Is John John Florence Really the Best Surfer In the World?
The twenty-three-year-old makes millions of dollars a year, lives a stone's throw from Pipeline, and is the heir to Kelly Slater's throne. The question is: does he want it?
John John Florence is sitting on his oceanfront lanai with one of his two brothers and a couple of friends, searching the restive Pacific for signs of swell.
“You’d have no idea tomorrow’s going to be as huge as they say,” Florence says, watching the wind-tossed waves off Oahu’s North Shore. A nimbus of golden ringlets frames his face; the earnest sky blue eyes and sun-pinked nose are reminiscent of the baby pictures his mom likes to post on Instagram. At 23, he’s widely considered to be the best surfer in the world, even by Kelly Slater.
“It doesn’t even look like big energy out there,” says Koa Rothman, a pro surfer who grew up nearby.
“No way,” Florence agrees, shaking his head in disbelief.
According to family lore, Florence started surfing when he was six months old, standing up on a body board. By the age of six, he was sponsored by O’Neill. At 13, when he was only four-foot-eleven, he became the youngest surfer to compete in the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing.
Today he is six-foot-two and 170 pounds, with long limbs and a solid trunk. The square jaw anchoring his cherubic face gives him a look of quiet strength. His contract with Hurley, reportedly worth as much as $4 million annually, ranks him among the surf world’s top 1 percent of earners. He lives on 150 feet of prime oceanfront real estate, on which is aggregated the fruits of his talent: A beautifully renovated bungalow and guest house. A summer-camp collection of toys including a catamaran, a jet ski, and a dozen surfboards. A group of friends and trusted assistants enable his every wish.
Yet for a kid who has been called the next Slater since he was in grade school, Florence is a bit of an underachiever. While Slater won a world title at 20, as did Brazilian wunderkind Gabriel Medina two years ago, Florence has won only a handful of World Surf League contests. In 2015, he finished the year ranked a lowly 14th. He joined the tour in 2011, and the longer he’s there, the more pronounced and urgent the question becomes: How can he be the best surfer in the world if he can’t win a world title?
It's late winter in Hawaii, the season of big waves and vacation time for WSL surfers who travel to contests around the globe from March through December. Beyond the native shrubs and fine white sand near Florence’s house is a break called Log Cabins, part of a stretch of pristine beaches and historic surf spots that line the North Shore. Known as the Seven Mile Miracle, it is a mecca for the best surfers in the world. The breaks include legends like Rockpiles, Off the Wall, Backdoor, Sunset Beach, and Pipeline.
On rare occasions, when the waves rise to 50 feet in nearby Waimea Bay, a panel of judges can decide to hold the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau invitational. Aikau was a big-wave surfer and lifeguard who became lost at sea during a rescue in 1978. The contest, known as the Eddie, has been held only eight times since 1984. It’s a special event, administered by the WSL but not part of the championship tour.
At its last running, in 2009, Florence was 16 and wasn’t considered good enough to be one of the 28 invitees. During the previous Eddie, he was nine. It’s not an exaggeration to say that he’s been waiting his whole life to ride in this contest, held at a break scarcely two miles from the house where he grew up.
Thanks in part to the El Niño weather system dominating the Pacific, as of yesterday morning the Eddie is officially a go. Florence has been invited. He’ll be surfing in the third heat. Beneath the table, his knee pistons with nervous energy.
Next to him is Nathan Florence, his younger brother by two years. (The youngest, Ivan, is two years younger still.) Nathan and Rothman are also respected big-wave surfers, and as it happens, both are alternates for the Eddie—they’ve been waiting their whole lives, too. Because the contest is always called at the last minute, contestants are flying in from far-flung locations. Naturally, Nathan and Rothman are hoping some of them won’t be able to make it.
“What number are you?” Florence asks his brother.
“I’m close, but not close enough,” Nathan says, eyeballing the waves. Clearly, he’s not very hopeful. No invited surfer would miss the Eddie unless they absolutely had to.
“I’m the fourth alternate,” Rothman says. Rothman’s mother is Hawaiian. His brother, Makua, is a world-champion big-wave surfer. His father is Eddie Rothman, a white guy from Pennsylvania who is notorious for founding a militant surf club for native Hawaiians in the 1970s called Da Hui, whose main occupation was keeping tourists and other haoles away from local breaks.
“Who’s out so far?” Florence asks.
“Albee is possibly stuck in Oregon and there’s no more flights,” Nathan says hopefully, referring to Albee Layer, a surfer from Maui.
“He could try to fly to San Francisco or Los Angeles,” says Florence.
Nathan bugs his eyes. “Well don’t say anything to him!”
“Do not say anything,” laughs Rothman.
The boys sit awhile in thoughtful silence, watching the waves. Growing up as the eldest child of a single mom, Florence often played the role of father to his younger brothers. He can tell Nathan is disappointed. “What do you say we go surf the bay tomorrow before the Eddie?” Florence proposes.
“We definitely should,” Rothman says.
“For sure,” Nathan says, lighting up.
By eight the next morning, the Eddie has been called off. The expected swell never materialized.
At Florence’s compound, behind a lava-rock wall, there is a vague sense of displacement, like being at a wedding that didn’t happen, the guests milling about the venue, most of them up since 4 a.m., tired and not quite sure what to do.
“We all have a case of Eddie blue balls,” jokes Jon Pyzel, who shapes Florence’s boards.
Pyzel first set eyes on Florence 18 years ago, when Pyzel looked out the window of the surf shop where he worked and watched, as he tells it, a blond “bikini mom” with three kids pull into the parking lot in a rusted-out Pontiac with huge tail fins.
Her name was Alex Florence. Her towheaded boys were five, three, and one. She might have been a hottie, but Pyzel thought her request was a little crackpot: a custom board for a five-year-old.
Alex persisted. Pyzel acquiesced. He made the boy a standard high-performance pointy-nosed, squash-tailed, tri-fin thruster, miniaturized to 4'6". The materials were $200. The labor was free.
Flash forward three years. Pyzel met the family at a break called Gas Chambers to catch up with the kids. The longtime surfer was astounded by what he saw next. “John John went down one wave and, boom, popped out the back, did an air, and landed it perfectly—and then just kept on surfing. It blew my mind. He was eight years old! Back then even the world’s top pro surfers weren’t doing tricks like that.”
As if on cue, Alex Florence appears in the backyard of the compound in short-shorts and a floppy sun hat. With her are Nathan, Ivan, and Herbie Fletcher, a surf-film producer and former pro.
Alex was raised in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, and went to a strict Catholic school. During her off time, she surfed, skated, and watched surf movies. When she was 16, she dropped out of school and flew to Honolulu. While hitchhiking, she was picked up by a young woman who got her a gig as an extra in the movie North Shore, starring Laird Hamilton as the film’s antagonist—a pro surfer whose fierce competitiveness conflicts with the more spiritual approach of the film’s hero, who surfs for the love of it.
At 22, she was traveling with John John’s father in Europe when she became pregnant. Moved by John F. Kennedy Jr.’s heartbreaking military salute on the day of his father’s funeral, she named their first son after Kennedy Jr.’s nickname. The couple would go on to have two more children together.
Today, Florence seems a bit torn about his handle. On the positive side, it’s his brand—the name people around the world know, the name people have always called him. And, he says, he doesn’t really give a shit what people call him anyway.
On the negative side, John John is kind of juvenile, he knows. And then there’s this: John Florence happens to be the name of his estranged father. The senior Florence published a short Amazon e-book biography in 2014 called F.E.A.R. The concluding lines explain that he hasn’t finished the book because he is heading to jail for a year for driving offences. “I sit here with an overwhelming sense of DOOM as I try to figure out how to pay for my DUI attorney.”
The relationship between Alex and John Sr. dissolved when Ivan was a toddler. With help from friends, Alex settled into a little beachside cottage at Rocky Point on the North Shore. She bartended at night and went to the University of Hawaii during the day. Friends and neighbors pitched in with babysitting—the surfing community on the North Shore was small. Most had come from elsewhere to pursue their dreams. It felt like a village or a family, the good kind you choose. To help make ends meet, Alex began renting out floor space in her house, mostly to visiting surfers, for up to $350 a month.
“At night you’d get up and go to the bathroom, and there’d be ten guys sleeping on the floor. You’d be stepping on bodies,” says Nathan, smirking at the memory.
At a time when many white surfers on the North Shore were fighting for respect and waves—in part a legacy of Eddie Rothman’s surf gang—Florence’s freakish skills, extreme youth, and sunny disposition seemed to grant him immunity.
“We had a guy who taught them guitar,” Alex says. “He used to babysit sometimes when I was at class at UH. He would bring the boys to Point Panic—it’s strictly a bodysurfer break, no one is allowed to surf there. But John John made friends with everybody, and they let him surf. Only he was allowed.”
To this day, Florence keeps around him a cast of old family friends and neighbors: former tutors, babysitters, and unofficial big brothers who help and advise.
“John John is such a product of the North Shore—it’s kinda like he’s everybody’s kid,” Pyzel says, sitting on the lanai of Florence’s guest cabin, which has a perfect view of the waves.
“You know how it is when a community has a home team?” Pyzel asks. “He’s our home team. When he wins a contest, we’re all stoked.”
“Even at a young age, man, John John just had it dialed,” says Fletcher. Sitting beside Alex on another couch, he brings to mind Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now. “He knew exactly what was going on, and it seemed like he was an adult at a very young age. Definitely an old soul.”
Alex laughs. “Growing up, it was like he was the head of the house. I sometimes felt like he was my dad, you know?”
“He has the magic,” Fletcher says. “Here on the North Shore, we call it the mana, the spirit. It’s like you tune in and you can draw the waves right out of the water. I’ll see John John sitting there and nobody’s catching any waves, and then a wave will pop up just for him. He knows how to pull them right out of the ocean.”
John John Florence is in the garage, sorting and packing gear. The disappointment of the non-Eddie already forgotten, he’s on to the next thing.
Tomorrow morning he’ll be waking before the sun to fly to the Marshall Islands, in the central Pacific, where he’s been invited by the owner of the Indies Trader, an adventure travel company, on a private surf trip. Soon after that, the World Surf League tour will begin, 11 grueling events over ten months that will take him to Australia, Brazil, Fiji, South Africa, Tahiti, California, France,
“It’s definitely a long year,” Florence says, standing at the center of a jumble of boards and equipment with his hands on his hips, sounding a bit like a college kid at the end of summer vacation, not so excited about packing up and heading back to the drudgery of school.
Ever since he was young, Florence says, contests have been his life. “I’d be in elementary school all week, and then on the weekend my mom would take us to Kauai or to the Big Island or to California for a contest. That was really fun.”
As the years passed, Florence says, things became a bit less fun—to make the tour he had to qualify, a whole other level of dedication. “You just keep doing stuff, and one thing evolves into another. Then suddenly it’s like, Oh wait, I’m here surfing against Kelly Slater and all these guys I grew up watching.”
But dedication alone doesn’t make a star. Florence’s skater-influenced style is acrobatic and simultaneously aggressive and casual. Surf pundits point to his ridiculous synaptic abilities, his native gift to feel and adjust. And his fearless demeanor, how he never seems to falter when things get weird on a wave.
“You have the sense that his heart rate never goes up,” says Matt Warshaw, author of The Encyclopedia of Surfing and a former editor of Surfer magazine. “He’s always just slouching as if he were going a few miles down the road on a skateboard.”
Florence would like to be a superman, but he knows that he isn’t. “I still get scared every time I go out,” he says. “I get scared taking off, I get scared on the wave, falling, everything. But, you know, growing up with it, I guess you’re a little more comfortable.”
As for Florence’s lack of success on the pro circuit, he may not be so exceptional. The annals of surfing are full of great surfers who were thought to be the best in the world during their heyday but never won a world title—from Phil Edwards in the 1960s to Buttons Kaluhiokalani in the 1970s to Dane Reynolds in the early 2010s, all of whom left a lasting imprint on surfing.
Florence’s main roadblock is a lack of the killer competitive instinct possessed by surfers like Adriano de Souza, the current world champion. “Part of it,” says Warshaw, “is John John knows that he’s basically twice the surfer de Souza is. Everybody knows that. I don’t think there’s a clear benefit in his mind to slogging through contests just to get a trophy.” Maybe that’s it: he’s more interested in surfing than winning.
“The world title is important to the surfers trying to win it,” says Kelly Slater. “But it isn’t the ultimate measure of respect by fellow surfers. That just happens when you shred day in and day out.” Florence is clearly torn. You get the sense from meeting him that he’s the kind of athlete who can do whatever he sets his mind to. Like the problem with his name, it is a matter of identity: where he fits in, what he wants to do, who he wants to be.
On the one hand, Florence likes the pro circuit. “You go to a contest and it’s like, OK, I’m here for two weeks. All my energy, time, thinking, and everything is going toward that. Everything you’re doing is building toward the score at the end.”
On the other hand, when he’s not competing and chasing points, he can do whatever he wants. Florence has a passion for still photography (along with meditation, sailing, and piloting small planes) and has his own darkroom on his property. He also loves filmmaking, which is lucky because, for today’s pro surfers, releasing a good clip or full-length feature can be as valuable as a contest win. To that end, Florence employs a full-time videographer and editor and has a studio near the darkroom that he calls the Lab, which houses his three Red cameras and a drone.
Last year he released View from a Blue Moon on iTunes, a big-budget production he helped direct and edit, with voice-over by the actor John C. Reilly. The movie, the first surf film shot in ultra-high-definition 4K resolution, was created in conjunction with boutique production house Brain Farm Cinema and has been widely called the best surf film ever made. A few weeks after the release, its digital gross was higher than that of any other surf movie in history.
But directing, filming, surfing, and pleasing his sponsors all at once has stretched Florence thin. Last year, while filming for the movie after a contest in Brazil, he did an air and landed funny, tearing ligaments in his right ankle. He ended up missing two events, ruining his chance at a world title. Some wondered aloud if Florence should sharpen his focus.
This season, perhaps conscious of the criticism, Florence says he’s going to concentrate on the tour. Right after this little trip to the Marshall Islands.
“Someday I’ll just do what I want,” he says as he stuffs cartridges of CO2 into the pockets of an inflatable vest, worn as a precaution in big waves.
“I’ll be hanging around the house, surfing and doing whatever, and whenever I hear of a great swell, like in Tahiti or the Marshall Islands, I’ll just be like, ‘Pack up, let’s go.’ ”
Two weeks later, on February 25, the Eddie is on again. Slater, Shane Dorian, Greg Long, and other big-wave-surfing royalty fly in, and this time the swell delivers.
Late in the afternoon, with 60-foot surf and some 30,000 spectators gathered at Waimea Beach Park, Florence casually paddles into a bomb. His whole board disconnects from the wave as he air-drops down the massive face. Still, he looks nonchalant, slouching like the wave is waist high as a wall of white water runs him down. Moments later he pops back into view. The score pushes him into first place, where he stays until the final horn.
Standing on stage accepting his oversize $75,000 prize check, he issues a genuine, aw-shucks smile.
“I was riding my bike down to the contest this morning in the dark, and it was amazing,” he tells the crowd. “People on the beaches were screaming; the energy was just so crazy. I’ve lived here my whole life, and I’ve never seen it like that. This has definitely been the highlight of my life, for sure.”
Whether winning the Eddie stoked Florence’s competitive fire is a question only time will answer. Will he raise his game at contests or continue to go his own way, seeking his own notion of excellence?
One possible clue came several weeks later, when I reached him by phone at the first stop on the tour, the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia, where the waves at Snapper Rocks were topping out at two and a half feet.
What was his best memory of his triumph at the Eddie? I asked.
Early that morning, Florence said, before the contest started, he and his brother Nathan paddled out into Waimea Bay. While Rothman had been called up as an alternate at the last minute, Nathan didn’t make it in.
“We were the first ones in the water,” he said, “and me and Nathan actually got a real good wave together. That was sweet.”--
Mike Sager is the author of Stoned Again: The High Times and Strange Life of a Drugs Correspondent. This is his first story for Outside.