There's nothing like surf fans in Brasil, but surf fans in Brasil watching a Brasilian win a surf contest is even melhor. And when that Brasilian is Filipe Toledo -- a showman, a gentleman, and a favorite son -- it's a recipe for one gigantic festa on the beach, with a massive crowd just waiting for him to fly before erupting into feverish song and cheers. So when Toledo won the Oi Rio Pro Friday at Praia da Barrinha, in front of a beach packed with adoring fans -- pressed together on the white sand and outfitted with tiny Brasilian flags - the stage for collective delirium was more than set.
As the growing mass of beach-goers eagerly awaited Toledo's ascent to the podium, they chanted together, é campeão! -- the champion! -- and waved their flags. During his three heats, he had more than earned it. First, in the Quarterfinals, he took down American Kolohe Andino, with a pair of mid-range scores (which the fans loved anyway because, Toledo). But the Brasilian was just getting started, carefully finding his cadence like a DJ toying with the crowd.
And indeed, in the Semis he stepped it up, in a battle against Julian Wilson, the Australian and current Jeep Leader. Wilson had been the other star of the event so far, especially as his co-Jeep Leader, Italo Ferreira, fell out of the draw earlier on. But Toledo had another gear ready -- not to mention the support of his fans, for whom he was their last hope of a homegrown winner on home turf. Wilson and Toledo's battle, as it turned out, wasn't so much about fireworks as a slow burn. While Wilson appeared to struggle to find the type of Barrinha barrels that had gotten him this far, Toledo scored an 8.67 and a 7.70, beating the Aussie by more than 10 points.
But Toledo, ever the skilled performer, saved his best for last, drawing the beat out before he let it drop. In the Final against Australian rookie Wade Carmichael, who was also a standout throughout the day, Toledo made it out of an impossible tube -- not only driving down the line at pace with the crashing lip, but swerving suddenly as the right met Barrinha's brutal intruder of a left, escaping the crash and coming out with the foam. Every person on the beach, from exquisite sunbathers in Brasil's finest swimwear to small children building castles in the sand, was on their feet, waiting to see what Toledo would do next. At that point, with a 9.93 for the effort, his win was all but imminent.
While the Final couldn't have gone any other way, it's worth noting that Carmichael, the burly rookie, held his own with aplomb in the heavy surf for his best finish yet. So far this season, he has earned a 13th, a 9th and a 25th-place finish, making his 2nd-place here a massive jump. It's not clear what might have clicked for him here in Saquarema, except perhaps increasing comfort among the other Championship Tour (CT) surfers, and -- clearly -- total comfort in the Barrinha beasts.
"I did not change much and stuck to my guns, and it all came together," he said afterward. "There is a lot of power in this wave, and I always love getting barreled. The crowd is electric. Even though it is not for me, it still feels good and it is epic to see."
Despite his cool demeanor, it would be tough not to feel for Carmichael during the awards ceremony. It can't be easy to not be Brasilian as a pro here. Photographers and reporters jockeyed for position on the stairs to the stage, competing to get their interviews as aggressively as the surfers had fought for heat wins here. Yet, they weren't waiting for the Aussie. While the queue to talk to Toledo went on and on (and on), Carmichael was done pretty quickly, and slipped down into the crowd with his trophy in hand. Still, Carmichael will be leaving Brasil with more than five minutes of being beloved-adjacent: With his runner-up finish here, he jumped an incredible 11 spots on Jeep Leaderboard, and will head to Bali next week ranked World No. 5.
Toledo, meanwhile, carried his triumph with the ease of someone who has become accustomed to the spotlight without forgetting his roots. Before the awards ceremony began, he was unfazed by relentless calling of his name, as fans pushed ever closer against the restraining barrier. Instead of fanning the flames that kicked up around him, he sat quietly on the stairs with the Brasilian flag draped around his shoulders. He spoke to the half-dozen mobiles pointed at him, posed for photo after photo, and then hunched over and typed furiously into his phone.
And yet, amid all of that; with cameras and phones facing him from every direction, a glimmer of his character flashed in the sun. Looking up for a second, he saw something in the crowd. He leaned out from his perch and handed a small boy his bright orange leash, the one from the contest, then quickly sat down and got back to the business of stardom.
It was clear where his heart was. Just two days before the event window opened, Toledo's wife, Ananda, gave birth to their second child. "Coming back home and having this amazing support from the crowd, especially for my baby Koa, it is unbelievable," he said after his win. "My son and my family are motivation for me. I am one of those athletes who performs under pressure. Koa means warrior and I definitely was a warrior to go out there and get that trophy."
Toledo and the rest of the WSL Championship Tour surfers compete next at Corona Bali Pro, May 27- June 9.