Despite winning back-to-back titles, John John Florence won't call himself the best surfer in th
From the time he was a child, people have expected great things from John John Florence.
Born and raised on the North Shore of Oahu, the 25-year-old Hawaiian, who first started surfing with his mother as a 6-month old, has always been seen as a prodigy — and one who could return Hawaii to the top of the sport after a long absence. Florence started surfing on the professional tour in 2011 and was quickly dubbed “The Next Kelly Slater.”
Since then, the surfing community has been waiting to anoint him with the “world’s best surfer” crown. From 2012-2015 Florence yo-yoed in the rankings, going from 4th to 10th to 3rd to 14th. It wasn’t until 2016 that Florence lived up to expectations with a world title win, a victory that lifted a huge burden off his shoulders.
WSL / STEVE SHERMAN
Now, he’s done it again. With a semifinal appearance at the 2017 Billibong Pipe Masters, Florence successfully defended his crown and became the first Hawaiian surfer since Andy Irons in 2004 to accomplish such a feat and the first surfer since Kelly Slater’s back-to-back victories in 2010 and 2011.
“It feels really good, but honestly it still hasn’t really sunk in yet,” Florence said on the phone from Oahu’s North Shore. “The first faces I saw when I won were my mom, my brothers. All of my good friends were kind of standing there. That was a huge plus.”
When he took the title in 2016, Florence was in Portugal, away from his closest family and friends. This year, the world title race came down to Pipeline. Pipe, as it’s commonly known, practically takes place in Florence’s back yard. It’s a wave he grew up surfing that’s almost in his DNA.
As the hometown favorite and the defending world champion, Florence only had to do well at the contest and beat his closest competitor, Gabriel Medina, to secure his No.1 world ranking. Rather than calm his nerves, hometown advantage only placed more pressure on him to perform.
“There was a little bit of pressure, a little bit more of expectations just because I was in the lead and it’s my home break, here at Pipe,” Florence said. “I’ve grown up surfing this wave. And so then there was a little bit of pressure and high expectations to perform.”
WSL / DAMIEN POULLENOT
To prepare, Florence used the lengthy break between his last event in Portugal and Pipe to mentally strengthen himself.
“I just spent every day working on my mind to get ready for that, to deal with that pressure,” he said. “Everybody deals with pressure a little differently and I think it was just figuring it all out. Last year I learned a lot about how to deal with the pressure, but I think this year I learned even more. It was pretty nerve wracking, coming up to it. I’d wake up somewhere and just be like, ‘OK, this is going to be a big deal,’ and then I’d kind of throw myself back to ground zero and be like, ‘No, this is going to be fun.'”
Known for his fearlessness, mental toughness and almost preternatural ability to read the waves, Florence says there’s a simple key to his success this year. Just lots of time in the water.
“When I’m surfing the most is when I feel the best in the ocean,” he said. “You get a connection with the ocean and you kind of know where to be, what the water is doing and what the waves are doing.”
It also helps that he entered 2017 knowing he had one title already in his career. For the kid that grew up on a surf board, being able to think less about competing and more about just surfing made the difference.
“I felt a lot more relaxed having won that first title already,” Florence said. “I learned a lot about the competitive side of surfing over this year, so I was able to go into my heats with a little more of an open mind. I’m just surfing how I wanted to surf, which was really fun. That was a really cool way for me to enjoy this year.”
WSL / TONY HEFF
In the end, French surfer Jeremy Flores eventually won Pipe Masters but Florence placed ahead of Medina, which was all he needed to secure his second world title. It also means that after a lifetime of pressure and expectations, he can relax a little bit. He’s not even close to catching Kelly Slater’s 11 world titles, but that doesn’t seem to be on his mind.
“I feel less pressure now,” he said. “After winning last year I felt less pressure this year and I feel even less now. I think I’ll be able to focus on just my surfing and not think about the competition so much.”
Despite his two back-to-back titles Florence doesn’t think of himself as the best surfer in the world.
“I don’t know about that,” he laughs. “That’s a hard one because everyone surfs so differently. There’s never any true or just one best surfer in the world. It’s just luck, I guess. You gotta be in the right spot at the right time for the right wave.”