Father Time has never lost. He stands for no one. And no one has stood up to him. Not even perpetually young, bleach-blond surfing super heroes. Namely, one John John Florence, who, if you hadn’t heard (and you’d be forgiven if you hadn’t) turned 30 years old yesterday.
If you like good surfing, like to watch good surfing, or appreciate competitive surfers who carry themselves the right way, then you’ve probably watched John John’s career unfold as I have – with appreciation and a bit of homer-ism, like you’re rooting for the team you grew up with. Cause JJF has never, ever screamed, “look at me!” But his surfing has constantly yelled, “I know you can’t stop watching.” Those searing cutbacks with water shooting into space that seemed to pick up speed instead of wipe it off, or the ease with which he finds the barrel, and the airs, made to look so easy, yet so terribly hard on his body, which has certainly paid the price. And now that he’s left his twenties, it kind of makes us all feel just a little bit older, doesn’t it?
After several knee surgeries, it’s difficult to imagine him winning many more titles. His two, even though they were glorious, seem underwhelming given his potential. The most well-documented young surfer of our generation was supposed to be the chosen one, the one to rival Kelly. But his body didn’t hold up. And maybe it should have been more obvious to us all that perhaps he just didn’t care about that many titles.
As I look back on my favorite moments of his still-illustrious career (I hope he continues to make a go of it even after his latest injury), it’s not the world titles, or the big wins at Margaret River, Pipe, or Bells, or even the freesurfing I think back on after covering him. No, my favorite moment was during qualification for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
John John was out of action after ACL surgery, but after a searing start to 2019, he’d nearly qualified for the U.S. team despite being forced to miss a good portion of the season. The outside pressure was mounting to give up his spot to Kelly Slater, who was next in line. If he hadn’t paddled out at that 2019 Pipe Masters in full knee brace, Mr. Slater could have potentially overtaken him in the rankings and qualified. But instead, John John, three months after surgery, made the quarterfinals to secure his spot. Another injury and a second surgery in May of 2021 and the online whispers continued to have Slater replace him in the COVID-delayed Olympics. He would soldier on, unable to make a dent in Tokyo because of that injury.
“I’m not one to think 10 years down the line,” he told me before the Games. “These injuries don’t worry me at all. These little bumps in the road, they’re fun challenges in a way. The medicine and doctors, everything is so good now days. Ten years ago these injuries were career enders. I don’t see anything stopping my career unless I just don’t love competing anymore.”
There is little doubt now that injury has stained John’s career more than any of us would have liked. But is there anyone we would rather watch surf? Keep fighting Father Time young man. It’s certainly the good fight, however un-winnable it may be.