You can tell a lot by the way someone parties. I ran into John John Florence several years ago at the SURFER Poll (when it was still around) and despite wearing a handsome suit made for a ball, with his beautiful date by his side and his eyes a bit glossed, he handled himself like he does in the ocean: with absolute composure.
While the rest of his group giggled incessantly, and revelers from the surf world went ape shit in full-on festival mode (it was the industry’s biggest party, after all), John John smiled, and answered questions with the aplomb of a gubernatorial candidate – even though he’d absolutely clean up the awards show later (which would make me want to party).
That irony was not lost given the access I scored during JJF’s latest pre-Olympic media tour (sponsored by Michelob Ultra Pure Gold, he “loves organic beer.” Who doesn’t?). John John was giving interviews to promote the brand’s latest travel program to cover baggage fees, which I’m still wrapping my head around. I gladly used the time to ask him the most pressing questions of the day: will he surf in the Olympics and where is his head given the injury and latest drama. Kelly Slater lurks in the background as an alternate, ready to take JJF’s Olympic roster spot if he were to bow out due to the ACL surgery he underwent just over a month ago. He sounded pretty damn confident.
“Definitely, that’s my goal (to win a gold medal),” he told me. “One-hundred percent. I don’t like to compete without trying to win.”
John John just started surfing again and recently filled his Instagram stories with footage of himself on a short board, sans brace.
“I’ve been surfing for a week now,” he said, “going through the motions, going deeper into turns, adding new things in each week. It’s been fun in a way. It’s such a challenge to come back from an injury. Every single day is full – tissue work, acupuncture, I’m doing everything I can possibly do to get ready.”
The last time Florence returned from an ACL injury, he was rushing it to compete in the 2019 Pipe Masters, when he was nursing his right knee (his back, power-producing appendage). He was able to go straight at Pipeline, advancing through enough rounds to hold on to his Olympic roster spot and hold off one Kelly Slater.
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The beach break where the Olympic program will be held in Japan, however, is sure to require a lot more mobility given the anticipated size of the surf (see small). Airs and tight turns will be paramount. “With small waves, you’re so much more compressed, you have to get lower and there’s a lot more torque on the knee,” he admitted. “But this time it’s my front (left) leg. When your back leg is injured, my back leg anyway, it’s not only bent but pushed inward. You really put a lot of power into that back leg. Even just surfing the last couple of days, I’m way, way ahead of where I was last time. There was also the benefit of not having to take part of my hamstring like last time. The doctors were able to attach it all back to the bone so it’s much stronger.”
Given all that, Mr. Florence reiterated that any chance of pulling out of the contest will be a game-time decision, which means Slater, who’s taken a somewhat cavalier approach to the Games thus far, will have to be on site in order to compete. How bad does JJF think Kelly wants his spot? ”
“He probably wants it really bad,” John John laughed. “I can only imagine. Kelly is a competitor, he’s probably doing the best he can to be ready. I’m doing the best I can. I’m pretty motivated. I didn’t put all that work in to not get there this time around. I’m putting every second of every day into this knee.”
On most surf fans’ mind is what happens when the Olympic lights fade and we go back to standard CT surfing, where the best in the world still lurk. For years, it’s been a foregone conclusion that JJF would win more than two titles. But after two ACL surgeries, his body hasn’t held up its end of the bargain – that probably has more to do with his ultra-physical style of surfing. He’s not thinking about it.
“The long game, I don’t really know,” he said. “I’m not one to think 10 years down the line. These injuries don’t worry me at all. I’m feeling as good as I have. It won’t have an impact on how hard I push. 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 started surfing after six weeks. It’s pretty amazing. I’ve put my body through so much training and I’ve put so much energy into nutrition, I’ve learned so much. I don’t see anything stopping my career unless I just don’t love competing anymore.”
Hopefully, that’s years from now. John John Florence is still the life of the competitive-surfing party.