It’s been that type of 2016 for Leo..

Less than two years removed from breaking his back at Pipeline, he’s currently leading the QS rankings on the strength of three finals appearances (which likely means he’s locked down a spot on tour for 2017), and he’s also competed in two CT events as an injury replacement this year, even taking down Kelly Slater at Margaret River on his way to a quarterfinal finish.

Leo surfs with total and complete confidence. And he lives that way, too — which is reflected in the eyes of his peers. While he won Best Overall and Most Powerful in this year’s polls, he also took top honors in Biggest Ladykiller. Which makes sense. Leo is tall, handsome, olive-skinned and he’s Italy’s first and only professional surfer. Oh, and he also speaks five languages. Moments after I first met Leo during a night out in South Africa during the J-Bay Open last year I saw a girl literally drag him off the dance floor and out of the door.

During finals day at J-Bay this year I sat in the competitor’s area and watched as he moved between tour cliques like a chameleon, transcending crews and nationalities. One second he was cracking jokes with Medina in Portuguese and the next he was giving Kelly shit before his semi against Kerr. Which also makes sense. Aside from being born and raised in Italy, he’s also lived in France, Australia and California, and has spent more time everywhere than anywhere during the past five years.

On his last evening in South Africa, I sat down with Leo to find out how it feels to be voted the Best Overall Teenage surfer in the world by his peers.

Interview by Zander Morton

All photos by Timo unless otherwise noted

Best Overall! Congrats.

Thanks! I was really surprised when I got told that I had won, with how many good kids there are out there right now. Especially being Italian, and SURFING being an American magazine. But yeah, I’m super stoked that all my friends and competitors and rivals who I compete against and surf with actually voted for me, and it really means a lot to me. To have your peers vote for you is probably the biggest honor out there. I think it’s really cool that it wasn’t just the magazine choosing everything.

It was an interesting exercise for us. Two years ago when we did this issue Filipe had just qualified and his top spot for Best Overall was pretty black and white. But this year, it was tough to call. We thought maybe Kanoa would take it, being the only recent teen qualifier, but the people have spoken…

In the other magazine rankings I’ve always been mentioned in the Top 10. But I would never make Top 5 or Top 3 or ever win. So it’s always been a goal to win one of these things for me. But if I’m this good, it’s also because of Kanoa. And he’ll tell you the same thing. We’re best friends but we’re also so competitive. I know exactly how he surfs and I know him better than anyone. We’ll always be pushing each other to do the best surfing we can.

Speaking of pushing each other forward, in 10 years what do you think will be the biggest change in surfing?

In 2026 who knows what will happen. Kids that are 12 years old will be 22 and kids that are super young will be strong enough to be on tour. We’ll get so many more surfers thinking up so many different things — who knows what they’ll bring to the sport? I think in 10 years things like Kelly’s 540 will be pretty easy to do. But that said, if you put an Andy Irons or a Taj Burrow from 2006 onto the tour now they would still smoke guys, especially at J-Bay. Because a 6-foot wall will never change. As smooth and fast as you can surf, whether it’s 2006, 2016, 2026, that surfing will always be amazing.

Currently, who is your biggest inspiration?

Surfing-wise, I would say Kelly Slater. I’ve always looked up to Kelly for the things he’s done and for what he’s achieved. Also, Valentino Rossi in the world of Motor GP. What he’s achieved in that sport is similar to what Kelly has achieved in this sport. He’s broken all sorts of records, he’s smart, funny, and he’s Italian.

Speaking of Rossi, how much inspiration do you draw from other sports?

I love all sorts of sports, not just surfing. I watch tennis and play tennis, watch golf and play golf. I’ve been getting into the UFC a little bit lately, too. I don’t really follow every fight, but I enjoy the fighters’ strong personalities.

I definitely take what I learn from other sports and apply it to surfing. Golf has taught me to concentrate and stay calm. And I think back to that when I’m in a combo situation with five minutes to go in a heat. I think I’ve made a few extra heats because of what I’ve learned from golf and tennis.

How many languages do you speak?

Five. English, Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Both my parents are Italian, so that was my first language. But I traveled a lot growing up and when you’re young learning languages is very easy.

Being bilingual, what language do you think in?

[laughs] It kind of depends on who I’m around. Right now it’s English. When I’m at home with my mom, Italian. When I’m with French people, French. When you think about it, it seems like a really hard thing to do but I’m so used to it now.

Who is your biggest rival right now?

Kanoa. He’s one of my best friends but he has to be one of my biggest rivals. I want to be on tour so much, to be with him there, and that’s when we’re really going to keep pushing each other further.

Do you feel like the CT could benefit from more rivalries?

For sure, it was the best thing ever watching Andy and Kelly. Either you were an Andy guy or a Kelly guy. Half the people on the beach were going for Andy and half were going for Kelly, and you just don’t see that anymore.

When you first got sponsored, did you ever feel like the novelty Italian kid?

It probably started like that with Quiksilver when they first sponsored me. But then, when I started traveling and competing in Australia against the best surfers my age, and then I went to America and started winning events, I think people started realizing that I was more than just the “novelty Italian” pro surfer.

What is your biggest takeaway from traveling at such a young age?

Well, I’ve met so many people, experienced so many different cultures and learned so many different languages, all of which I never would have done if I actually went to school in Italy. It’s just always been a different life — I’m not a normal 18-year-old kid at all. A normal 18-year-old would have been going to school until this year, whereas I’ve been traveling basically nonstop since I was 12 years old. Now, wherever I go I feel like I’m at home. And the number of friends I have around this world already is crazy. It’s really unbelievable. And you know, school is very important, but if I had stayed in Italy going to school every day I wouldn’t be the surfer I am today.

Photo: Sherman

How would you describe the waves in Italy?

All the best waves are rock bottom — big stones kind of like at Trestles. But the best wave in Italy is in Sardinia, which is this little island off the mainland. Honestly, it has some really, really fun waves sometimes. If the waves were a bit more consistent I think I would always live in Italy.

People trip out that you’re a pro surfer from Italy, while people don’t seem that surprised that there are pro surfers like Kelly and the Hobgoods from Florida. But the surf in Florida sucks, too.

Exactly! [laughs] I was talking to Kelly and he was saying that he would go weeks and weeks without surfing growing up. And Italy is kind of the same thing. I get so many people asking, “Oh, you’re a good surfer, where are you from?” And I’ll say Italy. And they’ll say, “No way!” and then ask, “Where did you learn to surf?” And I’ll tell them, Italy! And people almost always respond with: “But there’s no waves in Italy!” They don’t get it.

When was your first trip to Hawaii? And when did you make the decision that you were going to push yourself at Pipe?

The first time I went to Hawaii I was 9. That was the year Quiksilver sponsored me. I wasn’t surfing Pipe back then, I was surfing rocky lefts and all those little spots, but I surfed Pipe for the first time when I was 12. Then, three years ago, when I was 15, I spent Christmas in Hawaii with my family. And during Christmas you get some days at Backdoor and Pipe with only about five guys out, which is pretty unbelievable. I remember I paddled out when it was a little messy and I got this Backdoor one that was super long and really deep, and it was a proper 6-footer. It was one of my first waves where I was like, “Wow, this is really amazing.” The feeling you get when you catch a bomb at Pipe is unbelievable. You can only feel that in surfing. Your heart is beating, you can’t see straight…I can never remember how my best Pipe tubes look, but I can remember how every one of them feels.

You’re only a year and a half removed from breaking your back out at Pipe. What was it like paddling back out there for the first time?

Oh my god, it was so hard. I paddled back out nearly a year to the day of my injury and on my first wave I ate shit and went straight over the falls and as it was happening I was thinking, “Holy moly, here we go again.”

Do you still have a titanium rod in your back?

They took it out. It was in there for four months and then they removed it once the vertebrae had fused. Which is better, because I still have good flexibility in my back. I’m still not 100 percent but it’s getting better every day.

You seem pretty realistic about your career and how you stack up against your peers. Do you have an ultimate goal?

The ultimate goal for any surfer that competes is the world title. But there are a lot of steps in getting there. Right now, my goal is just to qualify, and then I’ll reassess. Some guys are born with world-title talent and others have to work that much harder. Look at Adriano. He worked for it. He had to wake up earlier, he had to train harder, and he had to want it way more than everyone else, but he achieved it, and that was pretty unbelievable. To see that even if you don’t surf as well as some of the other guys, you can still reach that goal, that’s super inspiring. People forget, the “best” and the “best competitor” are not always the same thing. Not in any sport.

Let’s do a quick word association:

THE CT:

Barrels

GIRLS:

Boobies

SHARKS:

Teeth

ITALY:

Pizza

CALIFORNIA:

Girls

KELLY:

Bald head

PIPELINE:

Scary

SOCCER:

Francesco Totti

INSTAGRAM:

Looking for chicks

MUSIC:

Spotify

ART:

Da Vinci

TRAVEL:

Jet lag

Who is the most entertaining surfer in the world right now?

I love to watch Gabriel. The way Gabriel approaches a wave is different than anyone. If everyone is going in gear 5, he’s in gear 6. He’s going faster and hitting lips so much harder, and he’s an amazing barrel rider. When you watch his heats you know he’s going to do something crazy. Whether you put him out at J- Bay or Teahupo’o or Pipeline or Snapper, he’ll show his talent. I love to watch the way he approaches every wave.

Social media. Do you hate it or do you embrace it?

I like social media. I think it’s fully become a part of our lives. You know with Instagram, Facebook…you always have your phone in your hand and you’re always looking at it. I personally embrace it — I love Instagram and I love Snapchat because it’s with my friends and it’s a good way to keep in touch with everyone all around the world. You see what they’re up to and they see what you’re up to, every single day.

It’s certainly made it easier to maintain long-distance friendships.

It’s a good way to stay close to your friends. Ten years ago you would travel somewhere and hang out with a good friend and then you wouldn’t see or talk to him again for a whole year. Now, you can stay way closer to your friends all over the world.

Speaking of social media, you were also voted “Biggest Ladykiller” in the Peer Poll.

Really? [laughs] Nahhhhh…..

How do you approach that part of your life?

I think that comes from my brother — he can talk so easily to a girl. Even if he’s not the prettiest guy in the club, or the prettiest guy on the street, he will always get the hottest girl because he knows how to talk. I’ve learned from him and I’m not shy to talk to girls. I can talk, I have a lot of things to say [sly laugh].

And a lot of languages to talk in.

Lots of languages! I’m not a shy person, but I’ll always be myself. And if they like who I am, good. If they don’t like who I am, whatever, I’ll just get a big ol’ no. At least I tried. So many guys are really scared to talk to a girl and will be like, “Oh no, she’s way too pretty.” So I’ll just go talk to her. [laughs] I don’t have a girlfriend and I’ve never had a girlfriend. We travel too much to have girlfriends so I’ve never even considered it. I don’t know why at 18 years old you would want to be locked down. That’s just crazy. I’m trying to qualify; I’m trying to get on the CT to compete with the best surfers in the world. I want the least amount of things to think about and concentrate on, and I don’t want a girlfriend that I have to call. [laughs]

Freedom!

Yep! And once the contests are over it’s just natural to go out with your friends and party a little bit and you know…get some girls on the road. At 18 years old that’s exactly what I’m supposed to do. So if I’m a ladykiller, then so be it. [laughs]

Do you experiment much with your surfboards?

Not really. I pretty much only ride Bradleys. I have a really good relationship with Christiaan. I experiment with all kinds of different boards, but they’re all high-performance boards with different rockers. I have tried a couple of Varial boards and a couple of epoxy boards, especially in small waves, but I prefer normal polyester boards, and every now and then I’ll ride a single fin or twin fin and that’s actually really fun. I rode one before coming here to South Africa and I had so much fun. I was going so fast and I could actually do some turns, which is good to mix it up.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given to this point in your life?

That’s hard. I get so much great advice on the road. I think I’ve just made my own expectations to live up to. I chose this life with my family and they’ve put so much effort into helping me. My mom stopped working and was traveling with me for a long time. She left all of her friends and family at home, so it’s like, this isn’t a joke. So I guess what I’ve been told, and what I’ve learned, is that if you’re given a chance, take it, don’t half take it, fully take it and give it a good go and work at it. Work for what you want because you’re not going to get a second chance. Especially me, coming from Italy, with Quiksilver and Red Bull I was given some golden chances. So I definitely took them and worked hard for them and I won’t let them go.


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