Insight, News, and Opinion by Nick Abramo
  • September 23, 2021
ARCHIVES SUNDAY: A Look Back At When John John Rocked ‘The Eddie’ … And More

Haleiwa’s John John Florence is somebody Hawaii can be proud of. Humble beginnings to superstar status while keeping a humble attitude.

Right now, as you read this, Florence is among the top handful of surfers in the world. He would normally be in the middle of a chase for a world title, but COVID-19 had other plans and the whole World Surf League season was scrapped.

Most surf fans and media personnel in the know can whittle the top surfers in the world down to a list of two — Florence and Brazilian Gabriel Medina. Both are two-time world champions, but there are a bunch of others who deserve to be in the conversation, including Brazil’s Italo Ferreira who is the reigning world champion.

“>I was lucky enough to be there when John John won his second straight world title at Pipeline in 2017 and was there to see Medina clinch both of his in 2014 and ’18.

But Florence also showed his amazing skill in one of the sport’s ultimate tests, the specialty event known now as the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational (or ‘The Eddie’ for short). He rocked ‘The Eddie’ in 2016 and ended the day as the second most spectacular thing on display. The waves themselves always finish first.

surfing (1)
These two artifacts are taped to my family room wall. (Original photo of John John Florence by Dennis Oda of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser).

For those of you who don’t know a lot about ‘The Eddie,’ it is only held when wave heights (this can be a tricky measurement to understand) reach 20 feet. That 20-foot guideline is the old-school, Hawaiian way of talking about heights and it’s deceiving because that way of doing it is generally speaking the height of the back of the wave. The actual wave faces (with trough) to start ‘The Eddie’ are 30 to 40 feet and sometimes, like in 2016, they get up to 60 feet.

Since 1984, the conditions (size and wind direction) were only good enough nine times for the contest to be held.

But that day in 2016 when John John won was incredible. I remember getting up early in the morning to beat the traffic and then, after it started, sending in breaking news reports throughout the day for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s website. I was covering the sports angle and Dan Nakaso was doing the news side of things. Dennis Oda was the photographer who captured a stunning shot that went in the next day’s paper. We were all dealing with spotty wi-fi from Waimea Bay.

I remember seeing John John on the podium afterward and recall him saying something like, “This is my greatest accomplishment.” Nearby was Australia’s Ross Clarke-Jones, the wily veteran, big-wave bomber and 2001 champion of ‘The Eddie.

Clarke-Jones, who was pushing 50 at the time, finished somewhere in the top six, but his look at John John said it all: “Yeah, yeah, congratulations, mate. But I could have won this thing and I’ll get you next time.”

For Archives Sunday today, I’ve decided to run two stories from the past below

The first one is the “game story” of John John winning ‘The Eddie.’ The second is a feature story I wrote about John John for the Star-Advertiser in May 2019. It came from a one-on-one interview in front of his house on the North Shore, of course overlooking the ocean. I remember we talked about bees and boating and his mind-set about coming back from an injury.

ohn John Florence at the top of his game. For anyone wondering, the wave in this photo is too small for 'The Eddie.' (Photo courtesy of Parallel Sea).

Looking back, I think my next-day follow-up story was better than the event coverage. For some reason, I can’t easily find that one. I will keep looking. Oh well.

Here you go:

EDDIE GOES WITH THE FLO

By Nick Abramo

Honolulu Star-Advertiser (Feb. 26, 2016)

John John Florence is one of the best surfers on the planet, and he carved another notch in his distinguished career by staking his claim Thursday to a Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau big-wave invitational victory at Waimea Bay.

The bright-eyed Florence, 23 and from Haleiwa, is a two-time Vans Triple Crown champion, but he just topped that with a stunning performance at the Eddie in massive waves with 60-foot-plus faces and punishing conditions.

“It was unbelievable, a lot of good waves coming in,” Florence said. “I’m just so stoked to be surfing in it and to end it like this is amazing. I can’t believe this day. It’s the biggest (waves that) Waimea holds, pretty much. Definitely Eddie conditions and an Eddie year and a Brock Little swell. It’s such a sad thing that happened. He (Little) was a hero to me and my brother growing up. This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me so far in my surf life.”

Hawaii’s Brock Little, who was a big-wave charger, died Feb. 18. He was an inspiration to all 29 of the Eddie surfers.

Florence scored 301 points with his four-wave total to get past Australia’s Ross Clarke-Jones, 49, a former Eddie champion who finished second with 278. Kailua-Kona’s Shane Dorian, 43, took third, followed in order by: Australia’s Jamie Mitchell, 39; 11-time world champion Kelly Slater, 44, of Florida; and the North Shore’s Makuakai Rothman, 31.

Florence, the second youngest competitor, earned $75,000 for the win. Only 22-year-old Koa Rothman, Makuakai’s brother, was younger.

“Bottom line, I started out with the goal of catching big waves, but really wanted to be the guy with the biggest smile afterward,” said Hawaii’s Dave Wassel, 42, who finished in seventh place. “I am so elated to have made it back on the beach. My best wave was the wave that brought me to the shore because anything else besides that was horrifying. Nobody really manned up today, we just survived.”

Slater was all pumped up about the day in which he caught a rare barrel in his second heat, but he knew winning a second Eddie would be difficult

“Every guy in my second heat was a super intense big-wave guy,” said Slater, who won his Eddie in 2002. “And they were all super capable of winning this thing. They all charge and all knew how to line up at the peak. You want to give each other space, but you also want that wave, so I got outmaneuvered a lot. Twiggy (Baker), Jamie Mitchell and Wassel, those are three of the gnarliest watermen on Earth. Those guys will take off on anything. So will Ramon (Navarro). So will Ross Clarke-Jones.”

Clarke-Jones, who was invited to the event for the 29th time this year, was surprised he did so well. The contest only gets the green light when wave-face heights reach 40 feet and the wind conditions are not blowing the waves out.
“It was a wonderful day,” Clarke-Jones said. “I wasn’t expecting too much after the false alarm two weeks ago because I was so ready then, too ready, probably. It was such a disappointment. This time, I was just cruising, and was calm. Just take it as it comes. I know how to accept it. I used to try too hard and it never works, so you just let it go. The time I won was the only time I relaxed (before this).”

The Eddie, named in honor of waterman Eddie Aikau, has only run nine times in its 31-year history. Aikau was a North Shore lifeguard and big-wave surfer who died at age 31 in 1978 while swimming to shore for help after the voyaging canoe Hokule‘a — on a cultural expedition from Oahu to Tahiti — capsized in treacherous deep-ocean waters.

Jodi Wilmott, the World Surf League Hawaii general manager, estimated the crowd at 25,000 and confirmed that these were the biggest waves the Eddie has seen and said that it could go down as the greatest one-day big-wave event in history.

Eddie’s younger brother, Clyde Aikau, 66, competed in the event on Thursday for the ninth time and placed 21st.

The honor of winning a contest with such a rich tradition and with so much meaning for the surfing community was not lost on Florence.

“I was riding my bike down here this morning in the dark and just the energy of how many people were parked all the way down the street was amazing,” he said. “I’ve lived here my whole life and I’ve never seen it like that. Walking down the beach, people just screaming, and the energy was so crazy. I’ve never been a part of an event like this. It’s definitely the highlight of my life for sure.

“Biggest of all, I want to say thanks to the Aikau family and Quiksilver for putting on this amazing event. I’ve only seen it run a couple of times in my life, so to be a part of it, to be surfing in it, and to actually win it is such a dream come true … against all these legends. These guys are my heroes.”

Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational Winners

>> 1984: Dention Miyamura (Hawaii)

>> 1986: Clyde Aikau (Hawaii)

>> 1990: Keone Downing (Hawaii)

>> 1999: Noah Johnson (Hawaii)

>> 2001: Ross Clarke-Jones (Australia)

>> 2002: Kelly Slater (Florida)

>> 2004: Bruce Irons (Hawaii)

>> 2009: Greg Long (San Clemente, Calif.)

>> 2016: John John Florence (Hawaii)

 

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Two-time world champ John John Florence returns to surfing with new perspective

By Nick Abramo

Honolulu Star-Advertiser (May 14, 2019)

And now these three remain: speed, power and flow. But the greatest of these is flow.
And now these three remain: speed, power and flow. But the greatest of these is flow.

That’s the good news John John Florence is proclaiming these days. The two-time World Surf League champion is relaxed and ready, and feeding off the energy of the ever-increasing streamlining of his whole being.

“I have so many different little hobbies,” the 26-year-old Florence said during an interview last week in the yard of his North Shore beachfront home. “With many of the things in my life, I like figuring out ways to be efficient. For me, one way is clean living. It would be cool if we could grow our own food and make our own honey.”

Those two examples have intertwined for Florence in an insightful, green-planet kind of way.

“We have fruit trees all over the property, and for a few years the trees flowered but never fruited,” he said. “We couldn’t figure it out. And then we got bees and literally within months, there was just fruit popping out everywhere. It was crazy to me to see that the bees were the missing link. It was ‘Boom, OK here you go.’ ”
And so now the Haleiwa boy, among a handful of the hottest, cutting-edge surfers on Earth, is an actual beekeeper.

“And a while before I was a beekeeper, I went to a nursery and asked about why the trees weren’t fruiting and they asked if there were any bees around, so now I understand why they were asking me.”

Like Florence himself, his bees have their ups and downs.

“We had a big storm and they weren’t doing so well,” he said. “They got a little wet, but they’re making a good comeback.”

A NEW PERSPECTIVE

Good comeback. By saying that, he could also be talking about himself. Florence won back-to-back world titles in 2016 and ’17 before suffering a season-ending knee injury in 2018. Not surprisingly, he’s back in form this season and sits atop the Jeep Leaderboard with finishes of third and first place in the first two championship tour contests of 2019.

“Through the injury, I took a step back and looked at things from an outside perspective,” he said. “To be honest, I wondered if I still wanted to compete. I asked myself, ‘What do I like and how do I do this (coming back)?’

“I came back with a whole new view on how I want to compete and why I’m competing. I was kind of in a weird mind-set before the injury anyway. I had just won my second title, and winning world titles had always been my goal. Then I get there (twice) and I was like, ‘Now what do I do?’ I’ve always known that winning isn’t the thing. It’s more the process, the road that took you there. And (I concluded) that the process is incredible.

“Every step along the way, every hard heat, every training day was the most fun part. If you enjoy every part, the ups and downs, winning and losing becomes a little bonus at the end. You’re already winning and you’re getting to experience the journey. It takes the pressure of ‘I have to win’ off.”

HOMECOMING SESSION

Pipeline threw a little bit of a welcome-home party for Florence the day of the interview.

“I was just surfing out there now and I was like, ‘Haaaaaaaaa,’ ” he said. “I missed it all last winter because of my injury. It’s been like a year. I was soooo happy, oh my gosh. I can’t believe how much I miss this wave. There were maybe five people out. That’s pretty much nobody else at Pipe. And there were barrels and turns and airs and everything. It was like a full playground.”

Pipeline and its accompanying Backdoor, without question, are Florence’s favorite waves, and he’s still in awe of Peahi (or Jaws) on Maui.

“When I’m out there, it’s like a cliff and you’re taking off from it and I just want to get a couple of waves,” he said. “You’re up there, looking down on these massive waves and you see the same (vertical) wall you see on a 4-foot wave, and you’re wondering, ‘Should I go? Can I make that? How does that work?’ ”

Winning “The Eddie” in 2016 remains one of Florence’s biggest accomplishments. It was another one of those moments he entered the water thinking that catching just a few waves would be plenty good enough.

“I always dreamed of being in The Eddie,” he said. “I never went into it thinking, ‘I’m going to win The Eddie.’ ”

The typical world tour stop does not have those types of monster waves, but when Florence does go out hunting the huge ones, he often goes with his brother Nathan, 24.

“Nathan has always had his mind toward big waves, and when the waves are big, I enjoy it, too,” Florence said. “It’s such a fun preparation and everything like that. Last year, though, Nathan started getting into airs and wanting to get better in that part of his (smaller-wave) surfing, and it’s been really fun to surf with him to see that drive and motivation and excitement he has. I feel like I am exploring that stuff for the first time, too.”

HOBBIES SET SAIL

Photography, video- and film-making, and sailing are some of Florence’s other interests.

“The sailing thing happened,” he said. “And it also has to do with my fascination with efficiency. If you change it a little or move this, it will cut better through the ocean — on a surfboard or a sailboat. I was into model boats when I was younger. A guy who films with us got us into sailing on a tiny boat one summer. From there, I was just so hooked. I knew I had to have a sailboat and got a little one, and every day in the summer when it’s flat as a lake, you push the boat off the beach and it’s so much fun. The tradewinds are blowing and you feel like you’re surfing. You’re going so fast and pushing the boat to its limits. We have a Hobie Cat now. That thing goes so fast. And sometimes you have those moments where the bow will catch and you’ll just roll the whole thing.”

AND THE PHOTOGRAPHIC ARTS?

“I have always been really into photography and interested in what cameras can do,” Florence said. “You can take a photo and can control that all the way through to the end product and be able to capture the light here, bring it into the darkroom, bring that up through the chemicals and then you are creating this whole thing yourself. It’s cool. I did a Nixon watch project and it wasn’t really my idea. But it was a really cool thing. They shot lots of whole rolls of film and it came in the video as a stop-motion thing. In my world, I get to work with a lot of really creative people that want to do these things. That’s so interesting because I’m already into film and developing.”

INFLUENCES IN THE WAVES

Tom Curren, a three-time world champion, was one of the first pro surfers who made an impression on Florence. Along the way, he has also picked up bits and pieces of professional acumen from others, especially three-time world champ Mick Fanning and Kelly Slater, who has a record 11 world titles.

“Tom has always inspired me a ton,” Florence said. “He has more of a quiet personality who would just show up and let his surfing do the talking. Mick was kind of the opposite, very regimented with his training and competing. But he could turn it off and turn it on. Surfing against him, one of the scariest competitors in the world, he would finish the heat and come in and say, ‘That was super fun. That was great, mate.’ Kelly is harder to relate to because he’s such a freak of nature. What I take away from him is his confidence in himself to win. So I want that confidence like Kelly. I want to compete at the highest level possible and come in and be a good person at the highest level possible like Mick. And I want to show up and let my surfing do the talking like Tom.”

Florence didn’t leave his biggest rival — Gabriel Medina, another two-time world champion — out of the conversation. The two are trying to chase down a third championship this year, with judges intently looking for the surfer with that optimum amalgam of speed, power and flow.

“Gabe is a beast competitor,” said Florence, who won his first heat Monday on the tour’s third stop — the Corona Bali Protected. “He’s probably the best competitor in our day and age. Such a machine, such a good surfer. It’s scary to compete against him and he brings out the best of me, for sure. Some of my best performances have been against him.”

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ALSO AT NICKABRAMO.COM — Lot O’ Saturday Sports Snippets: The Preview Edition
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