Among its myriad claims to fame, Brasil is known for massive street parties that never stop, cane-sugar caipirinhas that go down little too fast, and a fervent fan culture when it comes to sport, from futbol to surf. But for most of the men ranked in the WSL Championship Tour Top 10, this week they can add one more thing to the list: painful, shocking defeat. By the time Round 2 and 3 had wrapped up Tuesday at Barrinha, the backup site for the Oi Rio Pro, seven of the men's Top 10 were out of the event -- plus Mick Fanning, who retired two events ago.
As surfers fell at Barrinha, one by one, their fury on the beach matched the wild power of the waves, which reared up unexpectedly here, and closed out there. Those who were at one with the unruly break -- which serves as a backup to the main site, a half-mile east -- emerged triumphant, with arms raised. But for those whose picks didn't pay off, the early losses were particularly bitter. Among the fans, though, the fun reigned on a perfect beach day. Sweat-soaked bodies and muito skin pressed in close to the athlete area, as surfers either survived the elimination gauntlet, receiving heroes' embraces from the crowd, or watched their contest dreams burn to the ground in a blaze of regret.
Among the fallen, there was the punching of boards, angry marches up to the makeshift judges' tower, and sullen stomping away from the event site. Still others simply slunk away under the low-hanging palm fronds and around the street vendors flanking the path to the beach, hawking homemade jewelry and ice-cold acai.
Their managers and coaches, shrugging and quiet, gathered the boards left behind and walked slowly back to cars and pousadas, some hopping on bikes to pedal home. Expectations were burning down into embers, while heat winners basked in the momentary light of triumph. What is it about Rio that makes early-round losses particularly painful? Perhaps it's that, as the fourth stop of the WSL Championship Tour, the season is starting to get real.
The day began with the second half of Round 2, putting the pressure on from the steamy morning's first light. As the sun broke through and fans filled in on the sand, surfers like Matt Wilkinson, Jesse Mendes and Conner Coffin -- all of whom lost their sudden-death bouts -- were left wondering what had just happened.
For those on Barrinha's winning side, however, the furious barrels made for some of the most incredible surfing ever at this event. Brasilian rookie Tomas Hermes was just one of those who was in tune with the break, finding his way into a thunderous tube and out with the spit, arms high, for a 9.07. All that his opponent, Conner Coffin, could do was watch helpless, paddling in desperation for another wave. (Later, Hermes fell in Round 3 to Kauai's Sebastian Zietz.)
Once Round 3 got started the agony, of course, didn't stop. Brasilian surfer Ian Gouveia set the tone in Heat 1 with perhaps the best wave of the event so far, for a whopping 9.93. With that, he snatched the win practically from under Jordy Smith's nose, eliminating the South African Tour veteran. In an unfortunate juxtaposition, just moments before, Smith's shaper had appeared on the broadcast, noting that his young charge was ahead. But that was just a few minutes too soon to raise a celebratory Ipaitava. Smith arrived in Rio ranked 16 spots ahead of Gouveia -- a gap that will surely close before the event is over.
As the Round 3 heated continued, the upsets were less like blunt-force knock-outs and more a culling of a talented field. Gabriel Medina got some sweet payback in his heat against Australian rockstar -- ahem, wildcard -- Mikey Wright, winning by less than half a point. No matter what he did or didn't do in the water, though, his impassioned fans would have burned with adoration. As he moved from group to group afterward, signing autographs and taking selfies, the crowd was a like a sea that moved with him, flowing toward him as he went from fan to fan.
One of the day's toughest losses, however, belonged to Brasilian powerhouse Italo Ferreira, who arrived here as equal-World No. 1 with Australian Julian Wilson. Today, though, he knew he'd have to relinquish his Jeep Leader's yellow jersey before the next event, as Wilson moved on, defeating Brasilian wildcard Alejo Muniz, and Ferreira fell to Brasilian rookie Yago Dora.
As it turned out the wins were emotional for both Wilson and Dora.
"I qualified for the CT the same year as Alejo," said Wilson. "We finished 9th and 10th our first year on tour and battled through the year. And now, he's just had a little boy and I've just had a little girl. There was a lot of history going into that heat. I think Alejo is an exceptional surfer. He does not have his main sponsor anymore so it is a little bit hard to see those things, and when you win the heat you feel like you are taking a little bit away from him. But, it was nice to be competing against him and so stoked to see him in the contest."
For Dora, making it through Round 3 was a huge threshold, and marks his best result of the year so far, regardless of what happens in Round 4. But it was also bittersweet -- after his heat he expressed his deep respect for Ferreira, and regret at seeing that they were matched up, especially with a World Title race hanging in the balance.
As the sun set on Saquarema, the beach finally began to cool down and perhaps, tucked away throughout this tiny beach town, tempers were, too. For the surfers still in the Rio draw, though, they'll get to light the waves on fire all over again, when the action resumes.
The next call is at 6:45 a.m. BRT Wednesday at Itaúna Beach, the main site for the Oi Rio Pro.