On a damp, chilly morning last October at the Quiksilver Pro France a large group of top surfers, coaches, their families and hangers-on piled into the athletes' area at La Gravière to watch a pressure-cooker of a heat. With hands stuffed in puffy coat pockets they huddled to stay warm, sipping on paper cups of cafés au lait. Out in the lineup 11x World Champion Kelly Slater was getting set to battle 18-year-old Leonardo Fioravanti, the event wildcard.
For Fioravanti, the opportunity was huge. He was facing the world's best surfer on one of the sport's biggest stages. For Slater, another early defeat would be tough pill to swallow, ending his world title hopes and raising more questions about the rest of his season, if not his career. But perhaps no one was more anxious than a guy who wasn't in the water at all: Stephen "Belly" Bell.
For the longtime Quiksilver team manager, the heat was personal, pitting Slater -- his longtime protégé and friend -- against his step-son and Quiksilver trainee. It wasn't the first time that Bell has had to navigate his allegiances during a contest -- he'd taken the Champ down in Margaret River back in April -- and, now that Fioravanti has qualified for the 2017 Championship Tour (CT), it certainly won't be the last. In fact, that gray, electric morning was just a glimpse of the angst to come once the new season kicks off.
For Belly, that means he'll have to get used to it. "I try to stay a little bit numb," he said after Leo and Kelly faced off. "If Kelly had won this event then he really would have been in the title race. ...But that's surfing competitions. It happens all the time."
I try to stay a little bit numb. - Stephen Bell
That Zen exterior, however, only goes so far. "I try not to choose one side," said Bell, "but inside I'm, 'Ooh, ooh! Get that one! Now, get the other one!'"
Fioravanti, meanwhile, sees giant-killing as part of the job. "It was an incredible experience," he said after defeating Slater. "It's a world tour heat and surfing against Kelly Slater, you've got to step it up as much as you can."
And then, without meaning to twist the knife, he said -- more to himself than anyone else, "I can't believe it happened again."
Neither, perhaps, could Slater. The France defeat was eerily similar to that at Margaret's: Leo was there surfing as a wildcard. He and Kelly were matched up in the sudden-death second Round. And before some people had probably even heard of Fioravanti, he had eliminated the 11-time Champ.
It was an incredible experience. ... I can't believe it happened again. - Leo Fioravanti
With that kind of track record, it's only natural that anyone -- from the superhuman to the mere mortal -- would think twice before facing the young gun again. Belly, however, brushed off that idea.
"People said that Kelly's a bit nervous to come up against Leo," said Bell. "But I don't think Kelly really looks at it like that, but maybe as a stepping stone to the end of the event, right to the end [of the season]. And that's how he's gotten to where he's gotten."
Slater, for his part, was characteristically diplomatic about the position in which his and Fioravanti's faceoffs put Bell. Never mind that the grommet to whom he'd probably imparted decades worth of wisdom had just cut his Quik Pro run short.
"It was probably a strange one for Belly more than anyone," Slater said after his loss. "Because he's so supportive of me. Belly's been with me a lot longer than with Leo, but Leo's basically his step-son, so it's a tricky position for him."
I feel like the loyalty needs to be there for Belly with Leo, if he's going to pick. But it doesn't change anything. - Kelly Slater
"He's probably Switzerland, and giving us the same advice. But you know, that's a personal relationship, and Belly and I have a different one. We started as a business relationship and now we're just friends. So for the two heats I've had with Leo, I've given them space to talk, and I feel like the loyalty needs to be there for Belly with Leo, if he's going to pick. But it doesn't change anything."
And as for Belly? The one thing that could have made his emotional overload worthwhile would have been if Leo had won the contest. It wasn't to be -- Gabriel Medina took Leo down in his very next heat -- but Fioravanti had already made a lasting impression.