Nick Carroll: How Italo's Win Unveiled Itself, as Viewed From the Sand at Pipeline

20 Dec 2019 5 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Photo: WSL/Sloane

Photo: WSL/Sloane


THE LONGEST DAY OF THE YEAR – December 19, 2019, Pipeline, Oahu

At ten minutes to nine in the morning on finals day, Italo Ferreira comes jogging down Ke Nui road in the sunshine like it’s the most natural thing in the world. Italo is five feet five and a half inches tall. If he wins today, he’ll be the shortest world champ since my little brother.

Nobody is guarding him, there’s no entourage. Sargent, the amazingly unflappable, afro-clad man who carries Italo’s backup boards wherever he goes, is nowhere to be seen — just Italo, by himself, jogging, board under arm, shaking hands with the two or three people on the road.

The first heat is over, but everything feels relaxed, the narrative yet to tighten around this long day and its many players.

A little further down Ke Nui, Timmy Patterson, Italo’s shaper, is umming and ahhing with one of Italo’s crew. I ask Timmy if he’s tense. “No, not at all,” he says, the corner of his left eye twitching. “I’m pretty relaxed! He’s done his job, I’ve done my job.”

He tells me about Italo’s little 6’2”, about the extra tail rocker. Timmy demonstrates the effect, lifting his hand slightly to mimic the quick pump turn of a smaller day at Pipe. “Just gets you up a bit more,” he says.

The beach scene, like last week’s, is pretty chill. A couple of evenings ago Jack Freestone swam out to try to free a large log stuck in a crack on the Backdoor reef. The new swell, limp as it so far is, must have popped the log out of its hole, because it’s now marooned on the inside Gums sandbar. Five photographers have commissioned it as a viewing platform. Maybe 500 other people are camped out already, happy in the cool morning air.

The surf is worse than it looks on TV. It’s just too straight on. It’s not feeling the reef enough to form into wedges, and instead is just moving in and banging down in long, wobbly closeouts. Freestone, in the water, wins his heat with an off-the-lip.

The most active members of this crowd are all Brazilians. They do not try to blend in. They are wearing shirts with a lot of green, gold and blue, and stuff like “Masseo SDC, Servos de Cristo” and “Sicoob 10” written on them. The nation’s twin obsessions: Catholicism and soccer.

“Medina!” shout 20 members of this crowd, and there he is, pulling a shorty spring over his head and running down the corridor.

Gabriel Medina is over six feet tall, and all of it is purpose. But his first heat goes almost nowhere for a long time. In the water with him is Caio Ibelli, the surfer who got him on a priority interference two months ago in Portugal, and Gabriel is winning the heat with a total of less than 5. It strikes me that today may be way more about tactics than anyone woulda thought.

The heat is nearly over when Caio, with priority, turns for a wave he hopes will provide a score, and Gabriel just square drops in on him. 

The crowd can’t believe it. I look over at Ryan Fletcher, Rip Curl’s long-suffering pit boss. “What…the…F**K!” Ryan mouths. “Is the kid colour blind?”

But then Gabriel just catches a little wave and comes in grinning, and the sheer ruthless, terrifying genius of the move begins to dawn on us.

A priority interference means you lose your low score from your total. But here, Gabriel’s low score meant nothing. His high score alone would win the heat. All he had to do was make sure Caio couldn’t get a score over 4-plus. So, what the hell, drop in.

No doubt also coloured by their last heat in Portugal, and that priority interference, which totally was not what the hell. It’s as if Gabriel has said to Caio and everyone, “Yes I know the priority rule, and I’m going to show you exactly what it means.”

But my god, who thinks like that? That fast? This move had never been done before. It could have been, back in 2013, when Mick Fanning needed a 9-plus to win a world title, and Yadin Nicol had him on a single wave. Yadin didn’t do it; he didn’t think of it. Only one surfer did. That surfer ran up to Yadin the next day and said, “You coulda done this!” and mapped it out. It was, guess who? Kelly.

“It would have been such a dick move,” says Yadin, who is up in the Hurley house, watching this fandango.

“We knew!” says one of the Brazilian group with the “Servo de Cristo” line written on their shirts. “Added it in his head! Could not lose!” 

I ask the group who they’d rather see win, Gabriel or Italo, but they don’t quite understand. They smile and shake my hand, and not for the first time, I wish I knew Portuguese.

But now it’s 11am, and the texture and energy of this day has changed, intensified. It’s now way more interesting. Now it’s the People’s Champ versus the Sith Lord. Up in the tower, Mike Parsons is watching his boy Kolohe get to work, but his mind is also on this incredible shift. “Imagine what’s in Italo’s head,” he says. “He’s seen that and thought, maybe I’m the world champ. But actually then he realises Gabby’s the Terminator! He will not stop until he kills me!”

“Can’t somebody else kill him for me?!”

“No! He has to do it himself!”

Italo doesn’t look troubled. He walks out on to the tower, puts his little 6’2” down, and watches a couple of waves. He begins singing to himself, under his breath. Occasionally he claps his hands.


As he does this, the surf finally begins to kick a bit, the wind wafting around to an easterly trade, and a first set being discernibly from the west.

Italo turns and asks Sargent, who is there, expressionless as always, with his two backup boards, “What’s the time?” His girl answers. He makes this odd noise, a sort of huffing, like a little piglet, and walks down to face his second surf of the day.

Caio is in the WSL crew hutch, talking with Renato Hickel. Renato is shaking his head, and spreading his arms out, as if to say, “It’s over, bro! Nothing to do.”

Caio doesn’t want to lodge a protest, and the head judge has decided not to invoke the scary “unsportsmanlike conduct” rule, reasoning that nobody was actually injured in the process. This will be one of a couple of rules that will be re-visited in the off-season.

Kolohe loses to Michel, but he’s not wigging about it. His shot was gone anyway, and he’s a top five guy now. “Can’t complain,” he says.

I look around and back at the WSL crew hutch, and I can’t believe it, it’s Dirk Ziff! In the flesh! I look away to watch Italo lose priority to Yago Dora, look back, and Dirk has disappeared.

Italo doesn’t disappear. He gets the best wave and comprehensively shuts out Yago. His rhythm in this heat feels different, more controlled than in the past, but when he throws out a huge impossible air at the end of his best wave, I think of Chris Heffner, Billabong’s team guy, who is somewhere out there in the small sea of Italo tiedye shirts, quietly freaking out. Chris has been watching over Italo at some level for the past week, trying to strike a balance between letting Italo fly his freak flag high, and stopping him from doing some unfortunate damage to himself — Italo, who surfs better switch than 95% of surfers surf normal, who’ll skimboard a bodyboard into closed-out Off The Wall, who spent an hour and a half last Friday digging out the Waimea rivermouth with a shovel, basically on a dare from Jamie O’Brien. For fun.

“Whenever he does that, I wanna say to him, ‘Just wait! Just wait!’” Chris had said before this all commenced. Well, it’s too late now, man. It’s gonna work or it isn’t.

Kelly and Jack is just crap. The wind goes foul from the northeast, and the result is a lot of wipeouts. Jack gets a pretty good lead on the basis of two shady rides, but Kelly turns it with a left and a right in the last few minutes, bam.


Now the beach is really into it, Brazilians and all. Kelly is making them squeal. He comes in, has a drink of water,  and is accosted by a small boy. This is Bryan Surratt’s grandson, Dayan. Dayan is fanatical. He trains at Waimea Bay, doing underwater rock carries. He is four years old. “I sent you two good waves!” he says to Kelly.

“I wish you’d told me that before,” says Kelly. Then he says to Dayan, “Just four more good ones, that’s all I need.”

John Florence comes down for his heat with Gabriel. John was hoping not to surf another heat. He wants to qualify for the Olympics, but he doesn’t want to risk that knee. Now he’s already in against Gabriel, and who can pull out of that? John is clearly not in peak condition, but Gabriel really, really is. The heat, which in normal circumstances would be a monster, looks lopsided. The Terminator gets the day’s high score, so he can say one more thing, if he takes the day — he beat the guy who’d once, this year, looked unbeatable.

So the narrative tightens, like a wire pulled across skin, drawing the crowd into the early afternoon, toward Italo and Kelly.

The log from this morning is now half buried under sand and the photographers have abandoned it, rushing forward, trying to take position from each other, like the surfers.

I talk with a couple of Brazilian guys, both from Rio, one with a faded “Medina 01” shirt on his back. This was the shirt handed out willy-nilly to the fans back in 2014, Gabriel’s first year. Both these guys were in the crowd that day, and they’re backing Gabriel in this shit show. “More old style,” says the guy with the shirt.

The other guy, who is shirtless and wearing aviator sunglasses, says, “Brazilians only care about soccer. The news never has surfing — only soccer.”

Another says, “Every house in Brazil knows Gabriel Medina. My mom. My babysitter. He is for everyone. Italo is for surfers.”

They agree that today feels different, somehow less intense. The Brazilians are not one coherent mass, not yet. They are scattered up and down the beach, clumps of that green and gold amid the familiar flesh of a Pipeline crowd.

K and I is a fizzer. Italo gets a bomb and an OK one and gets Kelly in combo. I wonder, does it matter? Kelly has won his first Triple Crown since his GOAT year, 1998, when he first overtook the great Mark Richards’s total of four world titles in a row. So many people here recall that year, even though it’s 21 years ago now. Jodi Willmot, WSL Hawaii rep, remembers it because she went into labor with her first child on the second last day of the contest. Later Kelly sent her a fax — a fax! — saying, “I was pulling in when you were pushing him out.”

The Rio boys might like Gabriel, but when he runs down for his semifinal, the crowd gives him nothing. Scattered claps. Maybe they’re too busy watching Italo. Maybe they’ve turned on Gabriel. Italo comes in now, having beaten Kelly, looking tired. His girl looks happy, but rattled. Sargent doesn’t blink an eye.

Two things, that means. One is that Italo is in the final. The other is that JJF is in the Olympics. Sophie Goldschmidt gives him his WSL hurray flag, the cameras getting the shot. While this is happening, Medina misses a fantastic wave, a left that goes right underneath him. He’s tired, too.

He holds priority on Griffin Colapinto, who can’t quite finish him off. The event’s timing means he gets ten minutes’ break between the semi and the final.

Kelly comes in, looking hugely relieved and happy. Dayan runs up to him, and Kelly says, “We did it!”

“Can I have your jersey?” Dayan says.

“I’ll get you a jersey,” Kelly says. I never see if he does this or not.

The narrative is now tight as a drumskin. Gabriel versus Italo, world title, everything. And the final is done on the first wave.

It’s so obvious. The difference in energies. Italo and Gabriel juggle on the first wave. Gabriel thinks he’s jockeyed Italo off the wave. Italo just goes right. Squares it up unexpectedly off the base and gets a 7.75.

The surf is now fully switched on, peaking at eight to ten feet from the west. Gabriel goes way too deep, trying for a Hail Mary 10, straightens out instead and gets SMASHED. How many more of those does he have left in him?

Italo tries a couple, then, under priority, gets a sneaky barrel and pulls a full rotation off the end, a huge moment of energy. Bang bang, 7.73.

Gabriel sits outside, the tired Terminator. He uses priority but gets the wrong wave.

Now it’s all Italo, and the crowd finally goes mad.

Sargent wrestles a sponsor’s cap for Italo, is covered in champagne, and permits himself a small smile.

Shane Dorian is there. What did you really have to do with this, Shane? “Encouraging patience,” he says. “Working on catching the right waves, not too many of them. But…” and he makes a small dismissive gesture … “he’s the one in the water.” 

I see Dirk Ziff again, this time with a green leaf lei in hand, clearly intending to drape it around Italo’s neck. But Italo is surrounded by his friends and teammates, and Ziff, rather than force himself on the moment, just turns and walks away to a safe distance and shakes his head a little bit, as if to say, Nah, let him have this.

And there also suddenly is Timmy Patterson, who is almost crying, by the look. “I was just going back and forth,” he says, as Pat O’Connell gives him a hug. “This is the best thing ever.” Then he is dragged into the melee.


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