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ON THE COVER C’est si bon! Halau Mele chanter Marques Hanalei Marzan with Paris’ most famous landmark—la Tour Eiffel—in the background. Photo by Kevin German
Vol.17, no.6
December 2014 / January 2015


The Aerialist 
Story By: Sonny Ganaden
Photos By: Brian Bielmann

Not ten minutes after the semifinal of the 2014 Billabong Tahiti Pro ends, surfing fans are calling it the best heat ever. That’s a pretty bold claim given the decades of progressively amazing surfing and epic shootouts to which spectators have been treated. The narrative itself is compelling: 42-year-old, eleven-time world champion Kelly Slater battling John John Florence, equal his talent at half his age; it’s the elder statesman and the young upstart trading man-eating barrels at Teahupo‘o. But the actual surfing eclipses whatever story you try to wrap around it. Freefalling backside, Florence aims for the shoulder and lets go of the rail (the edge of the board) as the lip heaves over him. He vanishes in the barrel, then shoots from the liquid explosion in standing repose. As Florence turns off the ride, Slater does nearly the same impossible thing: He drops from the sky backside, disappears and emerges from a blast of foam. Florence scores 9.90; Slater scores 10. After another pair of perfect rides, they are tied at an unbelievable 19.77 out of a possible 20. Under contest rules, Slater wins with the highest single-wave score. This writer stand by the claim: best heat ever.

It’s been barely fourteen years since the surfing world was introduced to Teahupo‘o, a mutant wave that sucks water off a nearly dry reef to create a freakishly heavy barrel. Only within the last few years have surfers challenged it on big swells without being towed behind a jet ski, and prior to the Slater/Florence heat, technical maneuvering through the barrel with your back to the wave had never been seen. Slater’s perfect execution was the apotheosis of a twenty-year career as a pro surfer; John John (as his mother calls him; fans prefer JJF) had developed his technique as a Pipeline expert in his teens. In 2011 the then-19-year-old became the youngest winner of the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing, the sport’s Super Bowl. He did it again in 2013. Today Florence is the eighth-ranked surfer in the professional circuit, considered his generation’s Kelly Slater. That has been said of others, though, and Slater has beaten all comers for over two decades, always proving himself the next Kelly Slater. But with Florence’s talent and equipoise, he is widely regarded as surfing’s crown prince.

Together Florence and Slater double-handedly upped the game for pro surfing in that one duel. At Teahupo‘o most backside barrel riders just point the board, grip the rail and pray. Nobody thinks about letting go and standing up. “People ask if I went in knowing I’d let go of the rail, as if it was just for points,” Florence tells me two days after the contest; we’re at his home on O‘ahu’s North Shore, which is under construction. Apparently, there wasn’t any forethought. “It just felt right. You can get deeper in the barrel there than anywhere else, so you just loosen up inside and get propelled by the foam ball.” Watching his composure and grace as he’s being spat out of a collapsing mammoth tube, you’d think he had such sangfroid that his blood literally runs cold. “I don’t understand why people think I’m calm out there,” he says without embarrassment. “I’m scared.”

Following her dreams of better waves from the beaches of New Jersey, Alexandra Florence moved to O‘ahu’s North Shore at 16. Soon after, she was cast as an extra in the 1987 movie North Shore and began charging like the surfing heroes whose posters she collected. She married and had three boys: Her eldest—named for John John Kennedy, “the heartthrob of the ’80s,” Alex says—was pushed into waves as a baby. It wasn’t long, though, before Alex’s Hawai‘i idyll grew complicated. “I got divorced when the boys were five, three and ten months old. I was a kid myself, and we just had to take it on. I remember looking in the back of the car and asking the boys what they wanted to do. I said, ‘We can do anything!’” And they did: Alex dedicated her young family to adventure and clean living. Between surf trips to Indonesia and Tahiti, John and his younger brothers, Nathan and Ivan, spent most of their time at the beach. “We didn’t have a lot of money,” Alex recalls, “but I knew how to enjoy nature and I made sure the boys did, too.” Alex worked at restaurants, drove to college in Honolulu and took in boarders to make ends meet. It helped that the boys were “these little golden angels, like they had lights around them,” says Alex. “People would stop us and ask if they could model in Elle, Vogue, all these ad campaigns. We ended up using that Vogue money to build a skate ramp in the backyard.” 

The Florence boys spent most of their time in the ocean and on the skate ramp, mostly staying out of trouble with guidance from the North Shore’s community of watermen. Family friends were always checking in: surfer Petey Johnson, shaper Jon Pyzel and the recently deceased Jay Adams, who was as notorious for his hell-raising as his skateboarding. (But even he turned out to be something of a role model. “You don’t have to live like that,” Alex told her boys. “Try and love people for their good parts.”) It was these North Shore uncles who showed Florence how to charge backside into Pipeline at an age most kids aren’t allowed to cross the street alone. After school, Florence practiced at Pipeline and Backdoor, where he learned from the resident masters. “Jaime O’Brien told me, ‘There’s so much room in that barrel, you should be standing up,’” Florence says. “Since then I’ve followed his advice.” At Pipe and on the ramp, he excelled, impressing everyone who saw him ride; it wasn’t long before industry sponsorships and interest from video game promoters and apparel brands started rolling in. 

Florence sits on his living room floor as we talk, applying his sponsors’ stickers to a fresh white surfboard. Maybe it’s hard to imagine it in retrospect, but “it wasn’t a given, being on tour,” he says. “I barely made it on my first year in 2011, having to qualify in WQS events.” He’s referring to the World Qualifying Series, the Association of Surfing Professionals minor league, in which hundreds compete for one of thirty-four spots on the World Championship Tour. The experience is hardly glamorous: “Some of those guys had to fly straight from Tahiti to Portugal to try and re-qualify for the tour, on credit, barely making it to the next event.” Florence squeaked in: He was the thirty-fourth man in 2011.

Then, disaster. Later that year, Pipeline broke his back. It was a double-overhead day, and as the swell rose a wave went vertical while Florence was in the barrel, the lip delivering a crushing blow to his spine. He hobbled home, but X-rays showed that the wave had compressed and fractured two vertebrae; it took him months to recover, and he’s still not 100 percent, he says. “It’s still pretty terrible on long airplane rides. Because of the way I surf, one side of my back is much stronger than the other, so I’m usually uncomfortable up there.”