2016 Islander of the Year in Sports: John John Florence
World Surf Champ.
Prince of Pipeline: Florence is crowned world champion in Portugal, the first from Hawai‘i since Andy Irons in 2004.
Photo: Courtesy of World Surf League, Damien Poullenot
At the close of 2015, John John Florence, professional surfing’s heir apparent, returned home after a frustrating season. He ended up ranked 14th best in the world after finishing 2014 in third. With a new year and the Quiksilver Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational ahead, Florence tried to relax and recharge. When he wasn’t sailing his Hobie Cat miles out to sea, he was putting the finishing touches on a movie, View From a Blue Moon, made in super-high-resolution 4K with director Blake Vincent Kueny.
The film premiered at his old school, Sunset Beach Elementary, and was indeed acclaimed for stunning photography and fresh storytelling. But there was no evading the pressure of 2016. Florence has known pressure almost all his life, as an Island favorite who grew up on the North Shore. When you’ve been anointed by Kelly Slater, your idol is Andy Irons and you pulled down a six-figure income at age 13, expectations are high.
Instead of trying to evade them, Florence made a decision to meet them head-on. Calling 2016 the year he would redouble his efforts to win the world title, he signed on for a video documentary series, Twelve, to chronicle the experience as it unfolded—the good and the bad, “the makes and the falls.” But, also, he said in the first episode, “to enjoy it.”
Next, Florence, relatively unappreciated as a big wave surfer, took on the Eddie, which had last been held when he was 17. In conditions that would be called “most epic ever” by the WSL, and “the greatest one-day Big Wave event in history,” Florence astonished with his calm and balance dropping into the 60-footers, and bested 27 of the big wave fraternity.
It was a stunning start, but garnered no points toward a world title. In early contests, Florence found himself grinding in smaller waves, clawing through heats, playing the head games and strategies that a seasonlong champion must master. He let his guard down with a victory in his grasp in an early contest and went into the Oi Rio Pro ranked 13th … about where he’d finished 2015. When he scratched out a disciplined win in sloppy surf, he shot into third place.
Game on. But May is far away from December. He was in the mix, though, and in the months that followed the field narrowed to three: Jordy Smith, Gabriel Medina and Florence. October’s contest in Portugal amounted to a knockout round and by the semifinals Florence was already the last man standing—and world champion. He went on to win the MEO Rip Curl Pro.
With a flourish like that, Florence could’ve been forgiven for taking the last event as a victory lap. But the Vans Triple Crown is in his backyard, before his crowd, so that wasn’t going to happen. With a win in the Hawaiian Pro at Hale‘iwa and a quarterfinal in the Billabong Pipe, Florence would finish his year in storybook fashion: winner of the Vans Triple Crown.
The Eddie, wins in Rio and Portugal, the WSL title and the Triple Crown—and, by the way, a gripping chronicle of the journey in Twelve—add up to a year that actually surpassed expectations. And, from the looks of it, he had fun, too.