Brazil's Aerial Threat

Ryan Craig

Two years ago, John John Florence made a statement when he won the Rio Pro with his high-flying approach. Coming off of a good result at Bells Beach last month, the sky is the limit.

No one goes on surf trips to Brazil. Brazilian surfers usually leave their native land when they want to score. There's some pretty islands in the north called Fernando de Noronha that have good waves, but the Brazilian mainland does not contain anything resembling J-Bay, Cloudbreak or Macaronis.

The thousands of miles of praias along the Brazilian coast and the millions of surfistas that ride the less-than-perfect surf along them every day have adapted to suit their environs. This young crew takes to the air at an alarming rate. This new breed of Brazilian surfer soars above the lip with height, projection and rotation. ASP World Tour surfers Gabriel Medina, Miguel Pupo, and Felipe Toledo rank among three of the top aerialists in the world. And up-and-coming teenagers like Yago Dora and Victor Bernardo are nipping at their heels -- which are sore from landing so many tweaked out slobs, stale fishes and alley-oops.

When the Billabong Rio Pro gets underway this week, expect to see the native talent flying in the shadow of the famous Christ the Redeemer statue, which towers on the mountaintop high above the iconic Brazilian city. While the South American crew does not have a lock on the event -- the last two winners of it were South African Jordy Smith and Hawaiian John John Florence -- local surfers definitely have an advantage in the shifty, ever-changing lineup.

More about performance and gritty competitions, the waves have never been the stars of the show. You never hear people say, "Remember that year when it was so epic in Rio" the way they do for contests in Fiji, Tahiti, or Hawaii. Most of the chatter around the tour this time of year is focused on the Brazilian women's rendition of the "bathing suit," frothing, unforgiving crowds, crime, and crazy nightlife. Shane Dorian was held up at gunpoint when he was on tour. A few years back, Margaret River Pro winner Michel Bourez narrowly escaped a kidnapping incident. Kelly Slater, who gets absolutely mobbed on the beach, spends most of his time at the event in his hotel room and has opted to skip Brazilian contests whenever possible, even when world titles have been on the line.

While there's nothing dreamy about the waves in Rio, and it can be even sketchier on land, the action in the water is exciting to watch. Last year, Toledo stomped two of the highest and cleanest airs ever in competition on the same wave (but received far less fan fair than the air John John Florence stuck in Bali or Julian Wilson's punt in Portugal). Florence, Smith, and Medina have all rode out of memorable airs there in recent years too.

More than usual, the judging will be heavily scrutinized. The "floater-gate" controversy from Rio 2011, which saw Adriano DeSouza's backside floater score higher than Owen Wright's slob air reverse, still haunts the panel. Therefore, it will be interesting to see how the judges score the waves in Brazil. Medina, Michel Bourez, and Mick Fanning won the first three events at Snapper Rocks, Margaret River and Bells Beach, respectively, by utilizing open-faced, carve-based approaches. While a few heats at Margarets and Bells featured some crazy airs from Yadin Nicol, Medina, Florence, and Wilson, we haven't seen anyone take to the skies this season and get rewarded with regularity.

Is this a sign that the judges are going backward instead of forward? After all, one of the most heatedly contentious decisions of 2013 happened in the final of the Quiksilver Pro France, where Fanning's turns in small, onshore beach break conditions were scored higher than Medina's full rotation airs. Fanning wouldn't have won his third world title if that decision had gone Medina's way. Hopefully the judges will realize that while turns and tubes are exciting in stellar surf, airs are where it's at when the waves are less than thrilling.

The forecast in Brazil this week is what you'd expect it to be -- head high and tricky. Look for the guys who know how to soar above the slop to shine.

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