One afternoon in early December, Leonardo Fioravanti stands on the back deck of the Quiksilver House on Oahu and surveys the Banzai Pipeline—the most photographed and arguably most dangerous wave in the world. He bounces up and down like a boxer ready to enter the ring. “It’s pumping!” he yells into his cell phone. Kanoa Igarashi, another Quiksilver sponsored surfer, hastily waxes his board nearby.
“Are you wearing a [wetsuit] top?” Igarashi asks?
“No,” Fioravanti says. “It’s so hot, and if you get a big [camera] shot it looks way better.”
“Yeah,” Igarashi replies. “You also get way more wrecked if you hit the reef without one.”
Fioravanti, 18, doesn’t need the reminder. The four silver-dollar-sized scars on his lower back are ample proof of the consequences of surfing over Pipeline’s jagged, lava rock reef. On January 31, 2015, during his third round heat at the Volcom Pipe Pro, Fioravanti wiped out then got compressed against the reef. His body went numb. Everything went black. He got the wind knocked out of him.
“I have been injured before, but this was different,” Fioravanti says. “I have never experienced that much pain.”
Fioravanti managed to undo his leash and swim to the surface. He raised his hand for the water patrol. Within two minutes he was stabilized on a stretcher and carried off the beach. Over 7,500 miles and two oceans away in Hossegor, France, Fioravanti’s mother, Serena Martini, watched her son’s injury unfold on the live webcast. It was a little after midnight. She had just flown to France from Hawaii with Stephen Bell, Fioravanti’s stepfather and the global team manager for Quiksilver. Bell received a call. It was Kelly Slater, his good friend. Slater provided updates and then gave the phone to Fioravanti.
“I’m OK,” Martini remembers her son saying. She knew he wasn’t. She and Bell didn’t unpack their bags. They flew back to Hawaii that morning.
At Queens Hospital in Honolulu doctors diagnosed Fioravanti with a fractured L1 vertebra. They gave him a back brace and told him he wouldn’t need surgery. But eight days later when Fioravanti returned to France and met with a back specialist in Bordeaux, he found out the vertebra was not only fractured, but had tilted and would in fact require surgery. When Fioravanti recalls the news that if his vertebra had shifted an inch or two more he would have been paralyzed, his typically ebullient tone becomes subdued.
“I thought I might never surf again,” he says.
The injury was just the latest in a string of obstacles on Fioravanti’s journey to reach his dream: winning the World Surf League (WSL) world title. There are 486 surfers who have registered at least one point on the WSL Qualifying Series (QS) in 2016. Fioravanti is the only Italian on the list. Born in Rome, he grew up in the town of Cerveteri and learned to surf when he was four with the help of older his brother, Matteo. Italy is hardly a surfer’s paradise. Summer months are plagued by long flat spells, and even during the fall and winter waves are fleeting in the Mediterranean.
“It is like lightning in a bottle,” says Jason Baffa, who spent 108 days in Italy in 2012 filming for Bella Vita, which explores the country’s surfing culture and features Fioravanti. “You have to be in the right place at the right time and even then there are only waves for an hour or two.”
For Fioravanti, the meager conditions were not a deterrent, but rather served as motivation. When there were waves, his mother wrote him excuses to get out of school, and he’d surf until it was too dark to see. In the summer, he’d wait until around 6 p.m. when a ferry’s wake would create two to three waves.
“That was the highlight of my day,” Fioravanti says.
Still, he and his family realized that for him to get noticed, they would have to venture outside of Italy. The Fioravantis started spending summers in Hossegor (where Leo now lives with Martini and Bell) and entered contests all over Europe while Leo was still in grade school. After a junior contest in Portugal, Quiksilver offered him a sponsorship. He was nine. Soon, he was traveling to Hawaii, Australia, and Indonesia with big name riders like Slater, Jeremy Flores, and Dane Reynolds. When Fioravanti told other surfers he was from Italy, he always received the same response: “Are you sure there are waves there?” Although Fioravanti speaks five languages, he let his surfing answer those doubts. He was the European Junior Champion in 2013. The next year, his first on the QS, he finished 28th and was one result away from qualifying for the world tour. He appeared poised to reach his goal in 2015.
Then the injury happened.
After Fioravanti’s surgery on February 14th that required two titanium rods and four screws, Martini wanted to hug her son. She couldn’t. She was afraid she would hurt him. “He could move a little bit,” Martini says. “But he needed assistance with almost everything.” Helping Fioravanti into his brace was a two-person job.
In March, Fioravanti started his recovery at the Centre Européen de Rééducation du Sportif (CERS), one of the best rehabilitation centers for athletes in Europe. He trained seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. He got his brace off after six weeks, and had some added motivation. He could see the peeling waves at Capbreton outside the large glass windows of the gym.
“When you are that age you think you are indestructible,” Christiaan Bradley, Fioravanti’s shaper, says. “But after it was all taken away from him, he realized how much he needed surfing in his life. He went at it with all his effort.”
Bradley shaped Fioravanti a retro-style 6’0” single fin board, painted red, white, and green like the Italian flag, to help ease the transition back into the ocean. Fioravanti rode the board his first surf back, three and a half months after the injury. He still had the rods and screws in his back. On his first wave, Fioravanti threw up his hands and screamed…with joy. “I felt like I had won something,” he says. Five months later, after a second surgery in June to remove the hardware, after two-a-day surf sessions and yoga classes to regain his form and flexibility, he did win. He took first place in the ISA World Games U-18 Championship at Oceanside Pier in California.
But Hawaii and the Pipeline still loomed. Fioravanti’s first event this year? The Voclom Pipe Pro. Martini tried to dissuade her son from entering. “He listened but said he had to go [to Hawaii],” she says. “He said this is my life.”
“The North Shore is where you prove yourself in front of everyone,” Fioravanti says. “It is the place where you have to step up and show you can hang with the big boys.”
Although he put on a tough demeanor for his friends and family, Fioravanti confided that he was “little scared” and “not very confident” for his first surf back at Pipeline in November. Despite catching some of the standout waves of the winter, those worries persisted. The night before the Pipeline Pro, he could hear the waves pounding from his bunk bed in the Quiksilver house. Fioravanti tried to block out the recurring dream he’s had since the injury. He’s underwater and everything is black. He can’t move. He hits the reef and it shatters into a million pieces.
During his first heat, he displayed no fear. He caught the two best waves and won by 9.33 points.
“Leo always charges,” says Roberto D’Amico, Fioravanti’s friend and one of only the handful of other Italian pro surfers. “He is a gladiator.”
But during his third round heat, Fioravanti waited 12 minutes before he took off on a wave. It closed out. He couldn’t escape and slammed straightforward.
“Holy shit," Bradley thought watching the webcast. “He’s done it again.”
“It felt like déjà vu,” Fioravanti says. But this time, he didn’t hit the reef. This time his 6’10” board didn’t break. This time he swam to the surface and when water patrol jet ski approached, he didn’t wave his hand. Instead, he shook his head and said he was “all right.”
He paddled back out.