Surfer John John Florence’s Very Wavy World
The best surfer on the planet is a 24-year-old from Hawaii named John John Florence. We visited the big-wave champ at his compound on Oahu’s North Shore before he flew to Australia to defend his world title. So was the surf king nervous? Nah, competition’s not really his thing.
John John's mom thinks he's gotten too famous. She's driving a 1963 blue-green Buick Electra 225 down an alley on Oahu's North Shore. One bare foot on the gas, one bare foot on the brake. “It's a real small community,” she says, gazing out the window. These days everyone knows who she and her family are. Her name is Alex Florence. She's very small. She's always tried to keep to herself. But “John's fame in the surf world has made it a little bit strange,” she says. She and her three sons have been here for years, in their own world. Now everywhere they go people are looking at them.
On a table in Florence's living room, a photograph of John John; his brothers, Ivan and Nathan; and his mother, Alex.
John John Florence has been at his house all morning, getting ready to leave for tour. First he got up and put stickers on his surfboards: the Hurley logo, near the front; wiggly green Monster Energy bars in the middle, next to the name of his longtime friend, the local guy who makes his boards, Jon Pyzel; and the Nixon logo, near the back. He is paid millions of dollars for this task, peeling and applying the logos of his sponsors, peeling and applying, throughout the long surf season. He stands shirtless on his deck, his torso the faded color of something left out in the sun. His blond hair, which seems perpetually doused in salt water, is curling into dense cotton balls on either side of his face. It's the kind of blond that almost makes you laugh, how pure the lack of color is.
Alex and John John Florence with Alex's 1963 Buick Electra 225.
Past John John's deck are five of surfing's most famous breaks—Log Cabins, Rockpiles, Off-the-Wall, Backdoor, Pipeline—lined up from left to right, a cathedral in motion. About a hundred yards down the beach from here, more or less opposite Pipeline, is the house where John John lived when he was a kid, and where Alex still lives, a little surf shack where they would occasionally charge other surfers to sleep on the floor in the living room. He'd wake up early, go surf with his friends, “and then you just put your backpack on and run across the street to school. Run back home. It was pretty funny. It was like, no shoes. That's school. Just trunks and a T-shirt. Come home and then go surfing again.” Then John John grew up and became the best surfer in the world.
Last year, after a decade's worth of “just losing, and losing, and losing, and losing,” John John won. First he won the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau, or the Eddie, a Waimea Bay event that is held only during conditions so specific and rare—the ocean's swell must exceed 20 feet, which it almost never does—that last year's competition was only the ninth since 1985, and the first in six years. Then John John won the World Surf League World Tour, the ten-month, 11-competition global series that is surfing's annual championship. After that, he flew back to Hawaii. When he landed, kids got the day off from school. They lined Kamehameha Highway at sunrise to cheer him home. He's got a plaque “presented on behalf of the North Shore community and the people of the nation of Hawai'i,” celebrating 2016 as the year John John established his place “among the greatest Hawai'ian surfers in the history of modern surfing.” John John Florence is 24 years old.
I would encourage you to watch his win at the Eddie. I don't know much about surfing, but you don't really need to in order to appreciate it. I'm going to estimate that the wave in question, the one he caught, was about five times his height. Maybe three or four stories tall. So big it's actually disorienting to see a human in the same frame—your first reaction is that something has gone badly wrong. John John is on a ten-and-a-half-foot neon green gun, the longer board that surfers use in big waves. What he does is get up on his board, near the top of the wave. He stands and then falls. The wave shrugs him forward and he and his board are in free fall, straight down through maybe 20 feet of empty air, as the ocean masses even taller behind him, John John plummeting back down toward earth. And then, somehow, he lands. Softly, gently even. Still on the wave, just as it breaks right over him. For a moment he actually disappears. Entirely overtaken by white water. But in time John John emerges, still atop his board. Upright. Alive.
Florence surfs a big wave at Pipeline on the North Shore.
For years—long before he'd consistently won anything—he'd been recognized as the best surfer alive, in the way that fundamentally non-competitive sports can recognize ability that has little to do with what happens during arbitrarily judged intervals on arbitrarily chosen waves. Losing even added to the myth: Some of his peers said he hadn't won because he didn't really want to. (The actual truth, according to John John, was very different: For a while, he was having so much trouble coping with the losses that he couldn't win. “I had to learn how to lose,” he says. After that, the victories came easy.) He surfed his first Vans Triple Crown at 13 years of age, the youngest surfer ever to compete. There are hours and hours of footage of him as a boy, angelic and blond and unbothered, surfing the North Shore—because even then people knew that whatever he was, as unformed as he was, what he was doing was rare and maybe without precedent. So they pointed cameras at him.
Still, winning changed things, in a way that John John and his family are still reckoning with. He'll be just a hundred feet from his house and draw a crowd. For example: This morning, after stickering up and then waxing his boards, he carries them out onto the beach. He's been surfing the same boards—a sleek, slim model Pyzel calls the Bastard—for the past three years, but today he's trying out a couple of new Pyzel designs. Trying to find that magic one, as Ross, a sardonic, powerfully built former professional surfer who is presently coaching John John, explains to me. It's maybe the worst surf day of the whole season—it's been raining, and today the waves are small and muddy, and John John, now charging in, is pretty much the only surfer out. Stitching up and down these little waves. And people just sort of gather. Not a ton—there aren't really a ton of people up here, period—but first a couple and then a couple more until it's up around 12 or 13 people, just sort of watching. Later, John John will tell me that he noticed this, spectators arriving one by one, sitting casually in the sand, or standing up on the rocks above the beach. “It definitely gets in my head, like, ‘Why is everyone watching me right now?’ ”
Florence on the beach in front of his house with a Jon Pyzel-designed surfboard
Plus there is us: me, Ross, Eric, a rangy guy with a kind face and a thoroughly easygoing vibe who films John John when he surfs, and Spencer, blond and anxious, who helps manage John John's increasingly complex life and schedule. John John's just a guy surfing, but there's also the camera, and a growing crowd. He's got his house—a sprawling, modern compound he bought last year—right here on the beach, but also another house, wooden and low-slung, where he used to live and where I'm staying, and then another house next door to that one, with a darkroom and a film-editing lab and another guest cottage. He's got a guy who logs the film Eric shoots, Connor, who has long hair and a fuzzy little mustache and looks a little bit like James Franco. He's got two younger brothers, Ivan and Nathan, both of whom are also professional surfers, one of whom lives with John John. He's got this modest little life, the same one he's always had, here on Hawaii's North Shore, and then this other larger, surreal life in the world out there, the one that's just begun and is getting bigger all the time.
On the North Shore everyone's a local, but most of the locals are from somewhere else. John John was born here but Alex is from New Jersey. Spencer came here by way of Costa Rica. Ross is from Ohio and moved here when he was 5. “Funny how life works,” he says. “I would've been a welder.” There are a couple of hotels, but most of the North Shore, 40 miles north of Honolulu, has the slightly feral vibe of surf communities the world over. There are dudes at the supermarket barefoot, and chickens wandering the parking lot outside. Owls dive around the roads at twilight.
Everyone talks in that slightly fried, cheerfully bored way. They wear long shorts and shoes they can shrug off. The words they use are Hawaiian words, or surf words, or just general *duuuude-*like sounds of enthusiasm and affirmation. Women you grew up around are aunties, men uncles. Surfboards have good pickup, or they have flow; they pop. Sometimes they bottom out. On the beach, Ross tries to persuade John John to surf a different spot, where the water is clearer and the waves bigger, but John John says that spot is sharky—meaning somewhere between sketchy and actually full of sharks. He paddles out in front of his house, under an actual rainbow, just now emerging from the dissipating clouds, and is up almost immediately.
In his surf films—2015's View from a Blue Moon, say, which is often hailed by people who know more than I do about surf films as one of the best surf films ever made—you can watch John John on all sorts of waves. He is spaghetti-legged, moldable—limbs occupy space your eye can't quite believe they're occupying. He has a way of surfing dangerous breaks like he's almost distracted: He'll be mid-pipe, a wave closing in all around him, and the camera will find him just sort of moving his arms around in boredom, like a placid newborn. He has the elite athlete's ability to almost reverse time, in the way that basketball players can seem to hang in the air as long as they need to; he'll appear to briefly stop the wave, even roll it backward a bit, until he's done whatever he's doing with it.
On small waves like the ones in front of us, all this stuff is apparent but also mostly latent. It's like watching a person stretch, or do mindless exercise. There's a peaceful boring monotony to it. Just to John John's right, a pale unwitting vacationer points his giant Costco board into the waves. “He's potentially going to head-butt a rock,” Ross says neutrally.
Afterward, most of us ride over to the house John John owns down the road to watch the footage that Eric shot. The Lab, which is what they call the editing suite, turns out to be a room with a couple of washing machines, a flat-screen, a monitor, a laptop, and some stools and desk chairs. There are skateboards and camera equipment everywhere. Jon Pyzel is here, another sunburnt dude in shorts and flip-flops. He and Ross and John John play back the session from this morning, pausing to observe the way different boards behave. “This is the new one,” John John tells Pyzel, nodding at the screen. He says it needs a name.
“That's the Moneymaker,” Pyzel says. “Make some money with that one, dude.” (A few weeks later, they'll settle on an official name: Voyager 1.)
“It's got some good flow,” Ross says.
“Really lively,” John John says. He's leaning back in a chair, his bare feet up on a workbench.
Surfers, even pro surfers, tend to be solitary animals. But John John keeps a lot of people around him. “I'm fortunate enough to be in a position where I can have a big team,” he says later. “I don't have to worry about anything but going surfing.”
He pauses. He would not want to be seen as entitled, or a diva. It's just—“Some people have a little pride in being by themselves. Like, ‘No, I'm by myself!’ But I think if you just take all that away and just be like, ‘Okay, I do need help here, and I need help here, and I need help here so I can be my best at this.’ That's how I see it. And it's been working out.”
A lot of people around the North Shore are invested in his success, and all day they come and go from the main house. At one point, I meet another “uncle,” Pete, who was John John's neighbor growing up. Pete's face is so sun-weathered that it's got white dots on it. He describes himself to me as John John's “head adviser.” I ask if he ever travels with John John.
“Me? No,” Pete says. Like most people from the North Shore, he takes great pride in staying right here.
He nods over at John John, who in two days will leave for the beginning of this year's tour, in Australia.
“For a surfer, he's gotten quite ambitious,” Pete says.
Alex is in the kitchen of John John's house, wearing a shirt with a bald eagle on it and cutoffs. “I have this photo that kind of spells out everything,” she says to me. She scrolls through her phone, trying to find it. She's talking about what it was like, being a single mom, trying to raise three boys. She shows me a washed-out shot of Ivan, her youngest son, peering out from the backseat of a white 1953 Pontiac. “I never had the money for the good ones, but we always had cool cars,” she says. “We were always broken down on the side of the road.”
She finds another photo. “These are my parents now,” she says: a handsome older man and a handsome older woman, the man's hair slickly parted. He's on crutches, and wearing a black Thrasher sweatshirt. “My dad looks like Johnny Cash,” Alex says—and he does, a little. “He still dyes his hair.” They were good parents, she says. She grew up in Jersey with a bunch of surf kids, watching surf movies. At 15 or 16, she left home. “My parents drove me to the airport.” She went to Hawaii, and then all over the world, and then back to Hawaii.
She scrolls further down, shows me a photo of her and her boys skateboarding in someone's backyard. She's the one who taught them how to skate and how to surf. “This is just so you have an idea of who they are,” she says to me. Their expressions are serene and full of concentration. “I like to think they're punk rock on the inside and jocks on the outside,” Alex says.
She gestures toward the walls of John John's clean, sleek kitchen. “I don't know if it's because we were poor or what, but he likes modern-day things a lot.”
When they were young, she says, “I brought them everywhere. I got divorced pretty soon after we had the last one. I'd only been married five and half years.”
She was married to a man named John L. Florence. An unhappy story, though I know this more from his account than hers. In 2014, he self-published a memoir, F.E.A.R., with two explanatory subtitles: Fuck Everything and Run and Face Everything and Recover. Though he does not seem to have recovered at the time of writing. The book is disorganized and determinedly self-lacerating—a strange document of a guy listing all the ways in which he is terrible, and yet not quite believing any of them. He describes himself as an alcoholic, a criminal, and a thrill-seeker—“I am an ‘egomaniac with an insecurity complex,’ ” he writes—and questions whether early head injuries led to his lack of impulse control. In the book he tells of meeting Alex, whom he calls Surfer Girl, and their Bonnie and Clyde-style courtship. I will not repeat the demeaning, unverifiable details here. Suffice it to say the book ends shortly after John John's birth, with a present-day cry for help: “I sit here with an overwhelming sense of DOOM as I try and figure out how to pay for my DUI attorney. The attorney wants $15,000 dollars that I don't have. Here, at the end of the first part of my life story, I return to the beginning: I always have been and always will be doomed.”
When I ask John John about his father and namesake, this is what he says: “I spent a bit of time with him for a while before he moved, because he used to live in town. And then he remarried and had another kid. We have a half brother. Super nice. Yeah. Super cool. But they live on the East Coast now.”
Do you guys have a relationship?
“Yeah. It's good.”
This is maybe not the entire case, but I understand. His options here, in front of a reporter, are not great. Especially once I bring up the memoir.
“I have no idea,” John John says. He's visibly uncomfortable. “I haven't even seen it.”
It's called ‘F.E.A.R.’
So you haven't read it?
It depicts a guy in a tough spot.
“Yeah. He's in a funny situation. But just, my relationship with him is good and whatnot. But I've just kind of grown into myself and focused on my own thing, you know? I'm pretty comfortable and happy with how my life has gone.” I believe him. John John and Alex and their family are far from the first to take shelter from the world here, on the North Shore, and to build something purer in its stead.
John John wants to check on his bees. He's been keeping a hive right outside the Lab. Even in his leisure time he can't help but do things that are a little scary. For a while, he was taking flying lessons. He loves to sail, maybe even more than he loves surfing; right now, in one of his garages, he's building a boat. To visit his bees he's got to put on a padded suit, in the Hawaiian sun, and shoes—which I otherwise never see him wear—and then, with a deep breath, he leans over the hive and pulls off the top. He gently removes the comb, stares at the bees crawling all over it from behind the mesh of his helmet. “I'm still learning a lot,” he says.
Like everything else with John John, the tableau is weirdly innocent—Edenic, even, with the bees and then the koi he keeps in the pond in front of a different house, and the garden he's been working on right over there, with radishes and lettuces and carrots. “You plant something and walk away and it just goes,” he says. Bees lazily trace a halo around him. And then, ever childlike, he leaves to take a nap.
Or maybe “childlike” is the wrong word—he is confident, and physically graceful, in a way most men I know will never quite be. But there's something stripped-down about his daily interactions with the world as I witness them. A determined uncomplicatedness. “Living in the moment and being present,” as John John describes it, a few hours later, after he's woken up. He knows this is the kind of thing surfers solemnly tell reporters. “That's such a common saying: Just be present, live in the moment. But there's actually really something to it when you really start to learn it.”
Ironically, he says, it was through competing that he finally learned how to do this. How to find his way back to the simple basic joy of surfing. “You could be going into a heat and be flustered that something happened to you before the heat, and you have to reset yourself and get back into that, just thinking about that moment in time and just about that heat. And then you can bring that back into everyday life.” When he really realized that, embraced it—that's when he started winning. Shrug off the losses. Just be present. “You're right there, and you're not thinking about anything else. Competing, you learn how to switch it on and switch it off.”
You have to have a weird brain to do what he does. It's a carefree profession that routinely kills people who practice it. John John has memories going back forever of seeing guys die surfing Pipeline. He's broken his ankle. He broke his back—“fractured my L3 and then compressed my L4.” He's torn all the ligaments in his left foot. I ask him about fear. I know it's a kind of unanswerable question but I ask anyway: What are the dynamics of it? When does it start, when does it stop? How do you contain it?
“Well, there's that balance of fear and that adrenaline you kind of get going. Once you get that adrenaline going, you're like, ‘I don't care about any of it.’ You're just going.”
I point out the window. Pipeline is right there.
You can see it. You have to reckon with the idea of grabbing a board and heading that way. Are you afraid in that moment?
“No. Not at all. Not in the slightest about going out. But more in the moment of ‘Oh shit, there's a big wave about to land on my head!’ ”
Where do you feel it when you feel it?
“In your stomach. You feel, like, nervous. You're like, ‘Okay, we're going to Jaws!’ ”—an infamously giant wave in Maui. “ ‘This is gonna be scary!’ You know, when you do the trip to Maui, the whole time you're like, ‘Okay…’ You're, like, feeling it all the way up until you get your first wave. Once you get your first wave, a lot of it kind of goes.”
I don't surf, I say to John John. So I'm wondering: What's a perfect day? All of us are like drug addicts, really, whatever it is we do—there is that one, golden experience, and then there is all the time we spend trying to get back to it. What is that, for him?
“The best version of surfing is not competing, I think. It's just…it's perfect. You're perfectly present. You're perfectly in the moment. You're perfectly not thinking about anything else in the world. You're just surfing. You're surfing away with your friends or your family, and that's it. You're just there.”
And how often is it perfect?
“Depends, I guess, on the person.”
We're talking about you!
“For me…for me it's perfect a lot, actually.”
Zach Baron is GQ's staff writer.
This story appears in the Summer 2017 issue of GQ Style with the title “Wavy.”