[This feature originally appeared in our April 2017 Issue, “Evolution,” on newsstands and available for download now.]
When I called John Florence at his home on the North Shore of Oahu, he’d just stepped off his sailboat. He’d been decompressing from a year in the spotlight, which saw him hoisting trophies for his Eddie Invitational, Rio Pro, Portugal Pro, Haleiwa Pro, Triple Crown, and World Championship wins. But Florence’s definition of “decompressing” may be a little different from most. He’d been on a white-knuckle journey between Hawaiian Islands, getting rocked by strong winds and rough seas en route to Maui. “It was really fun to figure out,” said Florence, without a hint of sarcasm. It’s this same attitude that earned Florence all that silverware last year. He approached the 2016 season like an eager student, and even though most surf fans already viewed him as the best surfer in the world, Florence saw room for improvement everywhere. During our conversation, Florence explained how he put together the best competitive year of his life, and how a champion’s work is never really done.
The Eddie, the World Title, and the Triple Crown. No one had ever won all three in a year. Did it even occur to you that you could do that before this year?
No…well, growing up it was always my dream to win those things, but I never really thought about winning all three in the same year. The Eddie was the biggest shocker for me. I’d never competed in waves like that before, so I was really nervous before the event. I thought to myself, “OK, just catch a few waves and try to get through it.” My goal was just to survive, really [laughs]. To come out on top at the end of the day was pretty surreal. It’s everyone’s dream just to compete in that event, so to win it was just this “holy shit” moment. That will always be one of the best wins of my career.
You may not be as committed to big-wave surfing as some of the other Eddie invitees, but you’re not exactly green either. You’ve surfed Jaws and the outer reefs a lot, so bigger waves must be a focus for you, right?
Yeah, I like to put some energy into surfing big waves, but I’m definitely not trying to commit on the same level as guys like Billy [Kemper], Albee [Layer], Kai [Lenny], or Shane [Dorian], who are just soooo gnarly. They’re focused on taking big-wave surfing to another level, while I just enjoy it. It’s really fun for me because I don’t feel any pressure to do it well, and it’s such a different kind of surfing. Every big-wave session is a learning experience, and I always feel really good after I do it.
Seems like the whole year was a big learning experience for you. You used to be so hot and cold in competition, but last year it seemed like you flipped a switch.
A big part of it was that before last year, I really wanted to make a surf movie, which is why we did View From a Blue Moon. Once we finished it, I felt like I could really commit myself to the Tour, 100 percent. I had to tell myself, “I’m OK with missing swells, and not going on freesurf trips, and not thinking about filming.” But yeah, it all became a huge learning experience, because immersing yourself in competition is a whole different side of surfing. I didn’t set out thinking I was going to win the World Title. I was more like, “I’m gonna do everything I can to win it, but if it doesn’t happen this year, I’ll still be a better surfer and a better competitor.”
Where did the biggest lessons come from?
I had so much support from Bede Durbidge, who helped me with my heat surfing and contest tactics. I also learned a lot from just paying close attention when watching the other guys on Tour—how they surf heats, how they choose waves, and how they react in certain situations. But I also had to figure a lot of it out myself: how to handle different situations, how to keep my head in the right place, and how to make sure I was really enjoying it.
If you didn’t enjoy the process, you’d probably lose your mind over the course of a 9-month world title campaign.
Exactly. It’s a long season, and it would feel a lot longer if you weren’t able to have fun while you’re doing it. Even if you did manage to win a world title, but you’re stressed out the whole time and it ends up being the worst year of your life, was it even worth it? I’ve found that when you’re relaxed and enjoying the learning process instead of letting yourself get too frustrated, that’s when things start coming together.
Was there ever a time last year when it felt like it was all coming apart at the seams?
The beginning of the year was tough, when I lost early in those three events in Australia. To lose three close heats in a row at Snapper, Bells, and West Oz was pretty frustrating. But even when you don’t do well at places like that, you can’t get too down about it because the waves are so good—West Oz has some of my favorite waves in the world. But it is tough when you lose heats because of a really simple mistake, like choosing the wrong wave to go on, or a turn you didn’t finish that would have made the heat for you. It’s easy to get stuck replaying those moments in your head.
It seems like an interesting era on the World Tour right now. For the first time in a decade, it really feels like every event, and even the title, is up for grabs. Does it feel that way from your perspective?
Totally. I think everyone showed their true colors last year, starting with Wilko [Matt Wilkinson] winning those first two events, getting that huge lead on everyone. And we saw Jordy [Smith] come in at second, Gabriel [Medina] at third, and Kolohe [Andino] at fourth. The ratings look a lot different than they did just a few years ago. I think that shift has made it a pretty cool time to be a part of competitive surfing, but I also wouldn’t put it past Kelly [Slater] or Mick [Fanning] to be in future title races. Mick and Kelly are the two gnarliest competitors of all time, and probably will be until they decide they’re over the Tour. Mick showed up at J-Bay a year after getting attacked by a shark there and won the whole event—it doesn’t really get gnarlier than that. And with Kelly, who knows? He says he wants to put all his effort into another title, and he might just come back and win the first three events. It’s totally possible. That’s why you can’t even worry about those guys, because they’re going to do whatever they’re going to do. You have to focus on your own surfing, do your best, and hopefully come out on top in the end.
Looking at the guys in your age group, Medina is the only other person with a title, and everyone speculates about how there’s going to be a rivalry between you two. Is there any tension there?
Well, there’s tension between all the competitors, especially the guys who are locked in the world title race at the end of the year. One is going to win, and one is going to lose, and that’s always going to create a lot of tension. Kelly and Andy [Irons’] rivalry was probably deeper than Gabriel and mine will ever go, but you never know. Gabriel is an amazing surfer, and one of the best competitors on Tour, and I’m sure he wants more titles just like I do, so we’ll see where things are at in a few years.
What’s your relationship like with Kelly these days? Has he mentored you through this process of becoming a world champion and all the chaos that comes with that kind of spotlight?
I’ve known Kelly since I was really young, and he’s always given me little tidbits of advice here and there. The guy has a wealth of knowledge, and he’s been where I am now so many times in his career. But he’s still very competitive. A lot of the time we’ll be in a heat together, and on the outside he may be smiling and laughing and looking relaxed, but deep down he wants to win no matter what. That’s probably why he’ll sooner give me life advice than heat-surfing advice. I bet he’s got so many secrets and strategies that he just keeps to himself.
Even when you’re away from the Tour, it seems like you are constantly competing with your brothers and your friends. Who do you think pushes you the most?
Nathan [Florence], Koa [Rothman], Eli [Olson], Kiron [Jabour], and Ivan [Florence] are the guys that I surf with everyday, and they’re all pushing me constantly. Once Pipe gets 10 foot, those guys push me more than anyone else ever will. I see them take off on the craziest waves, and I’ll be stoked for them, but at the same time it’s hard not to feel like, “Dammit! Now I’ve gotta get a bigger one.” We’ll take turns, and when you’re up and there’s a 10-foot double up coming at you, you just have to go. Because I’ll see them paddling, and I know that if I don’t get it, they will. When it comes to airs, I think Albee and Matt [Meola] push me the hardest. Those guys are doing airs at the highest level, and Albee sends me clips almost daily where he’s sticking something, or getting close to sticking it, just taunting me. We all grew up together in Hawaii doing NSSA contests and everything, and now everyone is pushing the sport in all these different directions, and it’s cool for me to be able to tap into these different aspects of progression by surfing with these guys, be it big-wave surfing or airs or whatever. We have these friendly rivalries, and that’s how we pushed each other to surf Waimea or the outer reefs for the first time, or to try a certain air, and it keeps us surfing our best today.
Where are you guys at in the pecking order at Pipe these days? Does a world title let you cut ahead into the number one spot?
[Laughs.] We are definitely not in the number one spot. We’re out there a lot, so it probably looks like we get a lot of waves, but there are still a ton of guys ahead of us who deserve the best waves way more than we do. Jamie [O’Brien] is a good example of a guy who’s higher in the pecking order than me, and he likes to pull rank all the time. When he’s out there, I usually just wait until he comes in before I paddle out, because he’ll literally take a 3-foot left that he doesn’t even want just because he knows I want it. And he’ll laugh while he does it. Besides Jamie, you’ve also got guys like Makua [Rothman], Derek [Ho], Uncle Mike [Ho], Kala [Alexander], and the list goes on. But my friends and I aren’t at the bottom of the pecking order either, so it’s pretty insane being in that lineup and being able to get the waves that we do get.
It must have been a crazy experience for you to come back to Hawaii after winning the title, and arrive at that impromptu party at Ehukai. Did you have any idea what you were in for?
I had no idea. I got to the airport and my mom had put all these leis and signs on my car, and I thought that was going to be the extent of it. We started driving straight to the Sunset contest because my brother Nathan told me he was about to surf a heat, but I knew something was up once we got to the North Shore and started seeing all the signs and people. By the time we got to Ehukai, it was just insane. All my friends were there, and all the people I looked up to growing up, like Nathan [Fletcher], Kala, and Jamie. Plus there were about a million kids from my old school, Sunset Beach Elementary, just flooding the street. It was surreal.
It must have been pretty overwhelming to be standing in that sea of groms. Do you feel like having these kids look up to you adds a kind of pressure?
That moment was actually a big realization for me. I wouldn’t say that I feel any pressure having these kids looking up to me, but I do want to set a good example to them. I feel fortunate to have grown up in this place, and I’m stoked for these kids to get to do the same. It’s hard to explain, but I really hope that they see surfing the way I do. I love it so much, and I think things happen for you in surfing because you love it and not because you’re trying to make a career out of it or whatever. I hope that comes across to these kids, because they have this opportunity growing up in Hawaii to really enjoy the ocean, whether its through surfing, bodysurfing, sailing, or anything else. And with surfing, I’ve realized that the more fun you’re having, the more everything seems to fall into place.
So many things did fall into place for you this year, but one event you must still be itching to win is the Pipe Masters. How important is it for you to check that box eventually?
Yeah, growing up there, it’s obviously super important to me, but it’s also a tough one in terms of the pressure I put on myself. I think I got a bit too caught up in that this year, because you never know how the waves are going to be, or how a heat is going to go, and you kind of have to just go with the flow. Hopefully I win it one day, but if I don’t, it’s not the end of the world. I’ve had a lot of fun heats out there, and I don’t really want to get too caught up in whether I win that event or not.
That’s the funny thing about surf contests, right? Even if you’re the world’s best Pipe surfer, nothing is a sure thing when the horn sounds.
Exactly. The other guy might have two great waves come right to him, but you can’t catch a wave to save your life. And then you come in, and you’re just like, “Well, that was fun…” [laughs.] But that’s how competition has always been, and that’s how it will always be. You just have to do what you can with what the ocean gives you, and keep trying to better yourself.
[Title Photo: Frieden]