As I lay in bed, February 25, 2016, I'm sure something like crushing boredom set in.
So, I logged onto Facebook, scrolling down until I came across an old co-worker who had moved to Hawaii. She had posted a video of a surf competition—The Eddie Aikau.
Let me tell you… for lack of better phrasing—that’s some of the sickest shit I have ever seen.
Now stick with me, I had never watched a day of surfing in my life. Despite having grown up as a competitive fresh-water athlete, I couldn’t have genuinely cared any less. Until that moment. I was watching real human beings make a physical choice to go barreling down a sixty-foot wave with nothing but conviction and neoprene, just kind of, just sort of, just maybe…hoping not to die.
John John Florence took away the win, tackling these seemingly fabled waves like it was something he was designed to do in a lab. If he had fear—he didn’t show it. And when I figured out he was only two years older than myself? I became hooked on a sport that not five minutes ago I would have called “easy” or “stupid.”
Fun fact of the day: surfing is neither easy nor stupid.
But this isn’t about me. This is about young men who laughed in the face of mediocrity and stood stronger as one than as three.
For those of you doubting that surfing is even worth words or spans of your time, here’s a crude 101;
1. Surfing is very similar to any other individual sport like tennis or golf. You have to qualify for a tour, which consists of the top 34 surfers in the world. This is called the WCT, or the World Championship Tour.
2. You get there by becoming one of the top ten on the WQS or the World Qualifying Series.
3. You can qualify for the top ten by BUSTING YOUR ASS on some of the world’s best and worst waves.
4. A surf competition is compiled of man on man heats, where the lower scoring surfer can be eliminated.
5. You’ve got 30 minutes. Get the highest point total (out of a perfect 10) for two waves and you’ve won.
See—not complicated. Until you get to number 6.
6. This sport has more up and downs than Game of Thrones. Where are the dragons, you ask? Just wait until the world title race comes down to two athletes... you’ll see the fire.
The sport in itself is filled with stories so intense; rivalries, pregnancies, iconic heroes passing before their time. But three of those athletes would change the course of many histories.
Leonardo Fioravanti- The Gladiator
Leonardo Fioravanti doesn’t look like a professional athlete.
You know him—he’s the guy cracking jokes about frogs while still getting A’s on science tests. He’s the one making everyone on the team laugh, only to help them win the championship game. He is smiles and he is enthusiasm, and his positivity would be sickening if he didn’t wear it like royal clothing. It would be weird on anyone else—but on him, it’s exquisite.
Fioravanti is a hypnotist when is comes to leaving people unassuming. Happy-go-lucky alone doesn’t kill off competitors. Hard work and athleticism does. And while on land and in front of cameras Leo is political and light, in the water he is anything but.
It almost hurts to watch. The niceties are there, but there is an aggression and passion that simply cannot be faked. At 19, Leo is scary. He bites down on waves, suffocating them with grace and agility, carving filigree on their terrified faces.
At 12, Leo was not scary. Graceful, yes. Agile, yes. Talented? Oh my God. But the fear that comes with his growing stature and knowledge of competition wasn’t there.
In watching ancient YouTube videos, you can see a bright, spunky, Italian, ready to demolish, but not quite sure how. When I was watching the Margaret River Pro this year, where Leo had been entered as a wildcard, I was asking myself two questions; why had I not picked him for my fantasy lineup, and why in Frank Sinatra’s name was this young man not on tour?
Research will answer that question. And it’s not pretty.
You watch the footage, and at first it doesn't look bad. Leo pulls into a head high wave at Hawaii's infamous Pipeline. He falls. On many other waves this probably wouldn't have mattered. But this is Pipeline. This is a wave that happily claims lives every winter, and disregards skill levels with a hearty grin on its face. Leo goes down. The wave goes down.
He doesn't come up.
With Leo still trapped mercilessly inside, Pipeline snaps him down like a discarded rag doll onto the reef below, breaking two of his vertebrae. He emerges, an arm the only thing he manages to keep above the waterline.
Thankfully, lifeguards are trained for this. They hoist him on a sled- his winter over, his hopes of making the CT the next year all but shattered. He was taken to surgery- more bad news after more bad news led to the eventual solution of two titanium rods being put into his spine. I say it would have been easy to give up and not come back, but I don't think for Leo it would have been.
Oddly, it is my belief that there was a certain inevitability involved in Leo's return. But if he wanted success, he was going to have to work for it. And for that, a passion is needed. Strength, aggression, and a healthy dose of heartbreak. Leo worked hard, and it seemed adversity was the final push to make him a true competitor. From his injury in the winter, he battled the season on the QS. But it wasn’t enough. He pushed and pushed, but the world had apparently had enough of comeback stories for 2015. He finished 135 on the QS.
So it was back to the grind—fine. But this time the grind would not include one of Fioravanti’s most adamant support systems, his lifelong best friend and competitor, Kanoa Igarashi. Kanoa too had worked. And it had paid off. Leo watched his best friend make the World Championship Tour, and he was left behind another year.
But here is the difference between man and child. Here is the difference between teammate and threat. Most importantly, the difference between competitor and champion. Leo handled his lost opportunity with class. Putting up Kanoa at every turn, encouraging his friend, becoming his finest cheerleader. Always happier for his friend than it seemed himself. The sign of a true legend.
So when Fioravanti showed up at Margaret River as a wildcard, he was not only ready to shock the world, he was ready to be selfless and humble in the process. He thanked his home country of Italy, his teammates, and attributed his success and hard work on anyone but himself.
But the truth of the matter—this unassuming Italian pulled a Troy of his own.
He beat the best of the best, 11-time world title champion, Kelly Slater, by only surfing three waves. Three waves in thirty minutes. In terms of surfing, that’s a point blank assassination.
But getting on the tour has nothing to do with how well you do as a wildcard. It has to do with the grind. The blue-collar level QS.
In the short online series, "Snaketales," produced by his coach, the once indomitable Jake “Snake” Paterson, Leo sleeps in. Paterson wakes him up, “Brah, it’s your first heat, you ready to rock and roll?”
As Leo groans and rolls over, the light catches on four scars, no bigger than quarters, on his spine. The reason he is here.
“Oh yeah.” He answers.
Cut to him almost comically shaking out on the beach, his face prepared. The particular episode chronicles his rise to the final of the Manly Beach Pro in Australia. It would be just one of the finals that Fioravanti would make in the next few months, propelling him to number one on the QS leaderboard.
There was little fanfare when Fioravanti became a mathematical ‘sure thing’ for the 2017 WCT. The overall vibe—“Well, of course.” But “well of course” seems a simple saying. Well of course he got thrown over Pipe and got hurt. Well of course he went through harrowing surgery. Well of course he supported his friend in achieving the dream they both had. Well of course he trained harder. Well of course he won.
Well of course he did.
Kanoa Igarashi- The Playmaker
In numerous YouTube videos, Kanoa and Leo are side by side, saying hello to fans in a multitude of languages—between them they, at least colloquially, speak 8—and taking photos while girls fawn over them like the newest boy band.
Leo is ever the senator, Kanoa, so kind, but more reserved. This dynamic between the two is similarly displayed in their surfing. Leo is fire, pure, scalding, lethal. Kanoa is air, effortless, languid, yet stormy. Just as his teammate, Kanoa is unassuming in his attack of surfing.
As a child in old footage, Kanoa is all smiles and laughter. He is sunny, a disposition only mirrored in the way he interacts with a childhood Leo. But there is a maturity in his surfing that outmatches the other young prodigies surrounding him. His past has groomed him this way. His parents moved to America from Japan with one goal—to have a professional surfer as a son.
While the odds of them succeeding were probably astronomical, succeed they did. His age never seemed to matter, he surfed so well beyond his years that he resembled a disproportioned warrior, battling any obstacle in his tiny path.
Today, there is nothing miniscule about the presence of Kanoa Igarashi. He is a playmaker, studying the moves of his opponents as well as the swell of the waves. He is calculated, but his lack of risk can be seen as well.
In tour competitions on the WCT throughout the year, there was no ‘going for broke’ gear in Kanoa. He studies, he attacks. He sets his strategy, he calculates outcomes, but it’s not enough. While he shows up for the early rounds, always seeming to escape a narrow Round Two elimination, the further he got, the more his competitors could see the plays he was running.
But then there was the QS. The elusive and mercurial beast itself. During those competitions, Kanoa became a new type of playmaker—one who suddenly could translate offense from defense. It was almost staggering the difference. As if Kanoa went into QS heats thinking, “These are the men I can beat.” And CT heats with the mindset of “These men are here to beat me.”
There was also a difference—his team. Snake not only coaches Kanoa and Leo, but also three others; Zeke Lau, Ramzi Boukhiam, and Marc Lacomare. The five young men proved to all have a weakness and strength the other’s lacked. Their rapport is magnetic, compassionate, and ultimately, necessary.
An even-keeled Kanoa pushed hard, and always seemed to know everyone’s cards before they laid them down during QS events, as if Leo or Zeke were standing behind his competitors mouthing “Full House” or “Straight Flush.”
Midway through the season, the scores began to matter on the CT. Every advanced heat meant someone’s hopes of remaining on the tour would be renewed or crushed. World Champion contenders were gnawing at heels, and a clump of athletes began to realize that they would be fighting to keep their spot on tour.
Kanoa was among them.
His consistency was admirable, but that was the level it landed at. As a horse, he would be the last bet placed. Where others might implode at the pressure created by this looming sight, Kanoa reveled in it. He took that pressure and turned coal into a diamond.
The playmaker came back with strategic genius… he would qualify on the QS. While he was a miracle away from requalifying on the CT, he had put down numbers solid enough on the QS to only require him getting one last huge score.
And achieve that he did. In Brazil, at the Hang Loose Pro Contest 30 Anos, Kanoa landed himself on the top of the podium, his fears relieved, the rest of his season on the CT without pressure. His win guaranteed a spot in the top ten of the QS, but also knocked Leo out of the number one position—which he had held steadily for over five months.
Snaketales again gave a glimpse of the relationship between the pseudo-brothers… Kanoa resting on Leos shoulders, their coach chiding and joking with them about Leo’s fall. The boys greet it with welcome humor… it didn’t matter anymore. One had become two. They took the dream they had when they were children, and made it happen.
But while their fates were sealed on the QS, Kanoa had a much bigger job ahead of him. The pressure was about to be turned on once again, and it was diamond-making time.
Ezekiel Lau- The Prodigal Son
So Leo and Kanoa both qualified. The childhood friends had become a feel-good phenomenon. The surfing websites trilled over Kanoa's return, and broadcasted the high hopes of a European surf surge resting solely on the shoulders of Leo.
But for another member of Snake's team, a dream looked as though it was about to be deferred a second time.
Ezekiel “Zeke” Lau is the human personification of a war cry. Where the others on 'The A team' sport lanky and fiercely strong builds, Zeke is a solid and intimidating mass. Covered in cultural tattoos and and exhibiting a steely disposition, it is no doubt that he is a force.
He was once quoted; “When I have you in a heat, I will definitely make you feel like we're having a heat together. You're gonna feel it. You're not gonna be comfortable.”
I don’t doubt it. His opponents feel it. There is a certain air of fear that he brings to every wave he surfs. A certain intense feeling of “Oh God, he could change everything.” Someone very wise used to say to me, “You know that feeling of impending doom? That’s impending doom.”
You know that feeling of impending doom?
That’s Zeke Lau.
At 23, he is clearly the elder sibling of the group, rolling his eyes at their childish enthusiasm only to be caught dancing moments later.
But his surfing is raw, unadulterated, pure power. When he tears through the water it appears as though the water, not Zeke, is terrified. He makes Pipeline look like a babbling brook and no competitor is left unscathed.
The childhood of this competitor only mirrors his teammates from the standpoint that he too was a prodigy. His strength and power were recognized early, but he did not exhibit the rootless wandering athlete lifestyle similar to Kanoa and Leo.
His parents were both competitive athletes, and competition breeds drive. And Zeke bleeds drive. His father wouldn’t allow him to even have hair on his head (he shaved it every Sunday) before he won a National Title. At fifteen he succeeded, with a back he had broken before the contest had even started.
The years following threw adversity after adversity in Lau’s face. He almost lost his leg to a staph infection. Stupidly close losses and injuries would keep him off the tour again. In 2012, he lost the final of the World Junior Championships to Jack Freestone… by 0.06 of a point. It was a dream Lau had worked for, and unfortunately, it would not be the last time Freestone left a sour taste in Lau’s mouth.
December in Hawaii, for surfers, is the coup de gras. It's where all of the final competitions are held for both the QS and the CT. Do or die time. It’s the final time of year where heroes are made and grown men can leave for home, tears of failure streaming down their usually unbreakable faces.
Going in, it appeared as though Zeke had some work to do. Leo and Kanoa had made the CT, there was no doubt there. But he was sitting outside of the top ten. He had ground to move.
You know that feeling of impending doom?
Zeke came into Hawaii like it was a house of cards he was primed to topple. After all, this is home. Born on the south shore of Oahu, he would have every support system, every advantage.
His placing of 33rd at the Hawaiian Pro, the first of three Vans Triple Crown Events, was good, but not enough. It was the Vans World Cup that his fate would come down to.
It almost seemed easy for Zeke to make the Quarterfinals, only a few men between him and his dream of the tour.
Waves pumping, his competitors didn’t seem so scared of him now. This was never a good sign. It didn't help that he was up against Fredrico Morais, a Portuguese powerhouse who had already carved his named into the QS top 10, and Deivid Silva, another competitor scrapping for his own CT glory.
Everything looked against Zeke. In fourth place for 90% of the round, with 1:38 left on the clock, he takes off. The wave is what he needed… exactly what he needed. The heat ends, the score he needs—5.55.
The scores come in.
Kanoa and Leo can be heard screaming from the beach, Zeke slapping the water, happiness and elation hitting him still in the ocean. He’s onto the semifinals.
One heat between Zeke and the dream he’s been working for his entire life. He doesn’t even need to win. He just needs to beat one man.
It’s down to Zeke and a familiar name. A foreboding name that can easily decapitate Hawaii’s only hope to get a true blood son on the Championship Tour from the QS.
Jack Freestone. He’s fighting too. It’s between Freestone, a spidery Australian with quick lines and ultimate finesse, and Lau, lawless dominance, grace versus power. He took the title from Lau in 2012, and Lau was not about to let it happen again.
Unfortunately, the universe had other ideas. With both men surfing their hearts out, Jack edged a hurtful amount ahead, guillotining Zeke. Jack Freestone would make the top ten of the QS.
A dream deferred, by 1.11. On the overall QS point score? Zeke lost his place on tour by a total of 50 miserable points.
As a spectator, I was devastated. The storybook makers put away their pens. It appeared that history would not be made at the Vans World Cup.
But sometimes, you can take a landfill and find a diamond.
And Lau knew someone particularly good at making diamonds—Kanoa Igarashi.
Igarashi had qualified for the CT by way of the QS, but he appeared to be Lau’s only hope… if Igarashi could double qualify by actually making the tour on the lineup. It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. Igarashi’s consistency had landed him just outside the top 22, aka the surfers who get to keep their jobs. He could do it. But it would take every miracle.
With one contest left in the season, The Billabong Pipe Masters, Igarashi would have to pull out a bigger Hail Mary than a 91-yard pass in the final minutes of the Super Bowl.
In fact, the Pipe Masters is the Super Bowl of surfing. Every young prodigy dreams of heading up that post-show stage and hoisting the Pipe Masters trophy high above his head, being showered with champagne—the toast of the island.
But Kanoa didn’t have to win the whole contest, he just had to make two measly heats. With those heats through, Kanoa would double qualify and Zeke would take his spot in the top ten of the QS. One snag…he’d rarely done that well the whole season. On top of that, he would be against competitors fighting tooth and nail to secure their own spots on the tour.
But he had his team. Leo, Zeke, and obviously Snake would not compete in the Pipe Masters, therefore freeing up all of their time to coach Kanoa. In the final Snaketales, Zeke reads off the rankings, clearly irritated with his loss. Leo pans the camera to Kanoa “It’s all up to this guy.”
“I got it brah, I got it…I hope. I hope.” Is Kanoa’s answer. It’s not confident.
Sooner rather than later, the Pipe Masters arrives. Kanoa loses out the first round.
It’s fine. He’s not eliminated yet. Round Two begins the eliminations. Snag number two hits. Kanoa is up against Keanu Asing, a scrappy Hawaiian surfer, and another one of Kanoa’s close friends.
If Kanoa wins his heat, he’s one step closer to bringing Zeke on tour. If Kanoa wins, Keanu will fail to make the tour and lose his job. The ultimate catch-22, either way Kanoa loses massively.
It’s a heartbreaking heat to watch. Keanu has had a season of ups and downs, losing many Round Two’s, but also walking away with a first place win in France. If he falls off tour he will be the first ever to do so with a win in the same year.
The buzzer was a painful piece of punctuation—Kanoa Igarashi was even closer to getting his friend with him on tour. But there were few cheers. It didn’t seem like much of a victory with Keanu Asing walking up the beach, eyes down to the sand.
There were a few others who could have helped Zeke’s cause. Jadson Andre who had had a similar trajectory as Zeke, but prevailed. Jeremy Flores, another older, more seasoned teammate of the boys, who would have to win the Pipe Masters to bring up Zeke. And lastly, there was the very man who had killed Zeke’s chance to begin with, Jack Freestone.
And yet, none of them made the cut.
It was Kanoa, for all intents and purposes, Zeke’s proverbial little brother. In the water, Kanoa had no one to look to. He was alone. It was on him. And for this particular Pipe Masters, he finally looked at his competitors like;
“These are men I can beat.”
Kanoa raced through his next heats. Something he had never done before. Consistency be damned, he was taming waves like a bat out of hell. The ‘going for broke’ drive? Kanoa cracked the speedometer.
The heats went by fast, no one really looking at Kanoa, all eyes on Zeke. He opted to stay inside of the Quiksilver team house (placed right in front of infamous Pipeline) while Leo stood on the lawn watching intently.
It came to the quarterfinal. Kanoa faced a fierce match in South African Jordy Smith, not only a veteran, but repeated world title contender. Someone who could laugh at Pipeline and it’s deadly wave. Jordy would not take pity on Kanoa’s mission and Zeke’s fate. He was going for the kill.
In the water, Kanoa looks like a child compared to the size and speed of Jordy. Where Kanoa had looked like a man in previous heats, now there was a sliver of cowardice. Jordy takes off on the first wave by beating Kanoa to it. Igarashi’s strength just pales by complete comparison.
So, like any good strategist, he goes back to the plays. Jordy plays physical, so Kanoa plays mental. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting and almost ungodly amount of time to even catch a wave.
Over half the heat goes by. Zeke peaks in and out of the house. The chatterbox Italian, Leo, exhibits rare periods of silence. Jordy catches amazing wave after amazing wave.
The vibe at camp? Probably something along the lines of “Good God what are you thinking?!?”
You know that feeling of impending doom?
It’s Jordy Smith’s worst nightmare.
13 minutes 14 seconds left.
Kanoa takes off on a wave that resembles something from a travel brochure. It’s perfect, clear, and thank-the-lord hollow. He spears it right down the middle, ducking where he should, picking up speed in the right places…reading Jordy’s playbook like Saturday morning cartoons.
The lawn of the Quiksilver house erupts. Zeke exits the house for a brief moment, taking hugs from Leo and other friends. But he quickly disappears again. This isn’t over. Jordy is still up on Kanoa by a heavy point margin, Kanoa’s wave was good, but he would need to repeat it.
3 minutes 35 seconds left.
The rest of the heat goes by, and Kanoa hits his repeat. Another picture perfect barrel, and Igarashi exits, hands behind his back smiling towards the shore as if he’s saying, “Did I do well enough yet?” Cheers come a second time and Leo runs inside to get Zeke—this could happen; this could really happen.
The score is good enough to put Kanoa in the lead, but time is his enemy… world titles have been won and lost in less than 3 minutes. And this isn’t some unrefined 13-year-old phenom he’s facing, it’s a 28-year-old powerful, terrifying Jordy Smith.
The clock ticks down excruciatingly.
0 minutes 23 seconds left.
It is only with less than a minute to go does Zeke finally exits the house and stands on the front lawn with everyone else. He is calm, but not excited. He knows how close and messy this could get. It’s no secret, everyone’s looking at him. Jordy needs one more excellent score to take the lead from Kanoa.
0 minutes 13 seconds left.
Its an underwhelming, but beautiful sight. Kanoa paddles unhurriedly towards a static Jordy Smith. They shake hands, and it’s over.
The 91-yard Hail Mary has been caught, with no one threatening to tackle the wide receiver on his way to the end zone. With no fanfare, Jordy Smith has raised the white flag to end the war.
Kanoa has done it. Zeke begins his celebration with a singular whistle. It’s Leo who throws his hands triumphantly in the air screaming like it was him who had beat the odds, not Zeke and Kanoa. Lau runs to the front of the lawn, his whistles making it all the way to Kanoa in the water, waving his hands to show how thankful he is.
This was hard fought. Kanoa made it rain diamonds, the pressure put on by having his teammate join him proving to be the most vital in the world.
He changed histories with 0 minutes and 13 seconds on the clock.
It is a symbolic number by all means.
0- Between Kanoa, Zeke, and Leo, none of them made the CT for 2015, and ironically, the trio was not the inseparable force the would become.
1- Kanoa. He made it in for 2016. But glory is bittersweet when spent alone.
3- The CT in 2017. Leonardo Fioravanti, The Gladiator, Kanoa Igarashi, The Playmaker, and Zeke Lau, The Prodigal Son.
Without each other there’s a large chance none of them would be there. The young men are made of Shakespearian words, their styles and their bond poetic and epic in nature. The sports history books may not write them in. But that would be a literary mistake.
So here it is. The story of friends who succeeded admirably and with the pure spirit of one another leading the way. God help the waves of 2017, Fioravanti, Igarashi, and Lau will be here to stay.
Zero. One. Three.