Without even really trying, John John Florence has become the black wolf of the surfing world – one of nature’s rarities that captures people’s imaginations. We only see his enviable surfing during contests, making those events that much more important to watch. Or pore over his films every few years, increasing the gravitas of those movies tenfold (save the occasional web edit). Similarly, information on Mr. Florence’s health and plans for the future is also sparse, which is why writers (like me) covet the opportunity to sit down with the two-time world champ. When we do get the opportunity to discuss life and sea with one of the greatest to ever stick feet to wax, it’s a remarkably enjoyable experience: he’s candid, humble and rather easy to get on with.
In a simple half-hour conversation, I learned more about John John’s ailing knee than I had in the previous 12 months. Or that he really doesn’t care about winning an exorbitant amount of titles. And that yes, he wants to sail to Teahupo’o to compete in this year’s Tahiti Pro instead of flying like the rest of us would. For no other reason than because he can. John John Florence, the man, not just the surfer, is a treasure we should thoroughly enjoy now before he’s completely spent and ready to remove himself from the scrutiny of the public eye – a natural wonder that might disappear into the wilderness before we have a chance to snap a photo.
What exactly was the prognosis on your knee?
I had a three-quarter tear of my ACL. It was mostly torn not a full tear, right on the line. It was easy to go for surgery but I opted out of going that route.
Why did you make that call?
I went to Dr. Mark Kozuki (a performance-based physical therapist in Costa Mesa, Calif.) and he was super optimistic and was like, “I think you can heal this thing without surgery.” I went to a lot of different doctors – some were saying surgery, only a few weren’t. For me, ultimately, with my ACL, I was able to walk fine. When I went down low or did more dynamic movements it started feeling weird. But I couldn’t picture going into surgery and not being able to walk and having to strengthen and heal it again. It was crazy though, I was still considering the surgery all the way up until January of this year. I went to (visit doctors) in Colorado and was still pretty sore with looseness and they were like, “At this point, it’s as healed as it’s going to be. It’s going to need surgery to fix it.” That kind of made me fired up to heal it without surgery. So I was training super hard for all of January and February, trying to get ready for Snapper.
So are your doctors feeling like it’s healed itself or are you just out there on a torn ACL?
MRIs are a funny thing. I had five different doctors look at the MRI but say different things. The art of reading an MRI is mysterious. Some MRIs it looked kind of healed back, others there looked like detachment from the bone. The ACL is two bundles and the larger bundle looked like it was detached. I’d go back to get it checked and a lot of guys are going off feel, some were looking at the MRI. It’s still kind of a question. It looks torn in some. In others, it looks 100 percent. It feels so good but there’s still definitely little pops and weird moments.
That year off seemed to do you some good, though?
One-hundred percent. After winning the second world title I was like, “Okay, what are my goals?” Going into last year I didn’t have time to sit back and think what I was doing and what I wanted to do. Just having the injury gave me a lot of time to look at the whole thing with an outside perspective, which is hard when you’re in it. You’re thinking of the day to day, what to do to get ready for tomorrow. You have more time when you’re out of the water for six months.
It’s seemed to have done wonders for your surfing.
It refreshed me for the season. I reset some of my goals and it just reinvigorated my excitement for competing. To take a break, I think that’s really important. I was excited to be back in the water surfing and thankful to be in the position I’m in. It’s funny, after a year off, I have a heat with Gabriel or Filipe or Kolohe and I get fired up about it instead of getting super nervous. They’re pushing my surfing. I’m at the top of my game. It’s an exciting time in life.
Your lead in 2019 is big. Are you doing the math in your head, keeping track of what you still need to do to win a title?
I’ve never had a lead this big so it’s hard to look at it that way as it’s still relatively early, a lot of things can change. I’m not really keeping track of points. It’s definitely too early for that. Even if I did win this event, there’s still six events left. Gabriel won two events in Europe one year, that’s a 20,000-point jump. So I don’t start thinking about it at all if I can help it, at least counting points.
Because of the way you surf and your recent titles, you naturally get compared to Kelly Slater in the media and by fans but you guys seem so different in your personalities.
I’m definitely flattered to be compared to Kelly. I think Kelly is the greatest of all time. Competing is something that’s been a huge part of my life and I really admire people who are able to mold their lives with competing and go through different stages and continue to learn. But at the same time, I feel like I’m a very different person from Kelly. I don’t know if I’ll be on tour as long. I have other parts of my life I’m interested in.
So, no 11 titles for you?
I think I’d have to win the next nine years every year to catch up (laughs). Nine more years on tour is a long time, considering I’m on my eighth or ninth now. To even catch Kelly there’s so much that has to happen. The way I’m going about it, I’m excited for next year, to keep competing another ten years, five years, however long I want to do it.
People are still gonna compare you to surfers from the past, though. To me, Tom Curren seems more in line with your personality.
I like that comparison, that’s probably more on point. When Tom was in his prime I wasn’t alive yet so it’s hard to tell how he handled the media while competing. Tom’s surfing has had a huge inspiration on me, though. Getting to hang out with him and his family, see how he competed, learn what he did with the limelight more. But yeah, I really enjoy surfing, I enjoy competing. I love surfing those 35-minute heats and surfing my best. Everything else is pretty nerve-wracking.
You mean you’d rather forget about everything else?
Not rather forget about it, it’s just that I’m more an introvert than an extrovert. When all that media stuff is going on I just want to go surf by myself.
Your family seems pretty good with it all, though. Would you rather just let Nathan take that role?
Yes, for sure, for me it’s really exciting to watch Nathan. He’s an exciting personality to watch. People are always like, “I didn’t know how funny your brother was.” I think it’s so cool, he’s found a really good path that he’s excited about. I’m excited what he’s doing with surfing, coming out and winning the event at Shipstern. It was so cool. As far as Instagram and social media, for me that’s so hard to wrap my head around. The social media thing, I can’t contemplate how to get out of the water and then find something to post. I admire people who can do it so effortlessly.
You’d rather not have to post on social media then?
That’s kind of it. I just want to go surf and hang out with friends. I don’t want to have to do an Instagram post. I probably put too much thought behind it.
You bought Travis Rice’s sailboat earlier this year. How’d that come about?
It was kind of a slow thing that happened over time. I was just getting into sailing, and it was five or six years ago when Travis first brought the boat down to Tahiti. That was the first year I met him and he was telling me about how it was really fast and at that time I had no understanding of what it was, why it was such a good boat. Years later I was like, “Okay, I want a real boat to go far on.” I was looking around and asking, what was the right one, I was asking Travis and he said he was selling his. Then he sailed to Hawaii on the trip with Ian (Walsh) and said he’d be stoked if it worked out to sell it to me. It worked out so perfectly. He and Ian dropped it off. It’s really cool, I’m a huge fan of Travis. He’s been a huge inspiration for me with his filmmaking and riding.
The Brazil stop of the tour is about to kick off. Do you like competing there?
I like competing in Brazil. Everyone is super passionate. It’s really cool and unlike any other event, there’s so much excitement on the beach when you get a good wave.
It seems like Kelly is always rumored to be skipping Brazil. Do you think a lot of competitors try to find a way out of doing that contest?
No….(hesitates and laughs), I don’t think so. I definitely wouldn’t want to skip it. The waves are always pretty fun, it’s a tricky wave and that makes it interesting and the Brazilian audience is bigger than any other audience on tour so I couldn’t imagine not having a contest there.
What do you have for upcoming projects? Is there another film coming down the pipe?
I’m working on competing right now but we’re going to sail to Tahiti for the contest after J-Bay ends. I’m gonna do it with my brother Nathan, Erik Knutson, and a couple other friends. At this point, surfing and sailing are the two things I really love doing. Seeing Travis with his boat at the contest, I thought that was so cool. We traditionally have a month break before Teahupo’o. A few years ago, I thought of it as kind of a joke. To bring a sailboat to a contest? But it’s crazy, it’s become a reality now.
How are you getting the boat back?
We’re going to leave it there for a couple of months and sail back slower when the contest season is over. We’re going down quicker so we’ll have ample time before the event. On the way back we’re going to try and surf the Line Islands, and Fanning Island, the first island south of Hawaii. There are good waves there on those big north swells. We’ll just take our time and enjoy it.