The world of surfing has split attentions. Many of the best surfers are slugging it out in El Salvador, where the ISA Surf Games — an often overlooked international contest that is now required for anyone competing in the Tokyo Olympics, where surfing makes its debut — are underway. Meanwhile, the sport’s preeminent competition circuit, the World Surf League’s Championship Tour, is in full-on speculation mode after its months-long Australian leg has just wrapped, asking if any non-Brazilian can, at this point in the season, win the title. But ask John John Florence, arguably the U.S.’s best since Kelly Slater and recipient of his mantle, where his focus is, and Florence points to his knee, three weeks past major surgery and less than two months from the start of the Olympic Games.
“Body’s doing good,” Florence tells The Manual, his blonde hair a trademark mess but with clear eyes. “Once you get to this three-week mark, it just gets so much better every day.”
The swelling is down, the range of motion coming back. Just today he hopped back on his Peloton bike (Florence was announced as one of nine athletes sponsored by the company in April), and while his knee sounded like the Fourth of July, cracking and popping, he pushed through. “It felt good to get my legs moving like that,” he says.
If there’s anxiety about a looming date with History and Legacy via the Olympics, the 28-year-old doesn’t display it. Newcomers to the sport of surfing, including tens of millions this summer, will learn of Florence as a two-time WCT winner (2016 and 2017), which means that for two years he was the world’s best, proven in the best conditions at the world’s best beaches and reef breaks. But Florence was whispered about for decades prior to this accomplishment despite his relative youth. Growing up at the North Shore’s Banzai Pipeline, the sport’s legendary proving ground, he has come to dominate its sacred break in a way few have. Even more significant, with his championship wins he assumed the title of the U.S.’s best surfer, one which Slater, who dominated both American and world surfing over the course of decades, had laid claim. Slater, who continues to compete on the WCT in the geriatric age of 49, finished the third American in the 2019 WCT and, because of the Olympic’s small field size of 20 men and limit of two athletes per country, was relegated to first alternate. (California’s Kolohe Andino, currently coming off an ankle injury, it also representing the U.S.)
But on the day we talk surfing, we don’t speak of Slater. Instead, we talk of Florence’s own generation, his roots as a Hawaiian, and the people and places that influenced him. It’s obvious that the sport has changed from Slater’s Baywatch days (really), and few are a better example than Florence’s childhood neighbor and fellow Pipeline local Jamie O’Brien. O’Brien, 37, was Florence before Florence was Florence, regarded as Pipe wunderkind and, like Florence, won its preeminent contest, the Pipeline Masters. But O’Brien, despite competing occasionally, is now a successful YouTuber and “freesurfer,” the latter of which divorces one from the constraints of the contest system and jersey to pursue the best waves around the world or at home on demand. Even Florence’s younger brother, Nathan, has found success on the platform.
“I’m in Australia for three months at a time, event after event after event, and see [Nathan] in Tahiti, in Mexico, I get pretty jealous,” the elder Florence says. Surfers used to feature in films by Jack Johnson or Taylor Steele, their best waves distilled collections of two- or three-minute parts stitched together and screened at small theaters along the coasts. Glossy magazines also held sway, their near identical names — Surfer, Surfing, The Surfer’s Journal, etc. — obfuscating the various lenses used to view the sport’s facets. But today, it’s through the eyes of O’Brien and the younger Florence, along with several other Hawaiians and a few Haole boys, who draw both clicks and ad dollars. John John, not his peers, is the anachronism and the anomaly.
“In a way, it’s sad, because [social media] dilutes surfing and the creative side of it,” Florence says. “But I really like [that] it allows the freesurfers to have more control of their own destiny. They’ve made their own world, and it’s inspiring to see.”
Like with skateboarding, the Olympics are anathema to the freesurfing mindset. But skateboarding, which also makes its Games debut this summer, is a fitting parallel with a parallel American star: Nyjah Huston. Huston, 26, can go very, very big but, limited within the contest format, seems to rise to another level, achieving a blanket-like dominance. Florence has about the same edge in conversation as his counterpart: relaxed and unassuming, but certain. “Competing is fun,” he says. “It’s pretty cool to have that platform to push yourself mentally, physically, everything. It’s hard to replicate that in freesurifing. There is something really special about competing at the highest level in our sport.”
Of course, even without recovering from surgery, Florence would have his hands full with the Brazilian full-court press. While Florence stands out in his world-dominating runs in ’16 and ’17, three different Brazilians have won every other title since 2014, and one wouldn’t be out of line to say that the fiercest competition may just be making the Brazilian Olympic team, for which, like the U.S., there are only two spots. Add to this that in a similar fashion to Hawaiians dominating in larger surf, Brazzos seem specially built to excel in smaller and have an aggression to match. It’s with this mix that their team paddles out to a Japanese summertime beach break, which will likely be closer to their native conditions than North Shore Hawaii.
“It’s a different type of surfing,” Florence says. “Strength has so much to do with the small-wave stuff. You’re not just taking off on a wave and the wave’s pushing you as fast as you want to go. Between equipment and your strength, you have to generate your own speed and be in the right spots on the wave to keep the speed going.”
Time is not on his side — Florence admits that if everything with his rehab goes smoothly, the earliest he’ll be back in the water would be two weeks before he’d need to fly to Tokyo for the Games. When he’s able to surf again, it will be in California waters, not Hawaiian, so as to prepare for less-powerful waves that might mimic competition conditions. Still, he’s less worried about strategy than he is with inspiration. “I get inspired by the speed [the Brazilians] have, the technique they have in those little waves,” he says. “It takes a lot of work, but you work at it, and then, all of a sudden, you’re flying around and going really fast.”
And so, while the surfing world splits its attentions around the world, Florence is focused on his body. Soon he’ll be back in the water, testing out new equipment and selecting a final quiver of boards before boarding a plane to Japan. There, he’ll clash with the best of the world’s best. Each heat draw will see the stakes raised exponentially, and with a shaky knee, the results are far from certain.
But it has been literal decades that have brought Florence to this point, and if there’s a chief source of inspiration, it’s in his “older brother” O’Brien. Of O’Brien’s surfing, which just last year won him the coveted “Wave of the Winter” at Pipeline for a monster barrel that would have most of us shitting blood while looking over the ledge, he still remarks in awe. “There’s not even one split second of hesitation in it,” Florence says. “It’s like when you see someone in competition and he knows what he’s doing and he’s just on this path. He’s in this flow.”
“You have to have no hesitation,” he says, “and you have to have confidence.”
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