On the afternoon of the Pipe finals, local resident Pete Johnson had invited a small group of people to watch the contest from his property. His backyard afforded amazing views of the lineup, but it was secluded from the crowds and chaos directly in front of the contest area. His lawn became a de-facto VIP viewing area. The Florence and Slater camps were both in attendance. Under normal circumstances, Kelly, John John and their respective crews are close friends and neighbors. But as the contest progressed, and it became clear that Kelly and John John would actually be competing against each other for the Pipe title, the mood became slightly awkward. The atmosphere was largely congenial, but there were a few unavoidably uneasy eruptions of cheers during the heat. Guests did their best to act discreet about who they were supporting, similar to the way you might avoid discussing politics at a diverse dinner gathering. But some alliances were blatantly obvious, and there were a few peculiar pairings of people watching the action. Kelly’s close friend Eddie Vedder anxiously cheered for his buddy while Mom John, Bob Hurley and John’s trusted shaper Jon Pyzel stood just a few feet away unabashedly supporting John.
The beach was packed with a record number of spectators that day. John had just won the Triple Crown – his second in three years, but judging from the look on his face, he viewed this win as a Pyrrhic victory. His coveted Pipeline Masters win had just been snatched away from him by Kelly Slater in the waning moments of their heat. With just moments to spare, Kelly was able snag a trademark miracle barrel and secure the score that he needed to win. His dramatic last-minute upset is something that we’ve witnessed Kelly execute against countless competitors, sometimes with seemingly sadistic timing. But somehow this match had felt different. John had held a significant lead for most of the heat. He was composed and relaxed. All of the elements seemed to be falling into place for him. For a brief moment, it appeared that John might actually be able to trounce the master and steal the pebble from Kelly’s hand. Not this time.
John John stood on the manicured lawn overlooking Pipeline. His hand-carved Triple Crown trophy was at his feet and a vibrant wreath of victory flowers rested in his hair. He was surrounded by friends, family and sponsors. He deserved to be proud. He deserved to be reveling in his illustrious performance. He wasn’t. It was a bittersweet moment.
Just minutes earlier, Mark was actually one of the first people to greet Kelly at the water’s edge when he won the Pipe title. The bottle of champagne that Kelly chugged, and that was subsequently captured in countless photos, was actually handed to him by Mark. Despite this, Mark is one of the few people that had the credibility, the history and the sincere warmth of spirit to be able to toggle between the Slater and Florence camps so quickly and effortlessly after such a potentially divisive heat. He strolled up to John and gave him a heartfelt and compassionate hug. His brief embrace conveyed an untold measure of empathy and kindness. An unmistakably elated grin appeared on John’s face, but only for a brief moment.
The day was riddled with controversial scores. Kelly and John both put a on a brave face and gave the obligatory interviews to the hungry press. It was an epic battle that played out like a Shakespearean play. The young prince didn’t quite usurp the King, but John John did have the consolation of the Triple Crown trophy and the knowledge that during his matchup against World Champion Mick Fanning, he had masterfully put the Champ in a combo position within minutes of the start of their heat. Kelly Slater earned himself another prestigious Pipe Masters title. They both surfed magnificently that day, but their awe-inspiring accomplishments were tainted with the bitter irony that Kelly had desperately wanted another world title, and John John had lusted for the elusive Pipe title.
Despite their magnificent victories, they both were horribly disappointed. At dusk, I spotted the 11-time World Champ walking solemnly down the bike path. Alone. The number 2 on the back of his jersey resonated poignantly in my mind as I watched Kelly make the five minute trek towards his home sans entourage or fanfare.