Ticket to Tokyo: John John Florence Is Going to the Olympics—Even After Gabriel Medina Ended His Comeback at the Billabong Pipe Masters

In a day that featured controversy and relentless strategic battles in the surf, Hawai‘i’s Florence could only wait and watch until Kelly Slater, the 47-year-old GOAT, finally ran out of miracle finishes. Now the O‘ahu native joins Carissa Moore on the Olympic squad.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics Games has been rescheduled to begin July 23, 2021 and end Aug. 8, 2021. The Paralympic Games have also been moved to Aug. 24, 2021. 

  john john florence

thanks to Italo Ferreira, John John Florence (pictured) is going to the Summer Olympics.


With all eyes on a Kelly Slater vs. John John Florence showdown after the two battled on opposite sides of the draw, Hawai‘i’s last hope for a local partner to Carissa Moore in Tokyo’s summer 2020 games drew the short straw in the form of a peaking No. 2 world title contender Gabriel Medina of Brazil.


But thanks to a frosted-perm countryman of Medina’s, Italo Ferreira, Florence is going to the Summer Olympics. It wasn’t easy, or guaranteed, by any means. But he’s punched his ticket.


Things looked good for Florence until he drew Medina. Kicking off his quarterfinal with an 8.40 and following up with a 9.23, the Brazilian kept the comeback hopes of Florence at arm’s length. A master strategist, Medina’s earlier win over rival countryman Caio Ibelli featured a deliberate foul in the last moments that prevented Ibelli from taking a potentially winning wave. “Burn him! Burn him!” Medina’s stepfather and coach had shouted. That Medina did, to groans and astonishment.


SEE ALSO: Carissa Moore Won the Surf World Title and Nabbed an Olympic Games Slot at the Lululemon Maui Pro

Italo Ferrerra
Pipe Masters winner Italo Ferrera’s first wave during the finals. 


Against Florence, Medina kept throwing fakes and even courted another DQ with a blocking move that had announcers comparing him to New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. It was all legal and utterly heartless, as befits the now-favorite to win the world title.


With 2.50 on the clock and lacking priority, the semi was effectively over for Florence—he’d need a two-wave miracle, without any of Medina’s defensive maneuvers. By the time the horn sounded the two were chatting, although Florence’s eyes never stopped checking the horizon—perhaps looking ahead to the 2020 tour. The final score: Medina 17.63, Florence 12.33.


With the win by Medina, many onlookers and even announcers thought that 47-year-old Kelly Slater would take the last U.S. Olympic Games slot that Florence had in his grasp for most of the 2019 tour, despite having missed competition since he blew out his knee in late June.


But the result didn’t end Florence’s hopes. In the complicated calculus on the World Surf League leaderboard, Slater still had to win his semifinal heat against Italo Ferreira. The GOAT Slater versus the young, frosted-haired Brazilian pitted two peaking competitors. But Slater had all the advantage in experience.


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

sad slater
Kelly Slater wins his first Vans Triple Crown of Surfing championship since 1998.


Their heat opened, though, with Ferreira early pulling an 8.0 on a long tube ride finished with a bouquet of slashing flourishes. Slater, meanwhile, was eaten by a tube. Suddenly the situation was reversed for Slater vis-à-vis Florence, as Ferreira could retain priority, block Slater if needed and pick off another big wave to solidify his lead. Which is how it played out, with Ferreira grabbing a second beautiful backup barrel, relegating Slater to playing the role of the frustrated chaser, gambling on bad waves and finishing with 2.57 to Ferreira’s 14.77.


And with that, despite Slater gaining 6,085 points to Florence’s 4,745 in the final WSL tour event, Florence’s total pushed him to a total 37,700 to Slater’s 34,845. The second U.S. men’s Olympic spot was his.


Florence may have needed help, but his brave and thrilling return from ACL surgery adds to his legend. His presence wasn’t a given even weeks before the Billabong Pipe Masters. But after a tentative first seeding heat, he blazed his way to the semis by utilizing his lifelong knowledge of Pipe. Getting to the quarterfinals was just enough to get him a ticket to Tokyo.


As for Ferreira and Medina, their final followed a familiar formula of a strong big score giving the holder an unyielding lead. In this case, it was Florence’s benefactor, Ferreira, pulling down a 7.83 and holding off Medina to take the Pipe Masters and the WSL World Title. Even Slater doesn’t go home empty handed, winning his first Triple Crown of Surfing since 1998.   


Read more stories by Don Wallace