On Dec. 20, Hawaii’s John John Florence emerged from the water at Pipe with his first Pipeline Masters win. The headline wasn’t so much that he won, but that he hadn’t won it up to that point. The long-awaited moment of victory itself was also marked by what it lacked: flanks of fans, as Florence couldn’t be chaired up the beach, thanks to social-distancing safety rules. Pandemic precautions, however, did not snuff out the significance.
“Not winning all those times definitely stung a little,” Florence explained recently to MJ, “especially the times I made the finals. You get so close, you make all those heats and you can’t get the win. It wasn’t getting to me too much, but it’s definitely an event I’ve wanted to win—it’s in my backyard.”
And when he says backyard, he’s not talking the figurative neighborhood; it’s his literal backyard.
Florence famously grew up on the sands of Ehukai Beach Park, the stretch that accesses several North Shore breaks, including Pipe and Backdoor. He threw himself into those waves before puberty, owned the amateur ranks and made the cover of Surfer magazine. Florence was the youngest competitor ever to surf the Van’s Triple Crown in 2008 and actually made a round at Pipe at the age of 14. He qualified for the World Tour when he was 19.
In the last decade, he’s won seven World Surf League World Tour events, four Volcom Pipeline Pros (part of the WSL’s qualifying series tour), the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau Big Wave event and back-to-back WSL world titles.
And after all this time, now the coveted Pipeline Masters.
This latest accomplishment didn’t come in massive waves or historic conditions, but the storyline was perfect. After a full year without WSL competition thanks to the pesky pandemic, the logistical gymnastics of getting all the surfers into Hawaii and a COVID-case reset, Florence beat his greatest mentor in the semis and greatest rival in the final, respectively, against the legendary Kelly Slater and dangerous Gabriel Medina.
“Competing with Kelly … for him to still be pushing me as much as he is, is incredible,” Florence says. “He has so much knowledge and so much experience. And Gabe—having those two guys in a row, I couldn’t have imagined it going any better. He’s made the final there almost every year since he got on tour. He’s a machine. To win against him is good for me. Having Gabe pushes me to want to be a better competitor, and the other surfers as well. We’ve become good friends outside of heats.”
Where Slater has set the stage for the John John story to this point, Medina will certainly play a part in the future chapters to unfold.
THE NEXT CHAPTER
It’s long been known that JJF has the potential to influence the world more than any other surfer since Slater. 2021 could prove a critical point in that trajectory.
Most notably, the WSL has changed the tour format; Florence is currently seeded No. 1. The recent Pipe Masters, traditionally the last event of the season, was actually the first event of 2021. The season will run with a new schedule, culminating with an actual championship in September, on the U.S. mainland, at Lower Trestles in San Clemente, CA. That finale alone makes this a landmark year.
Should he win another title, Florence would put himself in an exclusive club alongside Mark Richards, Tom Curren, Slater, Andy Irons and Mick Fanning, all three-time world champs.
How many events can effectively be run with surfers flying around the world amid a worsening pandemic remains to be seen. Surfing can’t happen in a bubble, but the WSL has gone to rigorous lengths to ensure safety. And whereas the 18- to 34-year-old demographic may not be stereotypically all that concerned about the virus, Florence says the tour surfers are not taking it lightly.
“From what I’ve seen here in Hawaii, everyone did really well—we were getting tested almost every single day,” he says. “We were wearing masks and keeping separated. On one side, no one wants to get COVID because you put in all this work and effort for nothing. On the other side, it’s a bummer to come into someone else’s community and spread it. Everyone is taking it very seriously.”
Should the WSL continue to successfully run safe events and the Olympics to happen, there’s another revolutionary change for Florence and the surf industry in general.
For most of Florence’s career, he has had the backing of Hurley, the action sports brand founded by Bob Hurley—the California surfboard shaper who launched Billabong in North America and later Hurley International, which he sold to Nike, remaining at the helm until 2015.
But the Hurley brand, which became a major driver in the surf industry, sponsoring surfers at every level around the world, sold again, clearing much of its roster and buying Florence out of the remainder of his reported eight-year, $30 million contract.
Last summer, Hurley and Florence announced the launch of Florence Marine X, a new brand that wasn’t solely focused on surfing but rather getting outside and thriving in the elements. It’s a bold new direction that runs somewhat in contrast to the surf industry that has long marketed itself through sponsoring events, building teams and performance surfing on 5’9 thrusters.
“For me, when I get a good, heavy-weather jacket, it makes me want to go adventure,” he adds. “It makes me want to do all sorts of things: paddling, sailing, foiling and surfing.”
Surf is clearly the most obvious, but while while recovering from a 2018 knee injury, Florence finished the 32-mile Molokai2Oahu race paddling prone with his partner, Kona Johnson. He’s gotten heavy into foiling—both waves and open water. He took on Hawaiian pal Kai Lenny in a foil vs. sailboat race. And after years of learning to sail, he cruised the South Pacific in his 48-foot gunboat last year, exploring atolls, islands and waves, all documented in a series by YETI called Vela, named for his vessel.
“Sailing is a big part of it, being able to go wherever we want,” he says. “When we’ve gone on these sailing trips to surf in the middle of nowhere, I really feel like we’re out there, withstanding the elements. The only thing holding you back is your exposure to the elements—the wind, the sun, and the salt.”
He refers to it as making ‘outdoor clothing,’ rather than the paradigm of surfwear, perhaps a good move, considering the pillars of the surf industry were showing signs of wear even pre-pandemic. It also appeals to a larger demographic than just surf, without losing the Florence credibility.
And it has his name on it, which sets him up for more reward, but also more risk. For one thing, he will be the only ambassador. (Will anyone else on tour want to rep a company named for a guy they have to surf against?). That’s all right for Florence, who focuses on “the excitement of getting the gear in the water and thinking, ‘yeah, we built this to do this,’ knowing that it’s going to withstand and last.”
2021 will be huge because he now clearly has financial skin in the game, a bit of a concern should the global economy not come bounding back. But it seems that Florence is genuinely enthusiastic about his product.
“We’ve been working on what we want to make and how we want to make it,” says Florence, “There’s been a lot of work on testing, developing samples and making things that last in ocean environments. It takes some time to get it right to have a launch ready for spring and summer.”
Florence’s obvious role will be endorsing the gear, but also hands-on testing materials, and putting the gear through the paces, jobs he thoroughly enjoys.
“I think everyone has their goals and ideals of what they want to do with their brands,” he adds. “There are so many different perspectives of surfing. And for the brands that just focus on surfing, I think that’s totally cool. In my life though, I’ve found a lot of love for the ocean. It’s through other things as well. I want to do a brand based on all the other aspects of being in and around the ocean.”
Lastly, there’s the little matter of the Olympics in Japan, rescheduled from last July. Florence will surf for the U.S. team. Should that run, it would bring surfers to a global audience. By August, could JJF be pushing Shaun White/Mary Lou Retton-level recognition?
That late-summer development could exponentially multiply the significance of all of the above.