When I find Jeremy Flores he's packing his bags on the first floor of an art deco rental house in San Clemente. His room is kind of a mess. It's the day after the finals at the Hurley Pro Trestles, and like the rest of the ASP circus, he's headed for Europe. A boardbag lays open at the foot of his bed, a MacBook Pro balanced on the side table, iTunes diligently shuffling through a playlist. A quiver of yet-to-be-ridden thrusters is the main obstacle in the room, the largest piece in a puzzle of luggage-vomit-chaos, and as he moves back and forth across the carpet, restacking and padding, it's clear Flores doesn't stay in one place much.
He's absent but efficient as he packs. He's talking but you can tell his mind is also processing where he's left what, what he needs to stuff into his bag next, and where that item might be. He's also a little hungover (it is the day after the finals, after all), and watching him wrestle with the room, force it from chaos into order, is simultaneously impressive and amusing.
"I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform in France," he says of the upcoming event, sliding a board around by its tail. "And every year I do shit there. Every year the European media--the magazines and newspapers--expect me to win because they don't know much about surfing. They hear that I'm the best European and that I'm in the Top 10, so they think I'm going to win. I have to tell them it's not like that."
By the time Flores has wound through this thought, he's managed to bring the room toward something that resembles a stopping point. His boards aren't zipped in yet, and there are still clothes everywhere, but you can see that the gears in his head have shifted. He's leaving for home the next day (he's been living in Capbreton full-time between trips for a few years) and seems relieved to be headed back there.
We walk out into the yard. The Pacific sits below us, beyond a retaining wall. It's sluggish, small, and glassy today, a marine layer threatening to burn off. Flores continues to talk about France, watching the ocean.
The fact that he's still thinking about his loss to Jadson Andre at Gravier last year says a lot about how much he'd like to do well there. The fact that he's already in his fifth year on Tour, however, may say more about his level of commitment to competition--and the kind of development he's undergone on the road.
Going from a skinny, teenaged, tail-flicker to a charger/man-hacker, he's learned to not only grow into his own identity, but also his own surfing, all while competing at a level that's kept him ranked in the Top 10 every year except for one since his rookie season. Now only 23, in the last 12 months alone, Flores has become a Pipe Master, an Eddie invitee, and proved that he's more than capable of charging Tahitian death pits.
In August, he surfed what he's calling the best waves of his life at a rarely seen reef pass during a huge south swell session that netted him the cover of this magazine. A few days before that, he won the Andy Irons Most Committed trophy and scored a perfect 20 during one the heaviest days of competition ever held at Teahupoo. Both performances, and his win at Pipe, have drawn the respect of his heroes and his peers.
"His confidence has grown as he's filled out," says Kelly Slater, who has traveled on and off with Flores as part of the Quiksilver team since Jeremy was a grommet. "I would say his strengths are determination, barrel riding, and charging. He's not scared to be the focus of attention when a big wave comes and he needs to flip around and go, and I think he showed everyone a lot at Teahupoo this year--a lot of things I'd already known about his ability. You can see he's improved in every area, and you can see he wants it badly. Not many guys his age have won an event on Tour, and none have won the Pipe contest."
It's obviously good to have your name attached to some of the world's most harrowing waves. The only problem for Flores is that for every recent high in his career, he's also run into corresponding lows. Over essentially the same time period, tracking backward a few months to before his victory at the Pipe Masters in December, his luck has fluctuated, the peaks and valleys coming one on top of the other.
The most frustrating part: None of the dips had anything to do with his surfing.
A Few Blogs, A Bad Knee
"Jeremy Flores Hates Children." Think about those four words for a second. If you've seen the video they were attached to, which was produced by Sterling Spencer for his blog, Pinch My Salt, and cut to make it seem like Flores refused to give some kid an autograph in Africa, they're likely to, at the very least, produce a smirk.
The fake voiceover. The kid's deflated body language. The grunting. The whining. Comedy.
Flores says he thought the clip was pretty funny too, until it went viral.
"My friend called me," he says, "and told me to check it out. At first I laughed. I didn't know it was going to go up on every website in the surf world and that there were people out there actually saying I hate children."
When I ask about what really happened on the beach, Flores laughs again. He also shakes his head in a you-won't-believe-this-shit type of a gesture.
"The kid didn't have a pen," he says. "He wanted an autograph. He was desperate for an autograph, but he didn't have a pen. So I told him, go get me a pen. But he was like, 'My mom, my dad, they are all the way back there.' And I was like, 'Go get the pen.' And he was like, 'But I want an autograph. And I was like, 'Then go get a pen, dude.' It was silly. But I had my sponsors calling me and telling me that I needed to be careful."
When Flores decided to try to explain himself, lashing out at Spencer on his own blog in the process, the impression most people were left with was that he couldn't take a joke. And even though within a week the collective eyes of the surf world had moved on to larger things (because who really cares about extended blog exchanges between pro surfers anyway?), Flores' mind remained on the incident. He was gutted by the public's reaction, which had ranged from mildly amused to the type of hate that only the Internet can produce. And then, to make matters worse, he turned up online again a few months later, this time involved in a fistfight in Australia that made whatever bad press and negative attention he had received from the Pinch My Salt video seem laughable, even to him.
The fight, which also included Sunny Garcia, Garcia's 16-year-old son, Stone, and a local surfer named Adam Clarke, took place in between heats at the Burleigh Breaka Pro in February and was caught on camera by the attending media. The mainstream Australian press also circulated the story widely, and the ASP suspended Garcia, who was eventually brought up on formal charges by local authorities after he was caught on tape choking Clarke, striking him in the face, and holding him underwater.
Flores, who was surfing with Garcia's son at the time, and who was also seen throwing punches, maintains his involvement went no further than defending his friend from Clarke, a claim that seems to be supported by eyewitness quotes in the press.
"I've been friends with the Garcia family for a long time," he says, "and I spent a lot of time at their house and Sunny has showed me a lot in Hawaii. So that year he came to Australia with Stone [Garcia's son] and they stayed at my house on the Gold Coast. What happened was me and Stone--and Stone is a beginner, he only stared surfing like a year ago--we paddled out and he got into a hassle with a local guy in the water. He was obviously on the guy's wave and...it's Burleigh Head. Everyone knows the locals in Burleigh Head are pretty gnarly. But even so, I'd never had any problem there. I've always got along really well with all of them. So, that's it. Next thing I know they were in a hassle and Stone's eyes were huge, and he looked pretty scared and I got in there and the guy didn't like it."
In the aftermath, Flores was also ejected from the Burleigh contest. Unlike Garcia, however, he was cleared to continue to surf in upcoming events, a decision by the ASP that kept him in the middle of the controversy.
Critics argued that Flores had received a slap on the wrist when he should have been genuinely reprimanded. Australians were understandably more-than-slightly pissed off about a pair of visiting pro surfers slugging it out with a local in the shorebreak, and the situation was compounded when Flores was forced to withdraw from the Snapper event a week later due to a knee injury. Interpreted by the blogosphere as a conspiracy (the sport's governing body protecting the image of its most-recent Pipe Master by removing him from the spotlight) the move caused the story, and criticisms directed at both Flores and the ASP, to continue to spin.
"I tore a ligament," Flores says about his knee as we sit down at a table in the corner of the yard, the sun finally creeping through the marine layer. "I was getting so many bad comments and everything was so negative at the time, and I felt like there was this image of me out there that's not my image. When you talk to doctors, they say when you have mental stress you can get hurt. That's what happened."
As we speak, Flores admits that part of what has always made him tick is a desire for more attention from the press. He argues that Europeans, like Brazilians, are often overlooked in favor of Americans and Australians--but now, he says, another part of him has obviously been conflicted with the results of his time in the media's crosshairs.
"It's tough," he says. "This stuff hurts me. I mean, after that Burleigh incident, I was sitting on the Internet looking at all the comments, and all the things people were saying about me. And I knew I shouldn't be doing that, but I looked and I hated that. It made me sad."
What's interesting, however, is that even now, instead of withdrawing from the public, Flores has continued to make his life an open book, in a digital sense, for those willing to look for it. His blog, Jeremy-flores.com, is more like a running diary than a launch pad for videos and photos. It's heavy on text, cluttered, and updated constantly with posts written in both French and English. The combined affect makes it feel far less manicured than other blogs maintained by pro surfers, which tend to project an image of the individuals behind them, a packaged persona that represents how they would like to be perceived, rather than who they really are. Adding to this impression is the fact that Flores doesn't just post updates when things are going well. Instead, the blog follows him up and down, which means you can essentially scroll through it and watch the highs and lows of his recent past, and read his reactions to incidents, both good and bad, as he typed them in the moment.
Obviously this can get messy. But because it's messy it's also human, and because it's human you get the full range of emotional layers that come along with that: Flores is angry. He's happy. He's nervous. He's humble. He complains. He mourns. He rehabs injuries. He celebrates Christmas. He responds to attacks with counter attacks, which sometimes make him seem petty. He thanks his friends and family for their support after victories. He apologizes for disappointing them when he knows he's fucked up.
Reading it, you have to wonder at first why he would want to be so much himself in public--especially if he doesn't seem to be completely comfortable with what the world has to say back. Then you have to admire this trait in his character.
"Sometimes I get comments from people around me who think I give away too much," he says. "But if I am sad, or something is upsetting me, I will say it. And if I get bad judging in a heat, I will say it. If I'm angry at someone, I will say it. Sometimes people take it the wrong way. Sometimes people love it. But I mean, a lot of people would say they don't give a shit what everyone thinks about them. But I do give a shit."
Two Islands, A Hotel Without Electricity, And A Bad Ankle
The thing about pro surfers, like anyone, is that if you hold them up to the light for long enough we're bound to see their flaws. Why we're even compelled to look in the first place is complicated, but part of the explanation, at least, seems to come back to the simple truth that they're easy targets.
They get paid to ride waves. They travel constantly. They tend to pull hot chicks. They don't have to get up in the morning and commute to the office, or suffer through a lot of the same mundane, soul-crushing routines as the rest of us, so when we sense dissatisfaction from any of them, we're already predisposed to write them off.
We like to watch for their weaknesses because we're jealous. But what we don't see all the time, in whatever bashing and judging that goes on in the process, is that some of them, a lot of them, actually, have worked toward their goals for longer and harder than we can imagine.
In Flores' case, one of the chief criticisms commonly directed at him is that he takes himself too seriously. After all, a few shitty blog posts and a run-in with some dude in the shorebreak in Australia are hardly the end of the world. But when you consider where he's come from, and what he has riding on his career, his sensitivity starts to make sense.
Born on Reunion Island, a French overseas départament in the Indian Ocean, Flores has been traveling and chasing a pro surf career since he was 10. Maybe even longer. At 6, he moved with his parents to a small, isolated town on the coast in Madagascar where his family ran a hotel. For four years, they bathed in buckets drawn from a well, fished, and surfed with the locals. At night, his father, who had traveled extensively--and who eventually became Flores' personal coach--would fire up a generator to watch surf movies, one of the few times they enjoyed the luxury of electricity each day.
"It was very simple," says Patrick Flores of this period with his son. "We would watch two videos--one of Kelly and one of Tom Curren. Kelly Slater In Black And White and Searching for Tom Curren. They accompanied Jeremy for years, and I remember I had to start the generator just to have electricity to watch them. We couldn't keep it on for long because we didn't have much gas, but he would work on his body gestures so they would be as close as possible to Tom's and Kelly's."
By 9, Flores had entered and won his first major pro junior, traveling from Madagascar to France, where he landed a contract with Quiksilver. "The first time I saw Jeremy was at Capbreton," says Pierre Agnes, the president of Quik Europe. "And when I saw that he was such a unique talent--because you never really saw surfers his age with such good technique and style--I went to see his dad and I told him that if Jeremy comes with us, we will make sure he reaches his full potential."
For the next seven years, Flores entered a feeder system to develop his talent, working closely with Quiksilver, and people like former World Champ Tom Carroll. With the end goal being a spot on the World Tour, he split his time between France, Reunion Island, and Australia, squeezing in surf trips with the rest of the Quik team, and attending home school as much as he could. Based in Sydney for six months each year, he competed on the intensely competitive pro junior circuit, honing his skills against the best young surfers in Australia.
By 17, he was on the WQS. A year later, he made the Tour. In the process, he realized the things he'd worked for are, and always have been, worth taking seriously--something that tends to happen when a person has spent the majority of their life focused on a single goal.
When I catch up with Flores to ask him about this time in his life, about two weeks have gone by since our conversation in California. His bags have been packed and unpacked again and he sounds distant on the phone from Europe. He also sounds more than a little dejected.
Forced to withdraw from the event in France, he's dealing with an ankle injury, another setback after his most-recent high in Tahiti, another disappointing result in one of the places he would like to win most.
The prospects of rehabilitation and physical therapy are on his mind, and we talk about this at first before moving on to his career, past and present, his years in Madagascar, Australia, and France, the toll of chasing the Tour, leaving his family behind in Reunion Island, building toward where he his now. He's still not sure exactly how bad his ankle is (he's scheduled for an MRI the next morning) but it's clear he's trying to stay positive, his outlook sliding back and forth between frustration and objectivity. Then, just as we're about to hang up, he says something that links all these topics together, suggesting he's realized his luck is always bound to change.
"My dad reminds me," he says, shifting the phone. "And my mom reminds me of where I grew up. Of how simple it was. Life wasn't easy there. The first time I came to France I felt really lost. I wouldn't talk to anyone. I mean, I would see electric windows in the car and be like, 'What the fuck is this?' It's hard to believe, but I remember the first time I was here, it was like going to a different world. It was crazy. So now when something like this happens, when I have an injury, or I get in a bad mood and it's really hard and I get angry, I just remember where I've come from. I remember how far I've come."