Nearing the halfway point of the 2019 World Surf League Championship Tour, two-time world champion John John Florence looked all but a lock to compete for his third world title and qualify for the inaugural U.S. Olympic surfing team. He had won two of the first four contests of the season and was sitting comfortably in first place overall. Then, during his quarterfinal heat at the Oi Rio Pro in Brazil in June, his season ended on one mistimed turn. "The pressure of the wave pushed my board against my leg and buckled my right knee," Florence says. "It was super painful. Right away, I was like, 'I think that was my ACL.'"
It's a pain he knows well. Last summer, Florence partially tore the ACL in his right knee during a free surfing session in Bali and opted to forgo surgery and use the second half of the season to rehab the injury. In April, he returned to the tour as hungry as ever and won stops at Bells Beach and Margaret River, Australia. But after suffering his second knee injury in 13 months, this time fully rupturing his ACL, he decided to have surgery. In July, Florence underwent a full reconstruction of his right ACL, using his own hamstring, and began rehab the next day.
Six weeks into recovery, the 2016 and 2017 world champ says that though his 2019 world title hopes are over, his Olympic dream is very much alive. "It is still a goal of mine to qualify for the Olympics, and I want people to know I am working toward that goal," Florence says.
Surfing will make its five-ring debut next summer in Tokyo, and 20 men and 20 women will contest the event, with a maximum of four athletes (two men and two women) per country. The first 10 men (and eight women) will qualify through the 2019 WSL rankings, and the top two ranked U.S. men and women will be named to the inaugural U.S. team in December. At present, Florence sits in third place overall, despite having missed one event, and is the second-ranked U.S. man behind current world No. 1 Kolohe Andino of California. The next-highest ranked American? Eleven-time world champ Kelly Slater, in eighth place.
If qualifying ended today, Florence would make the team. But with five contests left to surf -- including the Tahiti Pro, which begins today, and the Billabong Pipeline Masters, the final event of the season in December in Florence's backyard in Oahu -- Slater, 47, has ample opportunity to catch the 26-year-old Hawaiian. Right now, neither surfer is a shoo-in to make the team, and with both men eyeing that second spot on the U.S. Olympic team, the remainder of the 2019 WSL season will be interesting.
We caught up with Florence at his home in Oahu to talk about his potential return to the tour in December and why he wants to paddle out in the first Olympic surf competition at Tsurigasaki Beach in Japan.
ESPN: How is your recovery going?
John John Florence: I'm doing really good, finally getting into a nice routine here at home. I'm a lot more mobile, so I've been getting out. I've been doing a ton of prone paddling, like five to 10 miles every other day, which has been fun. I got a pair of waterproof headphones, listen to podcasts -- I like Tim Ferris and Radio Lab right now -- and paddle for a couple hours in the morning.
ESPN: Where are you in the recovery process?
JJF: Now is the hardest and scariest time in my recovery so far. I talked to my doctor today, and he said that at five to six weeks, the new ligament is at its weakest point. It actually gets a little weaker in the first few weeks after surgery, before the body accepts it and it begins to grow strength. I feel normal and pretty strong, so I have to remind myself to hold back, keep the brace on and slow myself down.
ESPN: When you look back at your knee injury in 2018, what do you think about your decision to rehab your partial ACL tear and not have surgery?
JJF: I don't regret my decision at all. I will have a long career, and I made both decisions with that in mind. I believe injures give you time to think, and I came back this year with this new energy toward the sport and a new perspective. Now I'm just so excited to get back to surfing again, and that grows more every day.
ESPN: What about the time away gave you that new outlook?
JJF: When you are competing for so many years in a row nonstop, you lose perspective on why you are competing. So last year when I got injured, I was bummed out but also able to take a step back and take a break from thinking about competing for a few months. Once I started thinking about surfing again, I was having so much fun with training. This year, it was so much fun being a part of the game of competing and being with all the competitors again. It felt like when you're a kid and during summer break, you miss all your friends. Then you get back to school and are like, "Hey, guys. I'm back!"
ESPN: What happened on the wave in Brazil in June that tore your ACL?
JJF: Looking back on how I could do better the next time, I could manage my energy better. I tend to get really excited based on the conditions. So if the conditions are really good for airs, I want to do the biggest air in the world, go the fastest ever. But my energy for my body might not match that mindset. I think that was what happened in my heat in Rio. My mind was there, but I was physically exhausted from the few days before. In that case, your reaction time becomes a lot slower. When I took off on the wave, I had been doing a lot of airs, so I thought, "I'm going to do a turn instead." But I had so much speed, I was like, "I can't turn. I don't know what to do." I ended up flying out the back, and the pressure of the wave pushed my board against my leg and buckled my knee. It was super painful. Right away, I was like, "I think that was my ACL."
ESPN: How did you make the decision to have reconstructive surgery this time around?
JJF: There was so much riding on the year, but at the same time, I want to compete at the best level I can physically. The best way to do that was to get the surgery. My mindset was: Whatever I have to do to come back to 100 percent, that's what I want to do. I'd rather not just make it through this year surfing at 60 percent and eventually have to get the surgery anyway. And I didn't want to do more damage to my knee. I knew I am in the middle of Olympic qualifying and the world title race, but being able to perform at 100 percent again overruled all of that.
ESPN: How much did the Olympic qualifying weigh on that decision?
JJF: Luckily enough, I had a lot of points from doing well in the beginning of the season, so I still have a good shot at qualifying through the tour for the Olympics -- and that is my dream. It would be so awesome to go to the Olympics. But I don't have much control over that right now. I have to sit back and see what Kelly [Slater] can do.
ESPN: Why is qualifying for the U.S. Olympic surfing team important to you?
JJF: It's the Olympics, the top of sporting, and being a part of it would be awesome. I think it would be so cool to have a Hawaiian on the team. And since it's the first year in the Olympics for surfing, I imagine there is going to be a lot of conversation about how it can be better next time, and I would love to be involved in that conversation. To be part of the first one and growing our sport in the Olympics would be cool.
ESPN: What do you think, in general, about surfing making its Olympic debut next summer?
JJF: I think it's great for the sport. It's been great for the sport to look at a different way of competing and different formats. I'm hopeful the Olympics ends up in a pool in the future. I think the wave pool is perfect for the Olympics. If you think about snowboarding in the Olympics, with the halfpipe and everyone at the bottom, it's awesome. Kelly's wave pool is so good for that type of event. You have to surf perfectly. The wave is so good and so long, there is no room for mistakes, which plays right into that Olympic formula of being the best you can be. I think we will learn a ton from this year, and hopefully it will just get better and better.
ESPN: You recently posted a video on Instagram showing you back in the water, prone paddling, with the hashtag #Tokyo2020, and it caused a lot of excitement. Why the hashtag?
JJF: I thought it was a fun one. And there is a lot of truth in it. It is still a goal of mine to qualify for the Olympics, and I wanted to let people know I am working toward that. It is my goal to get better for Pipeline in case I have to come back and compete and gain points. That is a short-term goal. And if Kelly doesn't gain enough points the rest of the year, it is a long-term goal to be 150 percent ready at the start of the next WCT season and have ample time to train for the Olympics next year.
ESPN: What were you saying to your fans with that post?
JJF: In the next six months, there will be a lot of change for me. Sometimes I'm not as outspoken to the public as others, but I am trying my hardest to heal as fast as I can to be back in the water and competing again, and I want them to know that. I was in such a good mindset and place in my career [before this injury], and I am really enjoying doing everything I can to get back to that position. And we'll see. You never know what is going to happen. It could go either way at this point for the Olympics and for Pipe, but having fun, short-term goals like that is cool for me.
ESPN: Do you think it was a coincidence that the day after your Instagram post, Kelly confirmed he will surf for Team USA in the ISA World Surfing Games in September in Japan, a prerequisite for the Olympics, and make himself eligible for the 2020 Games?
JJF: I know [Kelly] wants to be a part of the Olympics, for sure, and I also know he loves little things like that. 'No, I'm going to catch him!' I'm sure he's looking closely at those points and is going to be making a point to catch me and beat me.
ESPN: So you didn't believe what he said in an interview recently -- that he isn't focused on the Olympics and isn't sure he's going to compete at the World Surfing Games?
JJF: [Laughs] I don't believe anything Kelly says about competing.
ESPN: How will you make the decision to return to the tour this season?
JJF: It's all going to come down to that moment before Pipeline and how Kelly has done, how other Americans have done and whether it is worth it for me to compete. There is a chance my knee feels great by the time Pipe comes around, and I am definitely open to surfing Pipeline to secure my spot in the Olympics. If it comes down to Pipe and my knee is not feeling great, I would have to reevaluate. But there's a good chance it will be feeling great based on how good I feel now.
ESPN: What is a typical day like for you right now?
JJF: I've set my house up as a recovery center. On the days I go paddling, I wake up, do the NormaTec (a pressure boot that helps pump and flush swelling and blood through my leg), the BioCharger (this device that charges certain cells and energizes certain cells through different settings and helps with pain relief) and the Joovv light (an LED red light therapy that helps promote cell energy and helps with pain relief) while I have coffee. Then I paddle five to 10 miles, use the infrared sauna, have lunch and do the BioCharger, Joovv and NormaTec again. Then I have physical therapy in the afternoon and do the Joovv light and BioCharger again in the evening. It's an all-day process.
ESPN: Have you made peace with the possibility that, despite how hard you are working right now, you might not be able to return to compete at Pipe?
JJF: I think I've made peace with both possibilities. I will do everything I can in my control to be a part of the Olympics, but I am very aware of the things I can't control. l am trying not to react to the things that I can't control.
ESPN: What have you learned about yourself in the past year?
JJF: That's a big question. I've learned a lot. This year has been one of the bigger years for personal growth for me. Having these two injuries in a row -- the first when I was at a weird time in my career with results and the next when I felt like I was at the peak of my career with results -- the biggest thing I learned was you just don't know what is going to happen. You can put so much energy and so much stress into trying to predict the future. I had so many thoughts about this year and how the next couple of contests would go, and then, boom, it all stops. The biggest thing that's been clicking for me is to go with the flow and do the best with what I've got in the moment.
ESPN: You said you've enjoyed getting to do things you don't usually get to do when you're focused on competing. What are you excited about outside of surfing right now?
JJF: I'm really into sailing, and I have a sailboat on the other side of the island. I've been spending time down there tinkering and learning more about the boat, rigging and how to fix things myself. My knee isn't quite good enough to go sailing yet, but we have a big trip planned for September.
ESPN: Where are you going?
JJF: We are planning to go to Palmyra, an atoll 1,000 miles south of Hawaii and a wildlife conservancy. In Palmyra, when coral dies, it comes back quickly, unlike most places in the world, where coral dies but isn't revived easily. So scientists are down there trying to figure out why this is happening, and they want to apply it to places like Hawaii, where coral bleaching is a real problem. I'm really excited for this trip. It ticks all the boxes for me outside of surfing: sailing and exploration and learning how to make the world better.
ESPN: This story comes out on Wednesday, the day the contest window opens for the Tahiti Pro Teahupo'o. What will you be doing Wednesday morning?
JJF: I'll still be here at home in Oahu, working with my physical therapist and paddling a bunch. I'll probably be in the water paddling when this story comes out.