If you haven't noticed, professional surfing is in a rut. Primary sponsors Billabong and Quiksilver have undergone massive financial restructuring to prevent bankruptcy, and the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) has struggled to keep backers for its events. Scariest of all, the sport’s only consistent draw, 11-time world champion Kelly Slater, turns 41 in February and is winding down his storied career. All of which means that surfing is in need of some serious verve. Enter 20-year-old John John Florence, a North Shore wunderkind who’s been billed as the next Slater since he was in kindergarten—and whose time has finally arrived.
Age at which Florence became the youngest surfer ever to win the Triple Crown.
SKILLS: With his technical, skateboarding-influenced moves and years of training at Oahu’s famous Pipeline, Florence is equally adept on two-foot and 30-foot waves. “He has a crazy skill set,” says surf historian Matt Warshaw. “He can throw giant, complicated airs and go deep inside the biggest, meanest caves.”
PEDIGREE: Florence first surfed Pipeline at age six, scored a sponsorship at eight, and, at 13, became the youngest surfer to compete in the prestigious Vans Triple Crown of Surfing. In 2011, at 19, he became the youngest surfer ever to win that event.
ASCENSION: Last May, in the opening minutes of the Billabong Rio Pro—the third event in the ASP World Tour—Florence took off on a shoulder-high wave, pumped down the line twice, and casually launched a smooth 540 air, a skateboarding trick that only a handful of pro surfers can land. The move sealed his first World Tour victory and put him in the ASP title hunt, until he lost in a tough second round in the penultimate event, in Santa Cruz, California.
NEXT UP: Expect him to make another run at the top spot in 2013, beginning with March’s Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast, in Australia. “Hopefully, I’m on my way there,” he said in a 2011 interview, referring to his world-title aspirations. “But I’m having fun and I surf for a living, and that’s a dream in itself.”