In August, surfing will make its Olympic debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games, and with one spot left on the men's U.S. surf team, the race has come down to 11-time world champion Kelly Slater and two-time world champ John John Florence. The catch? Florence has been sidelined with a knee injury for most of the 2019 World Surf League Championship Tour, which doubles as the Olympic qualifiers, and it's uncertain whether he'll suit up for the final event at the Pipeline Masters (Dec. 8-20) in Hawaii.
Twenty years separates Slater and Florence in age, and now in a generational clash, that last spot on the Olympic team all comes down to what happens in Hawaii. Currently rated eighth in the world -- even after being out since June -- Florence sits two spots higher than Slater in the rankings. The 27-year-old Hawaiian anticipates returning to the water at Pipeline to defend his Olympic position. Meanwhile, Slater, at 47 years old, is the winningest surfer in the history of the Pipe Masters -- claiming the title a record six times -- and will be looking to capitalize on his vast experience and comfort in Hawaii. Before the boys paddle out and history is made, here are a few points to ponder.
Will Florence surf in the Pipe Masters?
Florence's quest for Olympic glory hinges on the state of his knee. All signs point to him pulling on the jersey, but more than likely, it will come down to a game-time decision. In November, Florence was granted a wild card into the World Cup of Surfing at Sunset Beach in Hawaii but withdrew from the contest on the recommendation of his medical team. He has been back in the water surfing and appears to be gearing up for a return to competition, but he hasn't confirmed whether he'll be at the Pipe Masters.
Would competing on a knee that's less than 100% a prudent career decision for Florence?
Florence sat out most of the 2018 season with the same knee injury, opting not to get surgery. When he reinjured himself at the Oi Rio Pro in Brazil in June, he was forced to have the tendons surgically repaired. The smart money would be on letting the knee get back to full strength. A fully healed Florence next year would have to be considered a world title favorite. There is no reason he couldn't also qualify for the 2024 Olympics. There's a ton of pressure to compete in the first Olympic surfing event, but the overall cost could be pretty high in terms of the longevity of Florence's career.
Ultimately, can Slater beat Florence at the Pipe Masters?
Together, Slater and Florence are two of the best Pipe surfers to have ever graced the Banzai reef. Slater has won the event six times. And Florence, for as much as he's heralded at the break, has never won the Pipe Masters but certainly provided plenty of memorable moments. In 2010, 2011 and 2013 Slater beat Florence at the Pipe Masters, while conversely, Florence has never beaten Slater in the event. At this point, the nod would have to go to Slater: He's fit, he has been surfing well in Hawaii this season and he appears to be in a good headspace. On the other hand, Florence has the talent and acumen to go this distance, but based on past results and the unknown status of his knee, he remains a question mark.
Can Slater even contend in Japan?
Slater is the oldest surfer on the World Tour, and although he's ranked 10th in the world and has more contest wins than anyone ever, he hasn't won a Championship Tour event since 2016. This raises the question, even if he does get the jump on Florence and overtakes him in the year-end ratings, can he contend for a gold medal in Japan? He'll be going up against surfers half his age who will be fired up to take out the GOAT. If he can pull off some of that old Slater magic, it would be a huge capstone on an already legendary career, but the path to gold is fraught with savvy, hungry competitors.
Slater would be joining California's Kolohe Andino on Team USA. Andino, 25, claimed a spot in October based on his year-end ranking (fifth). Carissa Moore, who just won the 2019 women's world title, and 17-year-old phenom Caroline Marks will represent the American women.