I thought. They had to stabilize the vertebrae and also move it a bit, because it had tilted forward.
Coming to a CT, I have no stress, I have nothing to lose. The CT guys have everything to lose.
So for about a month I stayed home, just resting. Then I had three months of intense training at CERS, which is Center of European Rehabilitation of Sports, in Capbreton. My family lives in Hossegor, so it was perfect. I got to sleep at home, and during the day spent eight or 10 hours there training. It was hard, but it was the right thing to do because they have everything there, from a pool to physiotherapy. It was the best thing for me. I told myself that if I wanted to come back as fast as possible then I had to train as hard as I could.
After about four and a half months I went back in the water. After about six months I was starting to surf -- not fully at the level, but doing airs and getting back to it. By eight months, in October, I won the Under-18 World Championships in California. I think I came back stronger.
WSL: Did it change your outlook?
LF I was very unlucky with what happened, but I was also very lucky because I didn't end up in a wheelchair. And it gave me time to train, I got stronger, my legs got stronger. It stopped me from surfing for four-to-six months but I worked on other things. I read a lot. I got closer to my family, and spent time with them that I normally don't get. It was a good thing that happened to me.
WSL: What did you read?
LF: I read a Pele book, about his history. I read Andre Agassi's book. I read his father's way of telling the story, I read Robinson Crusoe. And then a couple of Italian books. I love reading.
I was very unlucky with what happened, but I worked on other things. I got closer to my family, and spent time with them that I normally don't get. It was a good thing.
WSL: Most 18-year-olds, in the US at least, are doing things like going to prom and scooping ice cream. How are you different from other guys your age?
LF: We're living completely different lives. I wouldn't change this for anything. It's what I've dreamed of. And people sometimes ask me, what's bad about this life? I think there's nothing bad about this life. Exploring the world, exploring difference cultures, meeting people around the world. It can be hard, because -- my mom travels, but my dad, I hardly see him. He lives in Rome. But you have to make some sacrifices to reach your dreams. And it's slowly coming true.
WSL: Your step-dad has spoken about making you and other Quik team members global citizens. How has that been for you - and how did you learn five languages?
LF: I learned them from traveling around. I'm not a shy person, so I wherever I go, I want to speak the language and not be left out. If you want to learn, you can learn, no matter where you're from. I've been going to Brazil for the past two or three years, so I learned Portuguese. I've been in France for a while, so I speak French, and Italian, and English is the main language in the surfing world, and also Spanish from traveling around.
There are surfers from all over the world, so if you try and talk to them, you'll learn. And, traveling around the world, you have to make the most of it. Not just the surfing, but also the culture. I want to be able to visit the cities and not be closed-minded with surfing, but open-minded with everything else.
It can be hard -- my mom travels, but my dad, I hardly see him. He lives in Rome. But you have to make some sacrifices to reach your dreams. And it's slowly coming true.
WSL: What is it like having your step-dad as your coach? Is it hard to separate work from family?
LF: No, no, no. Belly's been my mentor since I got sponsored by Quiksilver, when I was nine years old. So, I look at him when I'm at home as a step-dad, and when I'm on the road as a mentor. Whenever I have any questions, I ask him. If it's a social media post, or it's a choice of board, or where should I go eat, or what do I do with an interview or whatever it is, I speak to him about it. He's been in this world for so long. And he's worked with Kelly, obviously. He knows as much as anyone.
WSL: You and Kanoa, too, have done trips with Kelly?
LF: We've been traveling with Kelly since we were young, thanks to Quiksilver, and also thanks to Belly, who took us with him on tour. So we got to witness Kelly's winning years, and his career. Even in WA, I stayed with him. He's always been my idol, and to be able to stay with him and see what he does - when he wakes up, his whole thing. Because being a champion, I think, is not only the way he surfs. He's the smartest, and he eats so well, he's the healthiest, and being able to do that at 44 years old is not a normal thing. He takes care of his body very well. Being able to see that throughout the past few years has been a great learning curve for me and Kanoa, as well.
Kelly a different kind of human. And to be that good, you have to be different.
We went on a boat trip to Fiji with him a couple weeks ago, and he's pretty much the man out there. We went for a swell, so the waves were unbelievable. He's the best out there, he knows that place so well. To be in the water with him and seeing what he was doing, where he positioned himself, was incredible.
WSL: What's the biggest thing you've learned from him?
LF: I just think that he's different...He's a different kind of human. And to be that good, you have to be different. He's in his own world, and you can see that anything he sees, he analyzes it. His mind is going (like cogs turning).
WSL: What about dating? Is it hard to date on tour?
LF: I don't think it's hard to date on tour. But it's hard to date on tour when you're 18 years old. That's the last thing you want to do, or have to worry about...especially coming to Rio de Janeiro. You don't want to travel with a girlfriend around.
WSL: But as an 18-year old, is it hard to stay focused and put partying and fun aside?
LF: It's not hard to stay focused, because I know what I want, and I know what I have to do to achieve what I want. There's a right time to have fun, to party with your friends You just have to pick the right time -- if you choose the right time for that, then you're fine. For me, I'm focused pretty much the whole year, and then sometimes I party with my friends, which is normal. I just make sure I pick the right time, and don't do something stupid.