On a long, secluded stretch of sand in Brazil last May, hundreds of people that were gathered there suddenly broke into song, chanting and clapping as they moved up the beach in a tightly packed procession toward a stage. There were teenagers, families, small children, and groups of friends whose ages, hometowns and weekend agendas ran the gamut. But what united them was a palpable devotion to the man of the hour, Adriano de Souza.
What made the moment all the more compelling was that De Souza wasn't winning a World Title, as he had in 2015, but a single contest, the Oi Rio Pro in Saquarema, Rio de Janeiro. Indeed, it was an impressive feat, achieved on home turf at a wave that's known locally as Maracanã, one of the country's biggest soccer stadiums -- a nod to its reputation as a grand stage for surf talent. But the profound adoration for De Souza was, arguably, less about winning a surf contest and more about a triumph of spirit; about transcending humble favela beginnings, beating the odds to reach the top of his profession.
In that moment, perhaps more than any other in recent memory, De Souza's role as a people's hero was undeniable. Having led the way for a generation of fellow Brazilians to rise to the elite ranks of professional surfing -- the WSL Championship Tour (CT) -- De Souza was already a pioneer for and mentor to an entire squad of young men. But unlike some of the flashy scene-stealers who push the boundaries of what's possible on a piece of foam, De Souza is all power and grit. Instead of jaw-dropping airs and innovation, he's built his long and stable career (that's 12 years and counting on the CT) with the kind of head-down work ethic that's part of his DNA.
Other Brazilians from the the generation on his heels -- think Gabriel Medina and Filipe Toledo -- garner both awe and obsession, of the sort reserved for boy-bands and living geniuses. Instead, what De Souza inspires is less sporty showmanship than delight. Most of all, he stands for hope.
Now, as the 2018 CT season approaches, De Souza has a lot to celebrate. Last month was his two-year wedding anniversary, with wife Patricia Eicke. His third year since achieving his lifetime goal of becoming a World Champ. And today, February 13, he turns 31. It's early yet to know what the surfer might have his sights set on for the new season. But before it begins, it's worth taking a moment to honor his journey. Happy birthday, Adriano.