Caio Ibelli Awarded WSL Men’s Rookie of the Year

Why this Brazilian freshman was 2016’s fastest learner

By Ben Mondy
Caio Ibelli was on the beach nursing fresh stitches in his hand while watching his girlfriend Alessa Quizon rip the tar out of user-friendly North Shore conditions when the WSL called the Brazilian to confirm that he’d been awarded the 2016 Men’s Rookie of the Year.

“I never got any barrels in my heat, then went for a freesurf and tried to force it at Off-the-Wall,” Ibelli told Surfline. “I broke my board, got three stitches in my hand, so now I’m gonna have to chill. I would’ve loved to perform at Pipe, but I’m still so stoked to get the Rookie of the Year. It’s a big honor.”

The 26-year-old joins a prestigious list of previous winners that includes John John Florence, Julian Wilson, Owen Wright, Dane Reynolds, Nat Young and Italo Ferreira. It’s a select group, and one of the best indicators of future success in all of surfing. All these former rookies have gone on to have fantastic surf careers, and some have progressed to the very top of the sport.Of course, Florence stands out in that list, and it was Ibelli’s match-ups with the new World Champ that gave him such a strong start on the Australia leg. “I beat John John at Bells, which was amazing,” he said. “Then I did it again at Margaret River, which was unbelievable. Those were the two highlight heats of the year for me, for sure.”

Ibelli is known for his careful preparation and professionalism, and the key to his success was that, of all the rookies, he adjusted more quickly to the blast of new experiences, waves and competition on the CT. “It was a good learning year, and I think I absorbed as much as I could out of all the experiences I had,” he said. “I feel I now have a better base for next year, boards especially, but also how to carry myself at each stop of the Tour.”

Ibelli’s approach, both in and out of the water, earned him some hefty respect from his peers, some of whom happen to be the greatest surfers of all time. “He’s one of those guys that’s just got that magic dial-a-bomb, wave-magnet thing, and he has the full spectrum of maneuvers,” Kelly Slater said of Ibelli.  “And he builds a heat well, so he can put any opponent on the back foot.”

While fellow rookies Stuart Kennedy, Conner Coffin and Jack Freestone each dropped one huge result in 2016, Ibelli was more consistent, backing up his Oz leg with solid results in Europe. By his own admission, he found Fiji and Tahiti the most difficult, his lack of experience in those lineups resulting in his only second-round losses. He was also getting his head around his equipment, an issue that is a rookie’s lesser-known but biggest challenge. “I’d bring a lot of new boards to each event and the hardest thing I found was testing boards at new waves,” Ibelli said. “This year, having learned so much about my boards and fins, I want to have them dialed in for next year. Rocking up to each event I want less questions and more answers.”

For now, though, Ibelli has a bit of downtime before he focuses on 2017. He just changed his ticket to stay in Hawaii for ten more days to catch the next run of swell. Then it’s back to his home base in California for a snowboarding trip before he leaves for Bali for ten days, which he’ll spend kitesurfing, diving… all the activities he misses while on Tour.

“By the end of January, I’ll be ready to focus totally on preparation for next year,” he finished. “I’ll be training five days a week, working on my boards and surfing as much as I can. I want to be ready and I want to improve.”

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