Over His Head

A Pipeline prodigy makes—and rides—some very big waves

FROM THE LAND of Michelle Wie comes another teen phenom, holding his own against the biggest names in his sport: John John Florence, who grew up on the North Shore of Oahu, has been charging the hallowed waves of Pipeline since age eight. Now 13, he has dominated surfing's amateur ranks, winning four straight age-group national championships. And last fall, he became the youngest-ever competitor in the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing, a three-event series that marks the end of the pro season and concludes with the Pipeline Masters—at John John's favorite break.

SEEN NEXT: A short film about John John's life, directed by actor Owen Wilson, will make the film festival rounds this spring.

MAMA'S BOY: John John got into surfing by following his mother, Alexandra, 36, into the water. A single mom and pro longboarder, she introduced him and his two younger brothers to the sport as soon as they could walk. "My kids have always been my best friends," she says. "We have all kind of grown up together in our own little world here on the beach. John John's progression just seems natural to me."

BREADFRUIT WINNER: John John is a young man of few words, until he's asked to name his sponsors. "Let's see, O'Neill and Vans. Ummm, Dakine, Jack's Surf Shop, Spy, Future Fins, John Pyzel, SoBe, and Astrodeck. I think that's it." The income enables him to island-hop around Hawaii for surf contests and to help pay his family's way on exotic surf trips all over the world. Not bad for a guy who rides the bus to school.

WHAT BEGINNER'S LUCK? John John had a rough introduction to the Triple Crown. After choppy conditions knocked him out early in the first two events, he had high hopes for December's Pipeline Masters. But on the day of his four-man heat, the ocean turned ugly. In place of the predictable, peeling waves, John John found massive, haphazard chop. He wound up a very close third—the top two advanced—but could take solace in the fact that he finished ahead of Shane Dorian, 33, one of the best Pipe surfers in the world.

SECOND OPINION: "He's a little unprecedented," says surfer/singer Jack Johnson, a North Shore native who's watched John John grow up at Pipeline. "He used to scare us being out there, but now we just watch him get incredibly deep tube rides. He's the real thing."

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