John John Florence of Hawaii surfs during the Billabong Pipe Masters on Dec. 19, 2019 in Haleiwa, Hawaii.
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From the moment surfing was announced as an addition to the Olympic program in 2020, John John Florence wanted to be a part of the team.
He had no idea his road to qualification would be quite so dramatic, but it’s a story he’s now sharing with the world with the release of his latest film, “Tokyo Rising,” available on Amazon Prime.
“We’re always filming on the road, doing little projects along the way, and the last couple years were kind of a crazy roller coaster of injuries and coming back from injuries and having really good contest runs and injuries again,” said the 28-year-old native of Honolulu. “I think when I got to the end of the Olympic qualification we were like, ‘We have a lot of really cool footage, it’d be interesting to put it all together and make a project out of it.’ It ended up being really cool for me to look back on the whole thing and feel all those down moments and up moments and just think about it as I looked back on all that footage.”
Florence grew up surfing on the North Shore of Oahu and won his first World Surf League season title in 2016. When he repeated in 2017 he became just the fifth surfer in the history of the Men’s Championship Tour to win his first two world titles in consecutive years.
The following year, however, Florence partially tore his ACL midway through the season and was unable to defend his title to make it three in a row. He returned healthy and ready to go in 2019, with Olympic qualification on the line.
Florence finished third at the WSL season opener just south of Brisbane on the east coast of Australia, then moved to Bells Beach on the southern tip of the continent and won event No. 2.
After an early exit in the third contest in Bali, Florence once again found himself on top of the podium — and building his lead in the Olympic points — in contest No. 4 back in Australia.
The tour moved to Rio in June, and that’s where things took a turn. He injured his knee again — the film captures the exact moment — and this time it was a full tear of the ACL.
At the time, Florence was in first place on the Olympic leaderboard, with fellow American Kolohe Andino second and three others among the top 12. Six contests remained, and the top two at season’s end would earn the men’s Olympic slots. Because he had built such a big lead in those early tournaments, Florence had a shot of remaining among the top two even if he didn’t compete again. But he knew that with each subsequent event he missed, the others would be slowly but surely chipping away at the margin.
Florence underwent surgery that June with the hope that he could come back late in the season if needed.
“Before the surgery, deciding whether to get it or not, a lot of that came into play with my decision-making, thinking I have a lot of points and if something changes I could do the surgery right away and maybe still come back for a few heats at (the season-ending contest) if I need to,” Florence said. “If I didn’t have as many points I might have just braced my knee and kept surfing and trying my best. It’s the Olympics, it’s the first year the sport’s been in it, it felt pretty important.”
Florence has some early memories of watching Olympic swimming with his mom.
“I don’t know why but for some reason that sticks in my head, just watching swimming every day,” he said. “I don’t remember who was swimming, just that it seemed like the biggest thing in the sports world at the time.”
Later on, he remembers watching snowboarding and three-time Olympic gold medalist Shaun White in particular.
Surfing, along with skiing and snowboarding, has a rich history of sharing the sport through film, highlighting the athletes’ tremendous and seemingly death-defying skills as well dramatic, sweeping landscape and nature shots. Some of the movies that inspired Florence the most weren’t about surfing but snowboarding, particularly those featuring Travis Rice.
“I don’t know, I just love the way they took the cinematography to a new level,” he said. “It was just the gnarliest, biggest stuff and Travis has a really good mind for that. It inspired me so much, I was like, ‘I want to do that in surfing.’”
Florence’s latest film takes viewers through his 2019 season, including the rehab and recovery process after surgery and gives some insight into his hobbies and interests when he’s not on a surfboard. It concludes with his return for the final contest of the season, the sport’s storied Billabong Pipe Masters at Oahu’s North Shore, just five months after surgery.
Andino had already clinched the first Olympic spot, but the legendary Kelly Slater was making a late-season run for the second spot. Now, at the iconic Banzai Pipeline, Slater needed to finish at least two rounds ahead of Florence to overtake him in the standings. When Florence went out in the quarterfinals, it set up a potential storybook ending with Slater needing to win the contest in order to earn the Olympic spot.
Even knowing the outcome, the film still captures plenty of tension as Florence watches the 47-year-old Slater dominate heat after heat and show the brilliance that won him 11 world championships over the years.
In the end, Slater finished third, and the final men’s U.S. Olympic surfing team slot went to Florence.
One of the unique things about surfing that Florence hopes to share with a brand new audience in 2021 is that you’re competing on an ever-changing surface. It’s not like snowboarding or skiing where you plan your tricks and lines knowing the jumps and ramps aren’t going to move and will be the same size day in and day out.
“There are a lot of unknowns in surfing,” he said. “You’re working with mother nature trying to predict and figure out where to sit in the water and where the next wave is coming from as well as perform the best you can on that wave.”
And he hopes his latest film will inspire anyone who has to deal with a setback at what seems to be the worst possible moment.
“Keep an open mind because you never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “It would have been pretty easy to get the surgery last year and think oh, there’s not way I’m going to qualify for the Olympics, Kelly’s going to catch up, and go down that negative mindset. I just kept an open mind the whole year and it worked out.”