"I'm a worker. I'm not a famous surfer." de Souza, how has announced that he will retire at the end of the 2021 Championship Tour season. "I know how to win heats and I know I have the skill."
Ever humble, that's not entirely true. While arguably nobody's worked harder to win a World Title, de Souza is actually a famous surfer, especially at home in Brazil. In his years on the Championship Tour, he's not only won a World Title, but he's inspired his nation to dominate the sport like never before.
When he was eight his brother bought him a used board for seven dollars. By the time he was 16 he was the 2003 World Junior Champion. After putting the rest of the surfing universe on notice, in 2005 he won the Qualifying Series, and by 2008 he'd found himself a home in the Top 10 of the Championship Tour.
But it was 2015 that would come to define de Souza, not only professionally, but as a man. Going into the final event of the year, the Pipe Masters, de Souza was amongst six surfers still vying for the Title. Before the North Shore season had started, he'd employed Pipe savant Jamie O'Brien to help him hone his Pipeline chops. By the time the contest started he was in prime form. He was completely mentally zeroed in on his goal. And his equipment was impeccable.
Round by round the contenders fell while de Souza chewed through heats. By the start of the final day of the Billabong Pipe Masters, de Souza was one heat behind Mick Fanning in the Title race. With the surf absolutely pumping, it would turn out to be one of the most emotional days of surfing in recent memory.
In the early morning hours before the contest started, Fanning got word that his brother had passed away. Rattled to his core, he endeavored to surf on. Charged on adrenaline and inspired by the memory of his brother, he reckoned with all of his surging feelings by tapping into the raw energy of the ocean.
But de Souza was fighting a mental battle of his own. Several months prior to the Pipe Masters, his longtime friend Ricardo dos Santos had been gunned down near his home in Brazil. The two were so close they even had the same tattoo, which read, "Strength, balance and love."
"That's all I needed to win this World Title," de Souza said.
Everything he'd done and learned up to this point hinged on what transpired in the heaving, 10-foot barrels. He'd never finished better than the Quarterfinals at Pipe. In eight hours that would all change.
Brazil's first World Champ, Gabriel Medina, took out Fanning in the semis, ceding the Title to de Souza. He'd done it. De Souza was the 2015 World Champion.
After a tough-as-nails Final against Medina, with tears in his eyes, de Souza found his way to the beach.
"It's an incredible and special feeling to dedicate this Title to my great friend, Ricardo dos Santos," de Souza said. "I want to thank God for this moment. I am very bless by him and Ricardo upstairs. I will carry his soul with me."
De Souza ended the day with his long-sought World Title, as well as Brazil's first Pipe Masters crown. For his part in it all, Medina took home the country's first Triple Crown title. The Brazilian Storm had arrived and blown away everything in its path.
"I am so proud of you, mate! It doesn't matter where you come from, hard work and heart prevail. Thanks for your friendship. Love you bruddah," wrote Fanning to de Souza on Instagram.
More than the results, it's the dedication that speaks best to who de Souza is as a competitor and as a person. He spent years living in San Clemente, consumed with the goal of getting better at Lower Trestles. He made countless trips to the end of the road in Tahiti so he could improve at Teahupoo. He convinced O'Brien to work with him at Pipe. And in the end, all the work and sacrifice paid off.
Three-time World Champ Fanning went through a similar process. He had to dedicate himself to breaks like Teahupoo and Pipeline that were not his strong suit when he first came on Tour. As both surfers matured they realized that talent alone only got them so far. Hard work was going to have to get them the rest of the way.
And now, as de Souza plans to hang up the jersey at the end of the 2021 season and walks away from life as a full-time competitive surfer, the future is wide open. He accomplished more than he ever could have dreamed as an eight-year-old grom growing up living the favela life. And now, Brazil's a global powerhouse when it comes to surfing and there are undoubtedly more World Titles to be won by his countrymen and women in the years ahead. As far as legacies go, it doesn't get much better than that.