The Unshakeable Spirit of the World’s Biggest Surfer

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Michael Roberts: From Outside Magazine, this is the Outside Podcast. 

Paddy O’Connell: Holy shit. We did it. We figured out the tech issues. I cannot believe it. This is amazing.

John John Florence: Yeah. One, one more question on the tech issues. 

Paddy: Okay, cool. Totally. Let’s keep these tech issues going. This is going to be like our things.

John: Do you want to hear your voice in my recording?

Michael: Wait a minute… Paddy, do you want to tell me what’s going on here?

Paddy: Well, this is me talking with John John Florence.

Michael: Right, the surfer.

Paddy: Yes, the super famous world class amazing surfer John John Florence, though he says you can just call him John.

Michael: And why are we hearing about tech failures?

Paddy: Well, when I spoke to him I was in Colorado and he was 6300 miles away in Fiji, in a marina.

Michael: Oh, sounds difficult. But, this is your job man, so you figured it out, right?

Paddy: I am basically envisioning your recording setup is like floss, some tin cans, some chew up bubble gum, some duct tape, and maybe like six of your friends, all holding it together. Am I close to it?

John: Close. No, we’re we have it a little more, a little more dialed than that. It was, it was pretty close to that at one point though. I was sitting on a boat in a harbor and there was lots of wind and boat work going on.

Michael: So was John in Fiji for a surfing competition?

Paddy: No. I mean, he was surfing there but just for fun. Back in May, he suffered this brutal knee injury during a surf contest in Indonesia, so he hasn’t been on the World Tour lately. The guy has dealt with a long list of awful injuries, and so, this summer, he decided he would take a sailing voyage, from his home in Hawaii to Fiji.

Michael: Uhh… that’s an ambitious way to rehab.

Paddy: I thought it was pretty bonkers too when I first heard about it. But as I talked to him, it became clear that he’s not really a normal human.

Michael: How do you mean?

Paddy: The way he thinks is just different. For example, he tore his MCL at that contest in May. It was nasty. His knee was swollen up like a cantaloupe and he could barely bend it or put any weight on it. If that happened to you, what would you do?

Michael: I’d lie on the couch and watch Netflix and eat ice cream.

Paddy: Yeah. Same. 

Well, John waited a day. And then surfed in the contest.

John: I taped and braced it. And then I ended up getting two really good waves and won the heat. 

Paddy: What? Jesus, you basically, you won your heat on one leg.

John: Yeah, I had hurt my front leg. So it was kind of, my front leg was kind of just there for, I guess, a little stability and then the back leg becomes like the driving force.

Paddy: You realize that this is like not normal. This is like superhero type shit.

John: I don’t know about that. The brace definitely helped it. I almost like those situations because it turns it into like a challenge in itself.

Like, okay, I have to slow down and I have to think about this a little more and I have to surf the best I can with what I have. It almost simplifies it in a way, weirdly enough.

Paddy: That is also just an absurd comment to say like, well, I already have this challenge of surfing in this competition against these other world class athletes, but I need more of a challenge. So I’m just gonna use one leg.

John: Yeah, I see that now. But it’s, it’s like, I don’t know. It simplifies it, it simplifies the whole mindset around competing. Because when you have, when, when everything’s good, you try to find all the negatives and you’re like, oh, I’m not ready. My board’s not ready. This doesn’t feel right. And then when something like that happens, everything goes out the window and you’re just like, I just have to surf a good wave when it comes in.

Michael: Ok, that’s nuts. But, you know, I’ve seen him surf, and he’s incredible, maybe the only surfer who could win on one leg.

Paddy: Yeah, his physical gifts and athleticism are astonishing, but so is his unshakable positive attitude The truth is that what makes John John Florence one of the greatest surfers in the world is his mind.

Michael: Sounds like you’re gonna start the actual story part of this now.

Paddy: Indeed I am, sir.

Surfing super hero John Florence loves when the shit hits the fan. I mean he thought this would be a fun adventure:

John: None of us have really ever gotten into hiking . And so our good friend of ours had done this hike and it was a cut from the north shore of O’ahu all the way across to the south side.

We were just like, okay, we’re gonna do this. So we bought all this backpacking gear and then just picked the absolute worst weather window. Downpouring sideways rain, as miserable as it gets. Knee deep mud for three days. Can’t see where you’re walking in the dark. Just falling over every five feet and just so, so painful.  

But just kind of loving it, I guess. At the end of it, you’re just like, oh my gosh. That was, that was actually pretty fun.

Paddy: Do you think beginner beat down is something that you seek out?

John: Yes. The getting absolutely crushed by it is the fun part.

The challenge and also the physical kind of output of it. Like endurance around being uncomfortable.

Paddy: It’s like how, how long can I sustain being uncomfortable?

John: Yeah. And it sucks in the moment. It’s the worst thing ever. And then, but then after you just can’t help but laugh about it.

Being new at something, and kind of that learning curve, I really enjoy that. There’s a lot of excitement in it.

Paddy: What John is not new at is winning surf competitions. He grew up on the North Shore of O’ahu, where Pipeline, one of the world’s most infamous waves, was just out his backdoor. He’s been competing since he was barely a teenager. Now, at 29 years old, John has amassed an astonishing amount of accomplishments and trophies, from his early days as an amateur to his recent time as an alpha on the World Championship Tour, or WCT. I asked him to list the highlights.

John: In the amateur days we did a series called the NSSA. and I won a few of those I don’t remember how many, six or seven maybe. I won sunset beach WQS qualifying series. And then I won Surfer Poll, and then I won Brazil WCT. And then I won France WCT the following year. I think that was my second win on WCT. And then the following year after that, I won Brazil and Portugal also won the Eddie Aikau, the triple crown, and the world title that year. Oh, I won the triple crown again before that too. Then 2017, I won another world title. I won the Margaret River event that year. I won the Margaret river event in 2016, 17, 16, 17. Sorry. It’s been some, a few years of competing now.

Paddy: This is awesome.

John: I know there was a bunch of Surfer Poll wins. I think five of the pipe WQS wins, one back door shootout win.

I think that’s it. Sorry. I jumped around there.

Paddy: Oh, just that. Just that. Is that it really?

John: I don’t know. It’s hard to remember at this point.

Paddy: Among surfers, John is a living legend, because of all those big victories, yes, but even more so because of his Zen-like approach to the sport

John: I do enjoy the competing and I can really kind of get my mind there and really get into it. Kind of adjust my surfing towards it. I feel like, you kind of fall back into the same, habits, routines, patterns, things like that. I absolutely love the purity of like, kind of what we call free surfing. 

I think there’s something to free surfing that allows a little more expression. You can kind of let loose a little more and draw a little bit different lines rather than getting sucked into the same thing. You have so much time to kind of explore and draw lines in different ways.

Paddy: Well, it sounds like, it’s like the, what you’re describing is like the difference between artist and an athlete, but would you say that you’re both?

John: Yeah, I would say that I try to be both. For me, at least in the recent last couple of years has been trying to find that happy medium of that, like getting into the heat and the heat starting and kind of finding… you hear people call it, I guess, your, your center or that inner eye or whatever, whatever you wanna call it. That, that just center space where you can take a deep breath and you can kind of relax when I relax and just let myself surf it’s. It’s different than when I have this kind of tension and surf in one single way.

Paddy: That’s not a line. John really means it. In 2016, he won the Eddie, a big wave competition honoring soul surfer and famed Hawaiin waterman Eddie Aikau. Because it is only held when the waves rise to 50 feet in Waimea Bay, John is only one of 9 surfers to win the comp. Ever. And what is his favorite memory of such a triumphant win? It’s not standing atop the podium, nor lifting the oversized cardboard check for $75,000. It’s paddling out into the surf with his brother Nathan before the judging even began and catching a wave together.

In fact, when I asked John to describe his perfect scenario in the water, there are no crowds or judges or competition money at stake. It’s just him at Pipeline, his childhood playground.

John: The beauty of Pipeline is that it’s a right and a left. It’s a little bit unpredictable, which I really like about it. Early morning in the wintertime in Hawaii is really nice. The sun is just coming over the mountain. So the sky is like really pink and the clouds are pink, and it’s just getting light out and you paddle out and there’s no one out. And just seeing when a, when a set comes in, and you just see this big peak of a wave. And you’re like, I’m, this is the craziest, right, I’ve seen. And you just position yourself for it.

When you take off on a wave and you come out of a barrel, like going really fast, it creates this kind of like, uh, it’s like a that’s, that’s what it feels like under your board. It, I don’t know, for me it feels grippier almost. It’s a really light, wind texture on it.

Going right on a big wave. Like that is a lot of moments in it, you know, there’s the drop and then you barely get it into the lip. And then you’re up in the barrel and you have to re kind of set yourself in the barrel and then a back door usually runs off.

And so you’re pumping down the line trying to, continue with your speed to keep going in the wave., and it’s sections and sections and sections. And then, when you come out at the end, you have all this speed for a big turn.

But yeah, There’s this feeling of just being pressed into the board and it, everything’s gripping at once and everything’s following through. It’s hard to beat that feeling in surfing. 

That’s my dream wave.

Paddy: John has devoted his entire existence to the pursuit of that dream wave, and all the incredible feelings that come with it. But that devotion has come with a hefty price that he’s paid for with his body.

John: I broke my ankle. Then I broke my back. Then I did pretty bad grade three high ankle sprains on both ankles, kind of back to back years in a row. Then did MCL tears on both knees back to back. Then did ACL tears on both knees back to back years with surgeries, with both ACLS. So that was ACL surgery two years in a row. Not fun. Don’t do it. And then again, MCLs on my left knee twice since the ACLS. And I think that’s it so far.

Paddy: That’s still a lot, man.

John: Yeah, it’s maybe three too many.

Paddy: Is there any feeling of like, God damnit? Like my body is like betraying me or, or now I’m starting to have doubts or like I’m, I’m losing competition time at like the height of my powers. Is there any feeling like that?

John: Definitely a hundred percent. I mean, it’s all frustrating for me and I mean, everything you noted, they’re all thoughts that I have and feelings that I have. I definitely have my moments where I’m just like, this sucks. 

But, I don’t know. I just, I guess in the past couple years, my whole goals have come really more around mindset. I guess it’s like, it’s as simple as just do the best with what I have.

Paddy: And so, in the wake of his latest broken body part, rather than sink into the doldrums of despair, John turned his attention to an ambitious goal: sailing more than 3000 miles of the Pacific Ocean.

How far into rehab were you? Like, you know what,  I’m gonna sail around this planet.

John: That decision happened in like and in my mind, within like a week.

Paddy: Seriously?

John: Yeah. Yeah, it just, it’s always, I’ve always loved doing it and I never have the time for it. And so this just injury made it all of a sudden, like, I was like, oh, now I have time for it. I’m gonna go do that.

Paddy: Man. Talk about like, whoa, here’s the silver lining. Oh, this is great.

John: It’s and I have to keep reminding myself, like, no, I wanted to do this. This is a good thing. This is fun. We’re having fun. While the hot water heater was exploding 600 miles out from Fiji and flooding the starboard side of the boat three times over in the single day. No, this is a good thing. We love this.

Paddy: But, do you really love it? Is that wild sailing adventure that you decided to take on a whim actually… fun?

Well, that depends on how you take your fun.

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Paddy: At a competition in May of 2022, surfing prodigy John John Florence tore apart his left knee, again. Another injury in a career riddled with injuries. 

So he did the only thing that made sense to him. He organized a sailing trip from his home in Hawaii to Fiji with his wife Lauren and two pals on John’s insanely awesome boat.

John: The boat is a gunboat 48. It’s a catamaran, 48 foot catamaran. It’s all carbon fiber, everything. So it keeps it really lightweight. So it makes it really fast. And I’m learning as we go, fast is not always great. It’s fun. And you get places fast, but you also break things fast.

It’s pretty unique, but I think there’s only seven of  ’em made at this size they are amazing boats, they sail very well.

They’re fun to sail. And I do love that part about it.

Paddy: When you hear “sailing to a tropical island in the South Pacific”, maybe you’re envisioning drinks with little umbrellas in them and working on your tan lines and epic sunsets. 

But, this was not that kind of trip. Remember, John is often happiest when his adventures go sideways.

John: Just a lot of unpredictable weather. It was just windy the whole time.

High stress, rain, squalls, storms, stuff, breaking. 

We’ve had some stormy kind of swallows the last couple days, lots and lots of wind, lots of wave action, uh, some scary moments. That is exciting. We are in the middle of nowhere.

Then we stopped in the Phoenix Islands, fixed some stuff.

No one seasick anymore. It’s good.

Then left the Phoenix Islands with another thousand miles to go

We had two great days of sailing after we left our last destination. Um, and then we had another catastrophic failure. One of our rudder pins, this thick piece of stainless steel, broke in half.

And then it lost our wind about 600 miles out from Fiji.

Okay. Here we are. Update. We have made it to Fiji. We’re very tired.

I think it was after 17 days of sailing with two or three days of stopping in the Phoenix Island.

We were up all night going through reefs. Anyway, we made it. Pretty interesting after being at sea for more than two weeks, not seeing anybody. Sensory overload. A lot going on.

My relationship with the boat is definitely a love, hate relationship. Sometimes I’m like, this is the most amazing thing ever. Look at it. We’re sailing at 15 knots and it’s beautiful and everything feels great. And then the next moment something breaks and I’m like, this is the worst. I hate this. I don’t know why we’re doing this. Why do I put myself through this stress? I’m selling the boat. When we get to Fiji, I’m selling the boat, we’re done.

Paddy: Wait?! Has crazy awful weather and mechanical failure at sea shaken the unshakable John Florence? Has he finally cracked? 

Paddy: So this is fun? Question mark.

John: There’s something that’s amazing to it. You know, you’re out in the middle of the ocean. And it’s a, it is bizarre, you know, after even sailing for 10 days and it’s still nothing but open ocean, that feeling of how big it is. Like I started to get that when we were getting close to the equator, we were sailing for nine days and hadn’t seen land.

Paddy: When I spoke to John, he and his crew had been in Fiji for two weeks, doing more fixes on the boat. And getting a bit bored and gloomy. Until the surf came up.

John: There’s, cloud break, which is a world class wave. Just kind of around the corner. So just got some amazing waves that really helped bring my mental attitude back, back up.

Paddy: From surfing for fun to surfing for his job, to sailing through storms and windless patches of sea, to hiking in knee deep mud and everything in-between, John thrives when things get difficult. 

But it’s more than that: he needs challenges, to force him, an insanely talented athlete, to grow, to allow him to be himself.

John: I think this trip for me has, has been really around, like letting go and to kind of be myself a little more and do my, do my thing without so much outside influence. You know, when you’re competing your whole life, it’s just a weird feeling. You know, every, everything you do is thought of and judged and definitely influences your thought processes. And so for me, this was kind of a chance to break away from it for a second and kind of step outside that box and into more of a, just kind of my own thought processes.

It just allows me to kind of have a challenge in another aspect of my life. And a little more clarity, I guess, on the things that kind of influence me.

Paddy: In taking on this trip,  is it like a spiritual rehab as well? Not just like a knee rehab.

John: It’s definitely a spiritual rehab. The way I’ve been approaching competing is the way I wanna approach kind of everything in my life. And just that challenge of like, of being okay with the situation and kind of almost letting go a little bit more  of the things that I can’t control.

Paddy: What advice do you have when it comes to injury to challenging yourself and to pushing yourself outside of the boundaries of comfort that we set for ourselves?

John: I think really, it’s just kind of observing the way you think about things., and that doesn’t have to start when you get an injury. You know, that can start now. If you start to catch your thoughts and you start to see, wow, like I’m really affected by the way I think about that.

And it becomes quicker and quicker over time, the more you do it. And then, you know, when these things do happen, an injury does happen. All of a sudden you’re like, okay, I’m bummed. I’m affected by this. But then you can pivot and you can adjust and you can kind of move past it into something else.

In a way, all this is going towards that goal, you know, so whether you’re competing and trying to win a world title or you get injured and trying to cope with an injury, or I’m sailing to Fiji from Hawaii and it’s uncomfortable, or the boat keeps breaking and I’m frustrated…

It all feeds into that kind of one goal of a mindset of how to just do the best with what I have in that moment. And it’s so hard. 

I’m slowly getting better at it.

I just feel like there’s still so much to learn for me. There’s a certain amount of comfort you get once you learn something pretty well. And I definitely haven’t reached that comfort yet, so I’m trying to get there. I haven’t given up yet.

Michael: That was John John Florence speaking with producer Paddy O’Connell, who gets a gold star for sorting out how to get a solid recording of an interview with a surfer at a marina in Fiji. 

John has a new film out. It’s called Gravity, and you can watch it on a number of streaming services. You can follow John’s many adventures on Instagram. He’s @john_john_florence. John is spelled J-O-H-N.

Paddy wrote and produced this episode, which was edited by me, Michael Roberts. Music by Robbie Carver.

This episode was brought to you by Tracksmith, a proudly independent running brand that makes high-performance products for athletes striving to be their best. You can check out their new fall collection at Tracksmith.com. If you’re new to Tracksmith, enter the code OUTSIDE at checkout to get $15 off a purchase of $75 or more for a limited time.

This episode was made possible by our Outside+ members. Learn about all the benefits of membership, like free access to the premium Gaia GPS app at outsideonline.com/podplus. Right now, we’re offering a 50% discount to new members, so don’t wait.



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