The most important thing to know about Willian Cardoso is that he's a battle-hardened survivor of more than a decade of non-stop seasons on the WSL Qualifying Series (QS). Now, at 32, this Brazilian powerhouse is the oldest of seven rookies joining the elite Championship Tour (CT) in 2018, and the poster boy for never giving up on your dreams.
Yet, when Cardoso lost his longtime sponsor at the end of 2016 -- with a wife and young son to support -- the thought of hanging up the competition jersey did creep into his mind. Fortunately, family and friends who still believed and supported his vision would have none of it.
"Everybody fought for me and helped. Not only financially but emotionally, too," Cardoso said. "They were the people that really believed in me, which made me believe more in myself, and the power of positive thinking."
The most meaningful support came from his father-in-law. "He told me that all was well with my wife and son. He said I could go travel and follow my dreams and that they believed in my potential, and that we should make it all worth it."
One year later, Cardoso's dream came true. In what would become his final season on the QS, he finished the season ranked No. 8, well inside the cut for qualifying. "I can't believe it finally happened," he said.
Cardoso is also a man of passion who wears his hopes and dreams on his sleeve, much like Neco Padaratz, one of his local heroes growing up. The former CT star was one of the most fiery, controversial and colorful characters to ever compete at the elite level. "He was electric," said Cardoso. "He took all his emotions from deep inside, and made everyone get infected with his passion. When he puts something on his mind he goes and does it. So that's what I tried to bring myself."
As the years wore on, every little triumph grew more meaningful for Cardoso, whether he was on the winners' podium or not. "I think that after so many years on the QS, me being one of the older ones, I always got emotional with the wins," he said. When fellow Brazilian rookie and good friend Jesse Mendes won the Billabong Pro Cascais QS event in 2016, Cardoso, the gentle giant, was spotted shedding tears of joy.
As for Cardoso's surfing, well, there's nothing gentle about it. He's built like a brick house, with a powerful set of thighs that give him a low center of gravity, which he uses to destroy every wave face with which he's confronted. But what surprises many is how well he performs in the smaller, more challenging stuff that usually gives surfers in his weight class fits. "I can fly high but I prefer the carve maneuvers," Cardoso said with a grin.
In fact, his peers marvel at his ability to transition into a light-footed approach. "He knows how to be light and be heavy at the same time," said Yago Dora, another fellow Brazilian and 2018 rookie. "He's light on the bottom turn, and then when he does his turn, he's super heavy, and just drills buckets."
"I don't even think there's anyone more powerful than he is," said Mendes.
Cardoso acquired that skill in the waves he grew up surfing north of Florianópolis, Brazil. The lineups in that region are a far cry from those near Rio. "When most people think of Brazil they think punchy beachbreak, but where I learned to surf is like the Brazilian Trestles," Cardoso said, referencing California's cobblestone break. "We have a lot of good waves but also a lot of small, mushy ones."
But whether it's his surfing or his personality being discussed, Cardoso's nickname, "Panda," seems fitting. He earned the moniker after disturbing a bunch of his QS cohorts during his quest for a midnight snack. It was a scene right out of the Kung Fu Panda films.
"The boys were like, ‘Are you kidding me, Panda?,'" Cardoso recalled. "And also the fact that I'm big. I have dark hair. I'm kind and gentle. They also call me cute," he laughed. "I was flattered because in the movie he demonstrates his sensitive side and at the same time he grows and becomes a great fighter and that's what I have been doing throughout my career."
Dora confirmed the aptness of the moniker. Of Cardoso, he said, "He gets angry sometimes, but he's a sweetheart."
For Mendes, meanwhile, Cardoso has been something of a mentor. "He's a very big part of my career. He's six years older than me, so when I got on Tour he was like, 'You go here. You stay there,' making sure we had rides, or we wouldn't have to walk a mile to the contest. He's always helped me out, and I still stay with him all the time."
Though 2018 will be his rookie season, Cardoso is familiar with Championship Tour action. His near-misses years ago on the QS earned him spots as an injury replacement in 2012 and 2013. During that time, he appeared in six events, highlighted by a 5th place at Bells in 2013, when he topped Tour veterans like Josh Kerr, Ace Buchan and Taj Burrow. Yet, the big headline that year was him knocking out 4x event winner Kelly Slater in Round Three, with a dominant, hard-carving performance.
With the comfort of knowing he's in every event on the schedule this year, Cardoso is determined to find some traction. "The only wave I haven't surfed is Kelly's wave [at the Surf Ranch]. At all the rest I've had some good performances."
But first, Cardoso will be landing in Australia for the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast with some crucial support. "For sure on the Australian leg all the family will be together," he said. "They will be by my side. A lot of my friends are already buying tickets to travel with me, too. It's a big accomplishment from my city to have a surfer representing them on the CT, so I think everyone is going to support me and help on the best way possible."
Watch Cardoso compete in the Quiksilver Pro starting March 11 at worldsurfleague.com