Get to know John John Florence: 5 facts about Team USA’s surfer making his Olympic debut

Meet the surfer competing for Team USA.

For the Tokyo Olympics this summer, For The Win is helping you get to know some of the star Olympians competing on the world’s biggest stage. Leading up to the Opening Ceremony, we’re highlighting 23 athletes in 23 days. Up next up is John John Florence.

There were some concerns that the knee injury John John Florence suffered in May would keep him out of the Olympics.

But as the two-time world surfing champion showed in June, he was able to get back on the board and continue his run to Tokyo to compete in the sport that will be making its debut at the Games later this year.

So what should you know about the 28-year-old joining Kolohe Andino, Caroline Marks and Carissa Moore on Team USA? Here are five facts about the surfer who could end up with a medal by the end of the Games.


Finally, the Women’s Championship Tour will hold a historic event at Pipeline

The Maui Pro finishing at Pipeline is a historic step for women’s surfing.

For the first time in World Surf League history, there will be a Women’s Championship Tour event at Oahu’s fabled North Shore break, Pipeline. The historic moment comes on the heels of tragedy, after a shark attack at Maui’s Honolua Bay suspended the first Women’s Tour event of the 2021 season.

According to Jessi Miley-Dyer, the WSL’s Vice President of Tours and Competition, the decision to move the Maui Pro to Pipeline was made after consulting with tour athletes, who were eager to compete on surfing’s largest stage.

“It can’t be stressed how huge this is for women’s surfing,” Miley-Dyer told For The Win via phone from Oahu. “We’ve been pushing the progression of the women’s sport in a bunch of ways, from pay equity to having the same number of events as the men, and the natural thought here was, could we finish this at Pipe?”

For the past 48 years, the Billabong Pipe Masters contest has been one of surfing’s most storied events, brining together the world’s best surfers at arguably the world’s most famous surf break. For almost five decades though, the contest has also only had a men’s division. Despite what the 2002 film Blue Crush depicted, Pipe Master’s has never had a women’s champion.

Top female surfers have taken part in exhibitions and lower-profile contests at Pipe before, but professionally, there’s never been a Women’s Championship Tour event. The World Surf League has run the Women’s Pipe Invitational four times in the past six years to showcase women’s talent, but in terms of prize money and points earned, the women have traditionally surfed Maui’s Honolua Bay while the men charged the winter swell on Oahu’s North Shore.

There are cultural as well as bureaucratic reasons that contests along the North Shore have been segregated in the past.

“Pipe is a monster of a wave,” Miley-Dyer said. “If you haven’t had experience with it, it can really be a beast. I mean, it’s dangerous anyway, but you have to put a lot of time into that wave. It’s the most competitive wave in the world. Without the experience, it’s like going on a tennis court for the first time and trying to defeat Roger Federer.”

It isn’t that women aren’t capable of surfing the wave, or are too scared to, but that Pipe’s male dominated culture has often been a deterrent. The wave has always had an intense pecking order and thrives on intimidation, making it harder for women to even practice.

In a recent Instagram post, four-time World Champion and Oahu native Carissa Moore wrote about practicing at the break with “all-around Pipe specialist” Jamie O’Brien. Part of the reason O’Brien paddled out with Moore was to help block waves for her, and provide backup against some of the toxicity that can flare up in the battle for a good wave.

“Being completely honest, this is a little out of my comfort zone but wow what an incredible opportunity to learn, push myself a little and surf one of the best waves in the world with only a few other women out,” she wrote.

The Maui Pro finishing at Pipe also comes on the heels of the passage of a historic women’s sports equality bill by the Honolulu City Council.

According to city council member Kymberly Pine, in the past decade, no permits have been issued by the city’s parks and recreation department for women’s surfing events on the North Shore during the winter swell season, despite requests from female surfers.

The WSL was granted a variance by city and state officials to finish the Maui Pro at Pipeline, and was not reliant on the passage of the bill. But Bill 10, otherwise known as the surf equity bill, now makes it harder for permits to be denied for women’s surf competitions.

“The Council finds that equal opportunity to participate in and be involved in sport and physical activity, whether for the purpose of leisure and recreation, health promotion or high performance, is the right of every person and that historically, women’s activities have often been subordinated to men’s activities,” the bill reads.

Since surfing has grown in popularity, Pine explained, the number of permit requests has grown exponentially but the number of permits has remained the same.

“In order to make room for the growing number of male competitors the women’s events got eliminated entirely,” Keala Kennelly, a 2018 Big Wave Champion and advocate for the bill, told Surfline. “The women have not been part of the Triple Crown of Surfing on the North Shore since 2010. That’s an entire decade of exclusion.”

Council member Pine, who authored the bill with co-sponsor and Parks and Recreation Department chair Heidi Tsuneyoshi, said that they council wasn’t even aware of the double standard until it was brought to their attention.

“They can’t give any good answers on why they didn’t give a permit to women’s events,” Pine said. “I don’t think it was malicious, but sometimes in government, I’ve found that people just press the easy button because things are so overwhelming.  A lot of times the answer is just, ‘oh it’s already booked.'”

The bill passed unanimously, “to assure the fair allocation of park facilities without discrimination on the basis of gender.”

“I don’t think anyone purposefully did this,” Pine said. “But this is why discrimination exists. It comes from tradition.”

The WSL has never applied for a permit at Pipe for women, but the league has tried to get permit extensions with the goal of adding women to other events and been denied.

Per a WSL spokesperson, the WSL applied in 2018 for a 5th day of competition to add women to the 2019, 2020 and 2021 Hawaiian Pro and Vans World Cup,

“This signaled that the WSL wanted to invest in women’s competition at the Vans Triple Crown in all of these years. All of these permit requests were denied by the City,” the WSL said in a statement.

A casual emphasis on surfing tradition has blocked women from having equal opportunity and equal access, especially at Hawaii’s North Shore. That, in addition to the breaking of cultural barriers, makes the Maui Pro at Pipe such a special, watershed moment.

It’s not full equality, but it’s another step in the right direction.

John John Florence opens up about beating Kelly Slater for Olympic spot

“To be honest with you, there definitely was some tension around the event. I definitely felt it,” Florence said.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic gripped the world, two-time world champion surfer John John Florence found himself with unexpected free time on his hands.

In June of 2019, Florence was in a prime spot to contend for another world title when he blew out his ACL during the Oi Rio Pro in Saquarema, Brazil.  The injury not only dashed his title hopes for the year, but threw into doubt his ability to land one of the two spots on the men’s US Olympic Surf Team.

The resulting comeback—from ACL surgery in just five months as well as a tense face off against all time great Kelly Slater for the final Olympic spot at Pipe Masters —is all documented in Florence’s new surf film, Tokyo Rising, which is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

The film offers a behind the scenes look at one of surfing’s most compelling storylines over the last year, and sheds some light on the relationship between Florence, currently the best male American surfer, and Slater, an all time great.

“My relationship with Kelly has always just been that he’s this person that I’ve always looked up to and gained inspiration from,” Florence said via phone from his home on Oahu’s North Shore. “Over the years I’ve tried to watch everything that he does. I was fortunate enough to meet him when I was very young and have gone and done some fun surf trips with him, which has been great.”

Slater won his first world title the year Florence was born, and still competes on the men’s championship tour regularly. The two aren’t necessarily rivals, but at the start of 2020, right before the pandemic shuttered world travel, Slater and Florence found themselves competing for the final spot on the Olympic team at the Pipe Masters. Florence was just recovering from his ACL surgery, and hadn’t even surfed Pipe before competition. Slater was coming off one of his worst tours in recent history, and needed to beat Florence’s points total (established before he blew out his knee) to gain an Olympic berth.

“To be honest with you, there definitely was some tension around the event. I definitely felt it,” Florence said.

Surfing has plenty of quirks, one being that competitors often use the same spaces to prep before heats. At Pipe, Florence and Slater both set up camp in the backyard of a mutual friend, which meant there was no real way to avoid each other.

“Kelly’s been going there for years, so he’d come into the yard for his heat, and it’s a good friend of ours,” Florence said. “I know he’s going to be there, so every time he walked in I kind of tensed up like, ohhh I’m just gonna act normal. Act normal! There’s nothing! Nothing’s happening!”

For his part, Slater admitted in the film there was some “uncomfortablity” between the two. While surfing prides itself on its collegial atmosphere, all that changes in the water.

“I’ve admired the surfers who can turn that on and off quickly. I’ve tried to do my best but sometimes it’s really hard. I was there for a goal, and I know Kelly’s there for his goal too, so you’re kind of…you have the understanding that we’re both competing that we’re both trying to do the best we can,” Florence said.

parallel sea

In the end, despite Slater pulling out a perfect 10 during the closing seconds of one of his heats, he was unable to finish above Florence in points. Florence ultimately snagged the final spot, joining American Kolohe Andino.

“I got a kick out of it,” Florence said. “[Slater] has been winning world titles since I was born, and he’s still competing as good as any other competitor on the Tour, getting 10s on the Pipeline Masters, which is very difficult to do. To me, it was kind of a dream in a way. to be competing against this guy who has been the best surfer in the world fro the past 25 years.”

Florence says the two have reached a friendly detente.

“He gave me a hug after and it was congratulations and stuff like that. Other than that, there wasn’t too much talk about the Olympics,” Florence said.

With his Olympic spot secure and the 2021 World Surf League season on the horizon Florence is nothing but stoked. You hear about people who are thriving during the pandemic and Florence is one of them. On Instagram, Florence can regularly been seen getting muddy at his farm, tending to his bee hive, or taking sailing trips around the Hawaiian islands. The time off has been a blessing in disguise for him.

“I’ve had so much time to get my knee to where I wanted it to be and, more importantly, I’ve had so much time to get my mind to where I wanted it to be, and just think about and find the why of why I wanted to compete,” Florence said. “I think change can be a good thing a lot of the time, you learn through change. I’m really looking forward to it. I’m very excited about competing again.”

Australian surfer Tyler Wright takes a knee during competition for Black Lives Matter

Wright used 7 minutes of her heat time to protest for racial justice.

Australian Tyler Wright, a two-time world champion, became one of the most prominent surfers to take a knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement at the Tweed Coast Pro event Sunday morning.

Wright knelt, with her fist raised, for 439 seconds —one second each to honor the 439 First Nations persons in Australia who have lost their lives in police custody since 1991.  So there would be no mistaking why Wright was taking a knee, she also had Black Lives Matter written on the back of her board. Unlike traditional sporting events, surfing competitions don’t make use of national anthems, so Wright used over 7 minutes of her heat time to protest racial and social injustice.

“Before I’m an athlete, I’m a human being,” she wrote on Instagram. “So today, before my heat at the Tweed Coast Pro, I’ll be taking a knee in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. These are divisive times and I’m a long way from perfect, but I deeply believe in the pursuit of racial justice and equality for everyone. I understand that my white privilege and having this platform with the surfing community means I have the choice to say something and do something… and that many don’t have that opportunity. I need to say more and do more with mine and I’m committed to challenging and changing the systems that continue to discriminate and oppress people of different backgrounds.

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While taking a knee can read as performative in spaces where it will be readily accepted and supported, Wright’s decision was a bold step in surfing’s tight knit, predominantly white community.  There are few pro Black surfers, and even fewer Indigenous surfers, and much of the conversation around racial justice has yet to penetrate into a sport that lives inside its own bubble.

The World Surf League was quick to show their support for Wright.

“The WSL is in full support of Wright and everyone around the world who are making their voices heard against racism and injustice. Surfing is for everyone and the WSL stands in solidarity to proactively work against racism and fight for true equality.”

While prominent surfers like Mick Fanning, Stephanie Gilmore and Layne Beachley also stood by Wright on social media, there was a fair bit of backlash as well from a surfing community that has many inroads to make in terms of diversity and inclusion.

“Oh cool. Now I have to stop watching surfing too. BLM is a Marxist organization and it’s built on a lie,” one of the most liked comments on the WSL Instagram page read.

Wright also earned the support of Black Girls Surf, a nonprofit dedicated to getting more Black girls and women into surfing.

“We’re going to hold her allyship high and dear, but also recognizing that this is only one step in a long road of true equality within the professional surf community,” the organization wrote on Instagram.

Wright went on to win the event, defeating seven-time world champion and fellow Aussie, Stephanie Gilmore in the final.

Maya Gabeira sets new World Record for the largest wave ever surfed by a woman

Watch Gabeira rip down the face of a wave that measured 73.5 feet.

The World Surf League’s inaugural Big Wave Nazaré Tow Surfing contest happened earlier this year in Portugal, where daring big wave surfers from around the world gathered at the infamous Praia do Norte surf break to test their mettle. A thrilling but dangerous spot, the massive swells at Nazaré mean waves routinely reach the height of small buildings, leaving no room for the faint of heart.

This year, Brazil’s Maya Gabeira not only won the cbdMD XXL Biggest Wave Award for her ride at Nazaré in February, but she set a new Guinness World Record for largest wave ever surfed by a woman. After a jet ski tow in, Gabeira ripped down the face of this monster, which officials have measured at 73.5 feet. In doing so, she beat her own previous world record of riding a 68-foot wave, set in 2018.

While the men and women compete in different categories, Gabeira’s ride also beat out Kai Lenny, the men’s Biggest Wave winner, whose ride measured 70 feet.

“I’m not a competitive person but I was very in the zone and felt braver than I usually am on this day,” Gabeira said via phone to For The Win. “I was just very focused and committed.”

Gabeira said that she had inkling this could be one of the biggest rides of her career as soon as she let go of the tow rope.

“I could tell by the speed, ok this is something, but the noise, the noise behind me when the wave broke really let me know. It was the most powerful, most loud sound and I knew it was something different, something that I had not done before.”

In a rare occurrence, the wave Gabeira rode came close to another ride by female surfer Justine Dupont, whose ride measured just 2 to 3 feet shorter, according to the WSL.

Measuring big waves isn’t an exact science, but the World Surf League called in a panel of experts to determine the relative size of the wave. Adam Fincham, a scientist at the University of Southern California, Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, said the team used a sequence of photos and videos and then did some good old fashioned math to determine the size.

“We studied the angles and used geometry to determine the size,” Fincham said. “We could be slightly off in the measure, but there’s no doubt that this wave is bigger than the one in 2018 and what else was surfed that day.”

Another key and unlikely factor the team used was the jet ski that Gabeira towed in on.

“That became our measuring stick,” Fincham said.”It was important to note that as waves break, they change, and we judged the wave at the time the surfer dropped into it, not before, to get the full height.”

While many may think that big wave surfers have a cavalier attitude towards danger, Gabeira said that’s far from the truth. While her big wave ride, and the validation that comes with a new world record was a thrill, she’s not eager to do it again.

“I was too close to danger,” Gabeira said with a laugh over the phone. “I wouldn’t do that again. I think I only have so many I can survive, right?”

Get a sneak peek of our true crime podcast, The Sneak: Murders at Whiskey Creek

The Sneak, a serialized podcast which tells true crime stories from inside and around the world of sports, is back for its second season.

The Sneak, a serialized podcast from FTW and USA TODAY which tells true crime stories from inside and around the world of sports, is back for its second season.

This season we will tell the story of Jack Roland Murphy, AKA Murf the Surf, a national surfing champion who would become internationally famous when he robbed New York Museum of Natural History of a priceless jewel collection.

But that was just the beginning of his story. To tell it fully, you must also travel to the waters of Whiskey Creek, a small river in Florida where, over 50 years ago, the bodies of two young women were found shot, bludgeoned, and stabbed, weighed down by concrete blocks, which was connected to wire that was lashed around their necks.

And the last time they were seen alive, they were getting in a boat with Jack Roland Murphy.

Listen to the sneak peek below via Spotify, or subscribe on Apple Podcasts. You can also listen to the entire second season right now, ad free, via Wondery Plus.