You had to see this coming. First there was the tweet from Kelly congratulating John on his first World Tour win months before it actually happened. Then there was John’s string of incredible performances over the last year that saw him win heats, win events, and ride waves to near perfection. It was clear that it would only be a matter of time before John took to the podium on surfing’s biggest stage.
John’s strength comes from the heightened level of competitive and freesurfing that he started to reach two winters ago. That’s when the North Shore watched him drawing lines and looking at waves like only a few before him ever had. The topper: his ability to stay on that same line while completing every air variation imaginable with frightening consistency. The four-turns-on-a-wave routine of yesterday has evolved into a fin-ditch followed by a carving turn, then gaining speed for a big air and closing with a quick reverse off the whitewash for good measure—a far cry from the old “three to the beach” ethos.
With performances like that from the new generation, watching their heats on the World Tour is as good as any surf clips on the Internet. If Julian Wilson is in a heat, you know he’s going to put a number of highlights together and possibly do something you’ve never seen before. When John and Julian surfed in the no losers round, Julian came out with a lightning quick three-move backside combo that was the most technically difficult and precise ride I can remember in a heat. John came back from being in a combo with a few solid rides of his own to take the win and jump straight to the quarters. Julian won the next round, bringing the two best surfers of the event back together for a quarterfinal match-up. This time the roles were reversed, with John coming out firing. Julian never came back, and John rolled over the rest of the field, winning the Rio event with ease—as he should in waves that were nearly a mirror image of a fun day behind his house at Ehukai.
Looking at the rest of the schedule, I see a few things coming together—and, surely, so does Slater. There should be one hell of a title race between at least five contenders. Rio unfolded as perfectly as you could ask for if you like close title races, with Parko and Taj just escaping early round losses to stay in the mix and keep things interesting. But above all, one person is going to be an enormous threat when the title race comes to Pipeline in December. Slater has had his attention on this person for a while now, as he is the first challenger since A.I. that Kelly should be scared of. His name is John Florence, and he’s a bad man. John can win Fiji, Tahiti, and Pipe and nobody would blink an eye. Lowers, France, and Portugal are also potential victories for a surfer who can read a tube, draw a clean line through nearly any combo, and stay comfortably in the zone. Slater better have a few tricks left up his wizard sleeve if he is going to outpace the top three all-around performers: John Florence, Julian Wilson, and Josh Kerr. Kelly also has to keep an eye on the spot-specific result producers: Owen Wright, Michel Bourez, Jeremy Flores, Kolohe Andino, Ace Buchan, the Hobgoods, and Gabriel Medina. And finally, he can never count out the perennial contenders: Mick Fanning, Joel Parkinson, Taj Burrow, Adriano de Souza, and Jordy Smith.