Not long ago, John John Florence, one of the greatest surfers of our time, made a significant splash when he signed with the shoe company Vivobarefoot, creating a new line with the brand. It was a splash because he hadn’t signed with a shoe sponsor in quite some time. Mr. Florence made the media rounds to support the signing, and I was lucky enough to get a seat at the table with the North Shore native.
It was an interesting conversation, mostly because John was reflecting on a 2023 campaign that saw him just outside the Final Five at Trestles, which, if we’re being honest here, likely disappointed most surf fans. That and maybe the fact there was no Gabby, either.
John John’s brand of surfing is so relatable: there’s the power of course, and subsequent picturesque rail work that makes the old school guard tear up with nostalgia. Then there’s the air game, that before all the injuries, was the envy of most every grom coming up behind him. But John is now on the other side of 30. He has to rely more on competitive know-how, and when the waves are right – see barreling, shallow, gnarly – he’s still a favorite. That’s why it’s easy to see why he might be getting tired of the Final Five (and the season) ending at Trestles. Permit issues aside, John John told me he doesn’t mind the Final Five concept, but couldn’t the season’s crescendo come at a better wave? I spoke with him about that, the new WSL, retirement and a number of other nuggets heading into his offseason.
So you kind of dig the finals-day format?
I like the idea of the Final Five set up. I think the idea of it is really good because in the past, like when I won my world titles, I won standing on the beach. Which is always a little weird. You’re like, ‘Okay, I win. Yay.’ My first world title when I won early in Portugal was even weirder. I showed up to (the last event of the season at) Pipe and I was like, ‘Okay, I guess I’m just doing this for fun.’ I mean, I loved it. It was great. I got to clear my home break with zero pressure and just enjoy it. But I think the ultimate world title was when Italo and Gabe made the final at Pipe to decide it. The waves were pretty good and I think that’s the ultimate. I think a lot of people would agree that having the world title come down to Pipeline was always very entertaining and interesting.
Hard to argue Lowers over Pipeline.
Pipe is such an exciting place to have it. Not that Lowers isn’t exciting. I think Lowers is a great wave. It’s just different, it’s a lot more technical. This is where personal preference comes in. I’m way more interested in heavy, high-risk waves. So when you watch the world title being won at waist-high Lowers, you’re like, ‘Oh, okay, that’s cool.’ But it’s not as exciting as 10-foot barreling Pipe when you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ It doesn’t have to be Pipe, either, It could be anywhere that’s a wave of consequence. It’d be great to do the final five at Pipeline, though, instead.
It was a crazy year in general. The CEO is out, the judging was heavily scrutinized – you had a crazy one with Connor O’Leary that might have hurt your chances of making the Finals. Things seemed a little acidic at times, for lack of a better term.
Yeah, the judging, it seemed like there was a lot more conflict with the judging this year. It’s such a hard one because it goes back to the fact it’s an individual sport. At the Surf Ranch, there’s Gabe and Ethan Ewing. And Ethan, you know, Ethan thinks the judging was good. Gabe doesn’t think it was good. One person will think it’s good and the other person doesn’t. And so it’s always going to kind of go both ways. And, you know, for me at J-Bay, I was questioning the judging, but Connor was probably liking the judging. And then on top of that, the judges are only human too. You know, they’re going to make their calls, whatever they’re going to be. The judging is never going to be a perfect thing. And I think those guys probably have a pretty hard job with a lot of pressure.
Do you feel like there’s more of a divide now between progression and traditional style and power surfing? It seems like that gap has widened and often seems to be one of the main sticking points.
Yeah, it’s an interesting one. I don’t know, actually. This year, I kind of saw both getting scored pretty good. Like, you see a lot of Ethan’s surfing – that traditional, just strong, solid power surfing. And he was getting scored for that. And then you see waves like J-Bay, which is one of the longest waves on our tour, and guys getting eights and nines for one maneuver.
I personally think a lot of it has to come down to the wave and what the wave offers that we’re surfing. J-Bay is a good example, like just going down the line, taking off at the end of the wave? I think Yago got a 9.5 for one big air, and it’s some crazy air. Don’t get me wrong, like an incredible air. But if you’re at J-Bay? It’s such a long wave.
J-Bay was a hard one. I didn’t quite understand it. I was even coming in and the beach announcers had announced, ‘oh, John wins, Connor gets second.’ And so I was like, ‘okay, cool.’ I made the heat. He didn’t get the score on that last wave. And then I’m walking up the beach and you have the big screen and then all of a sudden they start dropping the score. And I’m like, ‘wait, what happened?’
Definitely a tough year on a number of fronts. On the new CEO, as a veteran now, would the WSL ever ask for your input on the new hire?
I’m there competing and that’s the main focus for me. But if anyone from WSL wants to ask my opinion, I’m happy to give my opinion. But for the most part, I’m not going to reach out and be like, ‘Hey, this is what I think needs to happen.’ I’d like to sit back and kind of watch everything that’s happening before I make an opinion. Because it’s not only entertaining (laughs), but you can learn a lot from it, I feel like. Yeah. If they ever want to know my opinion and ask me, I’m always happy to give it.
Is Florence Marine X Going to lose its CEO (Pat O’Connell) to the WSL?
I’d never let him go (laughs).
How pumped are you to be back at the Olympics at a wave like Teahupo’o?
Yeah, making the Olympics felt super good because that was one of my main goals for the year. And it being at Chopes is just icing on the cake. I hope we get waves. I hope it’s really good. It would be so exciting if it’s 10-foot and big barrels and somehow we luck out. But even just getting another chance at the Olympics after going to Japan last time, just coming out of the ACL surgery. Also just having the experience of going there and knowing what to expect having gone through it and then coming into it this time around and going, ‘okay, I know how I want to approach it this time.’ I’m really excited about it.
With everything going on with the tour, and where you’re at with your career, how long do you think you’ll keep competing?
I think about it all the time. It’s hard for me sometimes because my personality doesn’t fit (competing) so well. And especially the new tour over the last couple of years, the environment of it has changed a lot. It doesn’t fit my personality even more so.
So I struggle with that sometimes, but like the back end of this year, I felt really good and it changed my whole outlook – more of a relaxed approach regarding where I am and what I’m doing and how I want to (compete). I definitely won’t go do it if I don’t think I can win a world title. I’ll continue to do it as long as I can win a world title and as long as I’m having fun. I’m planning on doing it for the next couple of years. But at this point, I’m taking it year by year and just kind of seeing how I feel at the beginning of each year and just being like, ‘Oh, this sounds pretty fun right now,’ or ‘This doesn’t sound fun right now.’