Photo: Michael Sinnott


The Inertia

First and foremost, this piece isn’t meant to take anything away from Jordy Smith’s very well-deserved victory at Bells Beach last week. With that said, John John’s move in the 4th round was completely ridiculous. I know, I know, this isn’t the first time you’ve read about it, but stick with me. The measurables on this one were simply too good to resist, so I thought I’d offer a slightly different take on JJF’s now well-known aerial.

The 4th round match-up at the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach featured John John Florence, Mick Fanning, and Sebastien Zietz. With Fanning leading the heat, JJF Launched what has got to be one of the biggest aerials to ever be landed in a competition. He needed 9.3, it scored him a 9.97 – three-hundredths from perfection.

I realize and respect the many opinions out there about aerials. I’m only interested in the awe. Is it not awesome when a surfer and their equipment are able to collaborate so effectively? What really struck me about JJF’s move at Bells was how similar it was to one from a couple months ago. I wanted to take a more objective look at this recent feat of freakish talent and the alley-oop Florence pulled off at Backdoor last December. Both maneuvers look identical to the naked eye; JJF charging down the line on a long right and punting a big one. I was shocked though at how comparable the measurables actually were.

His body and board were in the air for about 1.3 (Bells) to 1.5 (Backdoor) seconds. During that time, he spun 270 degrees, or about three-quarters of a full rotation. That’s roughly a half turn per second. Not bad for someone spinning through the air while trying to stay connected to a tiny board that just wants to fly away. Not really a fair comparison, but consider this: Spinner Dolphins, yes, the real acrobatic ones we see a lot of in Hawaii, can complete up to seven full rotations in 1.25 seconds. That’s more than ten times faster than JJF. Marine Mammals: 1, Land Mammals: 0.

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When we look at the distance of his launch the numbers are even more identical. Based on my estimates, he was airborne for just under 20 feet on both occasions. Completely different waves, unique conditions, a free surf session versus a competitive heat, yet a nearly identical result. Consistency is what separates amateurs from professionals, right? So exactly how far is 20 feet of air? Have you ever seen the footage of Michael Jordan dunking from the free throw line? Well, he travels in the air for about 20 feet. Completely different situation, but still, not the worst person to measure up to.

The biggest difference I measured was in the launch height on the two dates. He got quite a bit more air at Backdoor than he did at Bells; almost 10 feet compared to a little over 6 feet. His speed, which is what determines how far and high he was propelled, was pretty similar at just under 20 mph. That’s not very fast in a car but on foot, or any other means, that’s a lot. No, you can’t run that fast (Usain Bolt’ max speed is 29 mph). The main difference between airs was the angle of his body and board at the last moment before going airborne. Think of a bottle rocket being launched at an angle across the street, versus one shot straight up in the air. The one shot straight up goes higher every time. So, today’s physics takeaway is simply that JJF went bigger at Backdoor than at Bells because he launched on a sharper upward angle. This is probably not a shocking realization. 10 feet is still pretty impressive though.

To me, the real debate is which air is more impressive, measurables aside? The Backdoor alley-oop was on a lay day at last year’s Pipe Master’s – a homecoming celebration after he’d already locked up his first world title.  On the other hand, Bells was the third competition of this year’s tour with JJF arriving atop the leaderboard. His yellow jersey pales in comparison to the enormous expectations he carries as a 24-year-old defending world champion.

I don’t know about you, but the last time I had a day off I did almost nothing impressive. It’s one thing to be blessed with supreme talent and potential, but to perform when so much is on the line is what the great ones do. Realistically, I think these performances are linked. One is a product of the other, and vice versa. Is it the chicken or the egg? I don’t know if any of us can answer that one, and just like those final moments of the 4th round of Bells, I am out of words.