Issue 17.6: 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.”


 

It’s perhaps ironic that one of the things for which Florence is known is comfort in flight. He’s a master of the aerial, wherein a surfer gains momentum on the face and then launches off the wave. The aerial was developed in the late 1980s by California surfer Christian Fletcher but was initially dismissed in competitive surfing: The speed necessary for launch meant blowing through the “carve and turn” sections of a wave—forgoing the sort of surfing perfected by champions Tom Curren and Mark Occhilupo. It wasn’t until the famous rivalry between Kelly Slater and the now-deceased Andy Irons a decade ago that the aerial became a viable weapon in competition, with Slater and Irons punctuating their flawless rides with airborne coups de grace. Florence is his generation’s leader in flight; he waxes the deck of his boards all the way to the nose, as his feet often land where most surfers never tread. But in keeping with his personality, a JJF aerial is less an attack than an act of grace, usually executed hands-free, feet sticking to the board as he floats high above the crest, spins and drops coolly back onto the face, as if the wave were a snowboarding half-pipe. Which is an apt simile, Florence points out: “The biggest influence on surfing right now is snowboarding. Once you get up there, the options are limitless.”

That seemingly effortless style—the clean technicality, the casual stance in the deepest barrels, the insane aerobatics—have made Florence a household name (if your household surfs, anyway). In his second season on the ASP tour, Florence won Rookie of the Year and ranked fourth. He has won the Volcom Pipeline Pro three times consecutively. Besides being a consistent competitor, he won Best Performance at the 2013 SURFER magazine poll awards. It came as no surprise that a bidding war ensued among sponsors last year, with apparel company Hurley giving Florence a lucrative deal and with it the freedom to pursue his other interests, primarily photography and videography.

He tells me about a series of films he’s made with friend Blake Vincent Kueny over the past three years, with a feature due to be released in winter 2015. “Parts of South Africa are beautiful,” he says of the project, which took him to the wild Atlantic coast of Africa. “We passed shantytowns that seemed like they’d never end. The way the cliffs turn to mountains and the plains open up. We made it almost to Namibia and got to surf places with no one out.” Beyond that, Florence has kept a visual diary of a life most could only imagine, and his Instagram followers recently surpassed two hundred thousand. In his new living room is space for his binders of photo negatives, which maybe puts to rest the notion that Florence is Kelly Slater’s heir apparent. “I can’t imagine competing my whole life like Kelly,” he says. “There’s so much I want to do before I die.”

Out of the water, Florence has become a tall, quiet young man given—like any aspiring auteur—to wearing all black. Despite the attention he’s received since childhood, he’s kept a sense of humor and remains almost blasé about his talent. He was just a good kid back then, and he still is,” says Pyzel, who shaped Florence’s first board when John John was five years old. “His energy comes out in surfing, and he can really beat up boards,” he says. “There’s something that separates him from other surfers that he doesn’t mention: He likes to win by surfing better than the other guy. Sometimes that doesn’t win heats, and you’ll get beat by tactics and ruthlessness. He’ll be the world champ one day, but he’ll have to do it his way.” 

“Every wave out there could hurt you,” Florence tells me as we take the short walk from his back gate to the two-foot summer waves at a break called Log Cabins. In midsentence he skims his board onto the water, sprints a few steps, leaps, lands on the board and launches three feet into the air off a six-inch ripple, no rail grab. Seeing that kind of surfing up close is like watching a magician from the front row, only these tricks are no illusions. A few short strokes and we’re in the lineup. On waves where most would barely manage a turn he manages three; on walled sections where I’m thinking to go left, he builds speed going right; in the smallest sections he pulls off a backside air. “Summer’s the best without the crowds; you can stay out here all day. When it’s ten feet it still breaks right here,” he says between waves as he dives, stands on his board, plays. “One of my earliest memories is getting worked at Ke Iki,” he says, referring to the crushing shorebreak just left of Log Cabins, “thinking I was going to die with my brothers. But we were always OK.” Then he points out a cluster of rocks jutting out of the waves to our right. “I’ve fallen so many times on that thing, just ended up hugging it, somehow surviving.” 

By acknowledging his fear, Florence somehow transcends it. And maybe that more than anything is what’s made this still-young surfer the next phenom. How long that ride’ll last depends mostly on how much fun he’s having. “This was always the plan, but I know nothing lasts forever. Some guys on tour don’t free-surf because they’re afraid of getting hurt between contests. I wonder, do they even enjoy it? To me it’s the best feeling in the world.”