Hawai‘i’s John John Florence Joins Surfer Lineup at the 2019 Billabong Pipe Masters

In his first contest since blowing out his knee in June, John John surfs his way into Pipeline contention—and closes in on an Olympic slot. Hawai‘i surfers Seth Moniz, Billy Kemper, Ezekiel Lau and Imaikalani deVault also advance to the third round.
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The Billabong Pipe Masters opened for business Tuesday morning with a huge question mark adding to its usual December drama of big tubes and the men who ride them. Going in the big news was that Hawai‘i’s John John Florence had entered the contest, his first since June, when he blew out a knee in Brazil. After six months of rehab, which included a monthlong break to sail his catamaran to Tahiti and becoming engaged on his return, here he was back in his element, the lineup at Pipeline.


As the seeding heat opened, Florence faced two beatable opponents in Australia’s Adrian Buchan and Jesse Mendes of Brazil. But if the competition looked favorable the waves were far from Florence’s ideal—which is to say, large. Then again, Florence seemed uncertain even in the small (for Pipe) 6- to 8-footers. Or maybe it was the long and unpredictable lulls. Indeed, Florence waited nearly half the 32-minute heat before committing to his first wave, and by then he trailed his rivals.


SEE ALSO: 2016 Islander of the Year in Sports: John John Florence

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That first wave wasn’t much, either, getting a 2.37 score from judges. Wearing a heavy knee brace, Florence moved gingerly back into another wave and received a more generous score of 4.57 (out of a possible 10). That put him briefly in first. But as the heat closed and waves dwindled in size and number, he found himself in the waning seconds battling leader Buchan, who had priority on the wave. Tangled together on a wave better than they’d seen all morning, Buchan held his position while taking off. With a “what the hell” flourish, Florence dropped in—took off in front, an etiquette and competition violation—and grabbed a nifty tube ride that he must’ve known would go for nought. Indeed, he had two waves zeroed out as punishment and finished with 4.57.


The world surf league welcomed john john florence back to competition with this video on facebook.
Video: courtesy of world surf league


With that, Florence’s Olympic hopes took a serious setback. Now he’d have to surf in an elimination round with two other losers. From his appearance in the water, complete with elaborate brace on his right knee, he seemed to be moving with understandable caution, except for that flourish at the end that earned him interference.


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Meanwhile, in the next heat, Kelly Slater was killing it. The 47-year-old has also had a difficult year due to injury. But he’s peaking now and in one of his favorite waves. Coming in second, Slater knocked Hawai‘i’s Sebastian Zietz into the elimination round—facing Florence—while putting the Olympic slot squarely in his sights.


Florence’s elimination heat started at 2:15 p.m. He faced two formidable rivals in Zietz and Portugal’s Frederico Morais. Yet Florence showed none of the timidity from the first round and took a series of small but gemlike tubes to build a lead. Then he grabbed a bigger one, pulling down a 6.50 that added to his earlier scores. He had a 9.27 lead to Zietz’s 7.70 with 20 minutes to go.


SEE ALSO: Hawai‘i Surfer John Florence Stars in a New Film, “View From a Blue Moon”

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Kelly Slater at Billabong Pipe Masters on O‘ahu’s North Shore


And Zietz answered back immediately. A fairly long tube put him at 9.16. Florence’s low score, 2.77, could easily be topped if he could grab something. His next ride gave him a 10.93 overall score and the win as Zietz’s next wave was a 2.90.


As the day’s elimination heats concluded, Florence was slotted in Heat 11 for the next day, Wednesday, versus local Ezekiel Lau, who had the day’s single best wave in the opinion of commentators. O‘ahu’s Seth Moniz is set to go against Maui’s Billy Kemper in Heat 7, local Imaikalani deVault faces Brazil’s dangerous Gabriel Medina and Zietz faces the top U.S. surfer of 2019, Kolohe Andino, who’s already clinched one of two Olympic slots. Kelly Slater, Florence’s competition for the other spot (with Moniz a dark horse), faced Brazil’s Joan Duru in Heat 8.


SEE ALSO: 11 Things Locals Need to Know About 2020's First-Ever Olympic Surf Competition at the Tokyo Games

Brazil’s dangerous Gabriel Medina 


By noon we may know who goes to the Olympics. Or, we may see John John Florence pushing himself all the way to a Pipe title, which he has never won, despite having grown up literally across from the wave.