John John Florence On How He Became a World Champion Surfer

John John Florence On How He Became a World Champion Surfer

The wave-riding prodigy opens up in a rare interview after being photographed by Hedi Slimane in Hawaii, exclusively for VMAN.

The wave-riding prodigy opens up in a rare interview after being photographed by Hedi Slimane in Hawaii, exclusively for VMAN.

Photography: Hedi Slimane

Text: Thomas Freeman

Speaking with John John Florence over the phone, as he drops “stoked” and “chill” with a consummate Hawaiian, surfer-bro insouciance, it might be tempting to forget that the “world’s best surfer” is on the other end.

At just 24 years old, Florence is widely regarded as the next Kelly Slater, and his fandom has reached rabid levels far beyond the North Shore of his native Hawaii, where he famously rode his first wave at six months old.

“I was raised to not be super cocky, I guess,” Florence told us as he was recuperating from tweaking his knee on the fabled Banzai Pipeline a few days before. “I just surf because I love surfing. It’s not like I’m doing this for the money or to be the best surfer in the world. I don’t really think there is a best surfer in the world, really.”

Despite his cool demeanor, Florence is riding a heat streak truly unprecedented for a surfer his age. In February 2016, John John won the “Eddie” award in Hawaii’s Waimea Bay, which set the stage for him to in October nab the title of 2016 World Surf League Men's Champion in Portugal, anointing him the best surfer in the world (for now).

When pressed as to how he developed his unmatched surfing prowess or which go-to tactics he employs on dangerous waves, Florence simply shrugged, “I dunno. I would say my style is pretty… laid back, I guess. I just go with the wave, and it seems to work out a lot of the time.”

For Florence, it is not a numbers or head game. His disregard for technique may seem to betray indifference, but his record-shattering career suggests a steely determination beneath the surface. When the waves swell and break, there is no one more instinctively in tune with the water or in command of his board than John John Florence, no matter how casual he may seem.

We recently spoke with Florence about winning his first World Title, what is on the horizon for 2017, coming to grips with the danger of Pipeline, and about his interests beyond surfing, including photography.

When did you decide you wanted to become a professional surfer?

Surfing has been a part of my life since I can remember. But I remember being like six or seven years old and thinking, “Oh, I want to be like Kelly Slater or Andy Irons. I wanna be like one of those guys.” I had their stickers and posters; I was really stoked on it.

When did you start competing?

My mom started taking me and my brothers to a lot of little kid contests around here, and then I started going out to other islands—like Hawaii (the Big Island) and Maui—to do some of the other events. I did that for a while, and then once I got a little older I started on the qualifying tour, and I did that for a few years and kept getting more and more into it. And then once I qualified for the main tour is when I came to a realization: I was like, “Woah. I made it to this tour. I’m surfing against my heroes, like Kelly Slater. Now what do I do?”

So what was the next step?

When I first got on tour, I was trying to overcome the battle of learning how to beat my idols—guys I had looked up to since I was a little kid. The biggest thing for me was to really observe what the better guys did and then took what I liked and then molded this nice routine for myself that ended up working out really well. I didn’t expect to win a World Title last year; I was still just trying different things, and then I was really surprised when it actually happened.

Has the weight of being the “World’s Best Surfer” hit you?

It was a wild experience for me. It has been my ultimate dream my whole life to be a World Champion. It seemed pretty far off for a few years there when I was on tour. People say that if you really go after your goals then you can reach them, and that’s what happened to me. It was kind of an eye-opener… like wow. What else do I want to do with my life? I feel like I can accomplish anything.

What else do you have left to strive for?

I’d love to win another World Title so I’m gonna do everything I can to put myself in the best position to do that, but you never know what’s gonna happen. One of my big goals in life is to get a real nice, fast sailboat and sail around the world one day. But I think that’s a little further down the line.

Has there been a low point in your career?

When I broke my back on Pipeline (in 2011), that was a low point, but also a realization. I was out of the water, and Jesus… it was kind of heavy. It’s crazy how life works; it gives you a lot of ups and downs. After a few months of not surfing, I just wanted to get back in the water no matter what.

Are you cognizant of the danger when you’re on a wave, particularly Pipeline?

There’s definitely a danger to it, but there’s also a danger to driving your car down the street. Surfing Pipeline is scary, but that’s what I do. I’ve grown up surfing, and I’ve grown up surfing that wave. I bet it’s the same for the best snowboarders: they’re going off 100-foot cliffs and are like, “Yeah, it’s dangerous and gnarly, and there are avalanches, but we love it!”

What is your favorite surf trick?

My favorite surf trick is to get a barrel. In any other sport you do, there’s nothing quite like being inside of the wave.

You also have an interest in photography and filmmaking. When did you start taking photographs?

I started taking photographs when I was like 15 or 16 just because my mom did when we were traveling. She always shot film, and she’d come back and develop it. So then I got my own darkroom, and I started shooting film and figuring it out here and there and started having a lot of fun with it. I think it’s a nice escape for me from surfing; it just kind of takes my mind off it for a little bit so I don’t get wrapped up in it completely.

What else have you got going outside of surfing?

If I’m not surfing, then I’m building a boat project, have a beehive or am gardening and growing food. If it’s not one thing then it’s another. It’s hard for me to slow down.

Credits: Production Kim Pollock

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