Mastering the monster

2011-12-10 00:00

OAHU — Remember this name: John John Florence.

He’s a phenomenon, a world champion in the making. Thursday was the 19-year-old American’s graduation ceremony: a rollicking 10-point ride on a mountainous wave at the Billabong Pipeline Masters that had to be seen to be believed.

Florence paddled, gritted his teeth, free-fell down a 15-foot face, disappeared into one barrel and then another. He entered that wave a boy, emerged a man.

He has been surfing Pipe since he was six years old. He went to Sunset Beach Elementary School, directly across the road from the contest site. He used to skip class to grab Kelly Slater’s autograph. On a frantic day of heats, with Australia’s Laurie Towner dislocating his shoulder twice and more than 20 boards snapping like toothpicks, Florence treated Pipe like a fun park.

The wave of the day was his, all his. Instant respect from the established pros. A mobbing on the beach. Hello world. There’s more than a surfboard at his feet.

“I took off, went into that barrel, it was massive,” Florence said. “You don’t really think anything in there, it all goes too fast.

“I couldn’t even see, there was all this spray and foam in my eyes, just a blur. It was frightening, but in a weird way it was fun. I was so nervous and a bit scared before the heat, but once I got out there, it’s so rare to surf here when it’s not crowded that it felt kind of peaceful and quiet and still.”

Florence beat fellow Hawaiian Kai Barger by 18,67 points to 14,67. The local knowledge was extreme. Barger doffed his sponsors’ cap. “I lost, and I can’t explain this, but I’m stoked for John John,” Barger said.

“I saw his 10, it was right in front of me. Oh my god. He surfs out here like nobody else. He’s got a smile on his face — I don’t see anyone else smiling out there. I cannot see how it’s possible for him to be beaten.”

Towner was thrown like a rag doll onto the reef. Taken to shore by a jet ski, his face twisted in agony while four friends rammed his shoulder back into its socket.

He ran back to the water’s edge, paddled out again — but Pipe wanted nothing to do with him. Towner was clobbered by another set and the shoulder came out again. It was the end of Towner’s contest, and the beginning of a few recurring nightmares.

Other wipeouts were like scenes from a horror movie. Australia’s Jack Freestone was convinced he had broken his leg. Taylor Knox was held under the whitewater for what seemed an eternity. Tanner Gaudaskas broke three boards in 15 minutes. It was survival of the fittest, luckiest, strongest and bravest.

Slater and the rest of the top seeds had their first heats when round three began yesterday. The forecast? Another wild ride.

“Every wave that comes in is deadly,” Florence said. “You’re paddling on to it and you’re thinking, really? I have to go over this ledge? I probably don’t freak out as much as some of the guys here because I’ve been surfing it since I was a little kid.

“But I’m still pretty overawed by how powerful it is. It’s just a dream to be here, really, on a day like this. It doesn’t even feel that long ago that I was at school out the back.

“It’s so perfect, but so dangerous. Anything could happen, stuff you don’t even want to think about.”

Florence is in the hunt for more than just the Pipe Masters. He’s also leading the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing, the trophy presented to the best surfer in Hawaii every winter from contests at Haleiwa, Sunset Beach and Pipeline.

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