Two-time world champion explains in a rare interview with Olympic Channel how he put his career on the line to qualify for Tokyo 20 20 while also revealing his future plans
And his biggest dream right now is shining at the Olympics.
The American even put his career on the line to qualify for Tokyo 2020 and shared his excitement for the Games, especially the Opening Ceremony during an Instagram Live interview with Olympic Channel's Ashlee Tulloch.
''Right now my main goal is thinking about the Olympics and how I want to prepare for that. How I want to prepare for that is my shorter term goal and so thinking about that excites me. What kind of routine I'm going to get into and what kind of equipment I want to start working on. You know, there's a lot to work on''.- John John Florence
Renowned for being a private person, Florence spoke openly about rediscovering his motivation for competition after knee surgery, his relationship with 11-time surfing world champion Kelly Slater, and how he uses breathwork to focus and for mindfulness.
While he confesses that he's a bad cook, he also admits that interviews make him more uncomfortable than surfing big heats against his fiercest rivals.
Florence will join fellow American's Kolohe Andino, Carissa Moore, and Caroline Marks at the Tokyo Olympics when the sport debuts in July 2021. But his journey to qualify was far from plain sailing, highlighted in his new film Tokyo Rising.
The film on Amazon Prime Video documents his tumultuous 2019 year. From having one of the best starts to a season in the history of surfing and putting himself in prime position for Olympic qualification and a third world title, to rupturing the ACL in his right knee, undergoing surgery, and just five months later putting his career on the line to battle Kelly Slater at the Pipe Masters on Oahu’s North Shore for the remaining USA men's Olympic spot.
Florence admits there's been mental challenges with his recovery, but said, ''my knee is 100 percent today,'' although at times it gets a little stiff, but he doesn't think about it unless he surfs for seven hours.
During the global pandemic the Hawaii-born star has been grateful for various hobbies such as gardening, sailing, reading, and bee keeping, but those past times may have to take a side step when the WSL Championship Tour starts it's 2021 season with the Billabong Pipe Masters on December 8.
The 28-year-old, who celebrated his birthday in October, sheds light on his new perspective for the upcoming season and gives a vulnerable insight into how much making the inaugural Team USA Olympic surf lineup means to him.
Check out the interview transcript below, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
Olympic Channel (OC): Everyone around the world is going through a difficult time at the moment. How are things in your world? How's Hawaii?
John John Florence (JJF): It's been really nice for us here, and I feel very fortunate to have been here through this whole thing. We've had access to the ocean the entire time. And so for me, that's a huge thing in my life. I love spending time in the ocean, whether we're surfing or paddling or diving or whatever it is, we just spend all day out there. And so it was really cool. I got to spend the summer time at home. My family and I haven't had the opportunity to do that since I was a little kid.
OC: When a lot of countries first went into lockdown, there were all these pictures circulating of cities without pollution. Did you see any of those pictures?
JJF: I saw some of the photos from China and I thought that was really interesting. And yeah, maybe it was a good chance for the Earth to take a breather.
OC: What was it like in Hawaii? Because surely there's been a lot less tourists. Did you notice anything with the natural environment?
JJF: To be honest, there has been tourists here through the whole thing. People have been getting here the whole time. It was never closed. We had the quarantine, but people were still coming in, quarantining and then being here. But they had some of the state parks closed, which is pretty interesting to see. We have a state park down the road here, it's called Ka'ena Point and they had that closed for a few months. There's a bird population that's been coming back there in the past few years, since they've kind of closed it down to people driving out there, and I think that has done really, really well having it closed for a few months. And the same with one of the other state parks on the other side of the island called Hanauma Bay. Same thing with the reef there. Usually they have so many people diving, with all the tourists, but they had it completely shut down and so I think the reef was, I haven't seen it, but I heard it had some had a really big comeback.
OC: That's a nice silver lining, isn't it, because when the world is in chaos, we have to find positives in different places. What has this time been like for you in terms of your perspective and your mindset? Has this pandemic changed your mindset at all?
JJF: If anything, it's given me just time. Time to, you know, get my mind in place for competing and kind of see what I really want out of competing, moving into the future here, and also to really get my injury in check. Our tour was about to start in March , and that was pretty quick for me to get back in the water and into full competing mode after surgery.
"So just having all this time to really train and get my knee back to one hundred percent, kind of where I want it to be feeling normal again, it took a while, and so having that time really helped." - John John Florence to Olympic Channel
OC: Let's talk a little bit more about that knee injury and your life and what's been going on, because you've had a pretty busy last few years, last year in particular. How would you describe 2019?
JJF: 2019 for me. It was a lot of ups and downs. It was pretty interesting, going from having one of the best starts of the year, on our world tour, of my life, winning a few events and doing well in a couple of other events and having a really good mindset towards competing - I think one of the best I've ever had - just feeling really relaxed and enjoying it all together, to going back into this injury and that whole thing being stopped, and really questioning the Olympic qualification and losing an opportunity at a world title. But then pivoting my mindset and doing some things that I haven't had the opportunity to do in the past because we've been so busy on the tour: Like getting to do this amazing sailing trip that I've been dreaming of doing and going down to some of the islands about a thousand miles south of Hawaii, the Line islands. So for me it was just such a cool way to be able to transition from one thing to the other and keep my mind off the tour and just allow me to relax and focus on something completely different.
OC: You ruptured your ACL in 2019, and then the craziest thing in the world happens and you and Kelly Slater are battling it out for the last USA men's Olympic sport in Hawaii. It all came down to the very last competition of the season.
JJF: Yeah, for me, that was pretty crazy because I thought when I was committing to getting my surgery, I was like, okay, it's a pretty far off chance, I don't know what's going to happen, but I might have to come back at Pipe and try to get some points. I was hoping that wasn't going to be the case. And it just ended up being that Kelly was just close enough that he only needed to pass me by a couple of rounds. And so I was like, oh, no, you know, I have to really start training here.
"When I first jumped in the water a couple of weeks before surfing in the Pipe Masters, I felt like I just could not even surf. I got on my board and I was like, oh no, this is bad, I can't go surf Pipe." - John John Florence
JJF: And then I just took it in small steps. I kept training and then tried to surf again and it was a little better, more training, tried to surf again, a little better and kind of all the way up until the day before the contest started, I was doing that. Yeah, it took a lot of energy for me and it was very tiring, but it was very rewarding to be able to go surf Pipe in the event after all that training, having set that goal. All I wanted to do was make enough heats to qualify for the Olympics, and I was able to do that. So that was pretty amazing to see for myself and for my own goals.
OC: Would you have surfed the Pipe Masters five months after surgery, if it wasn't for the fact that you needed to in order to qualify for the Olympics?
JJF: No, I definitely wouldn't have surfed. I pretty much only surfed the heats that I did up until I lost. And then after that, I stopped surfing again for another month and a half or so to just get my injury in check and yeah, just not surfing, but to rest.
OC: So given that you did surf in December of last year, you've had quite a bit of time away from competition now. What sort of condition is your knee in today?
JJF: My knee is 100 percent today. I don't really notice anything of it at all. I mean, maybe sometimes it gets a little bit stiff, but I think that's kind of the nature of it. I've talked to a few different people who have gone through this surgery and they said they can kind of feel it up to a year and a half, two years, you know, and I'm getting to that mark where I just don't really think about it at all anymore unless I surf for seven hours or something and I get really tired.
OC: They say that with ACL recovery, a lot of it is mental and comes down to your memory of the injury and what it feels like as opposed to anything else, like physical.
JJF: Definitely. It's definitely like that. You know, it took me so long to get over that hump of just to trust myself and trust that I was strong enough. It's just a scary thing, like you go through the surgery and, you know, it's new in there and you just don't want to go through that again.
OC: Pretty much everything that we've just talked about is in your new film, which has come out today (November 12), it's called Tokyo Rising, so please tell us what the film is all about.
JJF: Yeah. So the film came to fruition after everything that had happened. We'd been filming through the whole year and it's just something we naturally do. I'm really interested in cameras and everything like that, and I love photography. So we're always messing with the cameras and capturing a lot of stuff. So that last year ended up being such an interesting year for me. Ups and downs and competing and not competing and back into competing. And we thought it'd be really fun to make a project. And for me, that was just such an incredible thing to be able to look back at the whole year in a shorter picture and really feel what I felt through all those times, watching the footage back. So that was special for me in that sense and to see it all together in a finished product. I hope that inspires people who have ACL injuries or whatever it is that, you know, you can push through and go after your goals.
OC: You are a notoriously private person, which must be super hard given your position that you're so much in the public eye. So why did you feel the need to reveal a little bit more of your intimate private life? There are even shots of your surgery.
JJF: I think a lot of people go through really similar things, whether it's going through an injury or it's fighting and coming back from injury or just purely just losing motivation in what they're doing. I think that for me that's where it all started, just losing motivation within competing and just kind of not having that excitement for it as I once did. And then that leading into an injury and to another injury. There is just a lot of things, I think, that people feel and do through their lives and maybe they don't talk about it so much and so I just felt like it might be cool to talk about it and maybe it'll get a conversation started. Like just keeping your mind open to other things. And I think that was really special for me, was being able to go on this sailing trip and do these other things and then come back to surfing and it really gave me time to think about what I love about competing and having that why I'm competing, going into it. For me I guess that's just what I want to show and inspire people to search for that.
OC: I think it's interesting because particularly when you're in the limelight like you are, there's got to be a tricky balance between how much of yourself you actually give to people and how much you keep to yourself. Do you feel that you have the right balance?
JJF: I think in general, like I'm a pretty introverted person, I don't like being out and about and talking to everyone. I just like doing my own thing. And even with social media and stuff, I feel like I'm relatively quiet compared to others. But that's just my personality, you know? So I don't find it hard in any way, really. It's sometimes difficult when we're at events and we're around all these people. But for the most part, I just do my own thing.
OC: So what makes you more uncomfortable sitting down to do an interview or going out against one of your fiercest rivals like Gabriel Medina at pumping Tahiti or something like that?
JJF: Sitting down to do an interview. Haha.
OC: I think one of the interesting things about surfing going into the Olympics for the first time is that it's a sport that a lot of people don't understand, but it's a sport that a lot of people really appreciate and think is really beautiful, so for you as one of the key guys who people will be watching in Tokyo. So how do you feel about surfing in the Olympics?
JJF: Honestly, I'm really excited to be a part of the Olympics for sure, one hundred percent. I still can't believe that I'm a part of it and so I'm not sure what to think about surfing in it in general. I think a lot of it depends on the waves and the conditions when we get there, you know, and seeing the kind of scene. So for me, it's hard to picture it. We're still just in this training mode, and it's a new thing for us surfers. So I don't really know what to expect or what to think, but for surfing as a whole being on this bigger stage of competition in sports, that just has so much history behind it. I think it's a really special thing and I'm really excited to be a part of that.
OC: Have you allowed yourself the idea of visualising standing on the podium or hearing the American national anthem, or do you not visualise?
JJF: No, I do. I do a lot of visualising. I haven't really thought about the podium too much. My visualisations always go to how I feel before an event and how I feel right before a competition starts or a heat starts. And so that's usually where I go to and just going into it with a really relaxed mindset. And so I have thought about, the Opening Ceremony and the excitement of that thought. And I think that for me, just being a part of that, I'll be really excited just seeing all these athletes and seeing this huge event that I've always seen since I was a little kid on TV, but actually being there will be pretty crazy.
OC: Are there other sports that you're keen to have a look at?
JJF: Yeah, I think there's definitely other sports that I'll be excited to have a look at, but for the most part for me, I just see being in that Opening Ceremony as the one thing I'm looking forward to the most. I think there's a lot of power in that, with all the athletes being together and the Olympics starting. So that's what I'm most excited about.
OC: I imagine as a little boy, you grew up with goals and things you wanted to do, but surfing wasn't in the Olympics, so it became a new goal. When did it become something that you wanted?
JJF: It became something that I wanted as soon as it started getting talked about with surfing. That we were going to be in the Olympics. And at the time, it was hard to picture what it would look like because we didn't know what the qualification looked like. We didn't know if the event was going to be in a wave pool or in the ocean and there's so many unknowns. But as we keep getting closer and closer to the Olympics, it's easier to picture that. So I guess it all started right when, I was like, oh, surfing will be in the Olympics, that'll that'll be pretty amazing. I'd love to be a part of that.
OC: So you've achieved the last goal, which was to qualify for the Olympics. Do you set new goals now?
JJF: I definitely set goals now for sure, and whether they're small or big. But I think right now my main goal is thinking about the Olympics and how I want to prepare for that. How I want to prepare for that is my shorter term goal and so thinking about that excites me. What kind of routine I'm going to get into and what kind of equipment I want to start working on. You know, there's a lot to work on.
OC: Equipment's going to be interesting as well, because the waves in Japan are not going to be like what you are used to in Hawaii. We know they're going to be smaller than in places like Pipeline and so there's a lot of talk about aerial surfing and how that's going to be necessary. With that in mind who are the guys that you think are going to be the biggest contenders for gold in Tokyo?
JJF: That's hard to say. All the surfers who are qualified are pretty good, especially in those small waves. But I have to say, the Brazilian team is pretty strong in those waves and they're definitely very fast. And they have a lot of good tricks in those waves so I think they're probably, you know, going to be one of the ones to beat.
OC: You've spent so much time with those guys on the Championship Tour. Is it weird that you've spent so much time apart because you've had your injury and then this year's been the pandemic?
JJF: It's definitely weird. It's funny because after I was injured in 2018, getting back onto the tour felt like you're going back to school again or something, and it's like all your classmates and things like that. So it feels like that, feels like I've been away from school for a long time and I want to get back to school with all my friends.
OC: The season kicks off in Hawaii on December 8. I'm interested to get your take on the season ahead, because you've got 13 events on the WSL 2021 Championship tour, then you've got ISA World Surf Games in El Salvador and you've got the Olympics. So it's a heavy agenda. How do you feel about fitting it all in?
JJF: It's definitely a lot to fit in for sure, and it's a lot to think about all at once, so I'm just trying to break it down into these first couple of events in Hawaii and just focus on these first two events here and then reassess, and then go from there. I guess there's a kind of reset. I mean, last year the schedule seemed like it was the craziest schedule ever and I was kind of stressing out on it. And then all of a sudden there was no schedule. So it just goes to show, you never know what's going to happen or how the schedule might change according to the conditions of the world. So I'm just taking it, a little piece at a time.
OC: How are you approaching the season different this year?
JJF: I think I'm approaching it a bit different in the sense of, like I said before, I had a lot of time to think about what I like about competing and what I love about it and being there. And so for me, it's just going into it with a much more relaxed approach and enjoying being there with Kolohe and Gabriel and Jordy and all these guys, these competitors that really pushed me within the sport. And it's a fun thing. It's a fun thing to be at these events in the free surf sessions and in the event. And it really makes my surfing better and makes me think about how I can make my surfing better. I don't know, I love that part of it and I love the free surf sessions and everything around the event, it's fun. You know, we travel with a great team and it's just a good time.
OC: Of all of the things that you've been doing when you've been away from competing have you had any new hobbies or anything that you've picked up?
JJF: I haven't had any necessarily new hobbies, but some hobbies that I've had in the past that I haven't necessarily had time to dive into. I got to spend a lot of time sailing and a lot of time on our little piece of land with bees and fruits and vegetables and all kinds of food we're growing. So that's been really fun to dive in and try to, learn the most I can about that.
OC: Quite a forager then, aren't you? Can you cook?
JJF: I'm really bad at cooking.
OC: If we were coming to your house for dinner. What would you cook?
JJF: If I had to cook, I would probably do something like veggie Stir-Fry, and I'll try to make it all from the land. I don't know.
OC: So you've got enough veggies in the garden on the land up the road to put something together.
JJF: Yeah, I would try my best. I can't promise it would be good.
OC: Have you read any books lately?
JJF: I've read quite a bit of them actually. Lately I've been into the Dune series, which is a fictional series, science fiction. And there's I think 13 books in that series, so that's been a fun series for me to be into. My brother's really into this as well, so it's fun to talk about it. And then I have a lot of, I guess you could say mindfulness books, books about the mind. So that's something that I'm really interested in, is always trying to better the way I think, especially for competing.
OC: That's a tricky thing. I think this year there's been a lot more open conversations about people's mindset and how people calm the mind or struggle to calm the mind. When there's so much uncertainty and fear in the world, it's hard to control thoughts. So if you had one piece of advice or something that you've been trying to do lately, what do you to harness your mind?
JJF: I guess the simplest one and you hear it a lot, but it's with your breath. There's so many different breathing exercises you can do now, but it's such an easy one to focus on. It's always happening. You're always breathing. It's always right there. So that's one I use a lot, whether it's different types of breathing or if it's just a simple breath. That's definitely one that can calm me down, bring you back into the moment and not have too much anxiety about the future.
OC: And for you, it's important because if you are being held down by a heavy wave, you can't afford to panic. You can't afford to not control your breathing, right?
JJF: Yeah, controlling breathing and surfing is definitely important. You don't want to hyperventilate before it comes or stress out, because the more calm you are, the longer you can hold your breath. And we've done some free dive classes in the past where it's all about slowing your heart rate down as much as possible and just getting as calm and relaxed as possible. And it's amazing how long you can hold your breath when you're just relaxed. So relaxing in stressful situations is definitely something I'm still trying to learn about because you can just apply that to so many different things. But relaxing in stressful situations is hard.
OC: Yeah, it's easier said than done. So what about yoga. Are you a yogi?
JJF: I'm not into yoga. I'm not disciplined enough. Stretching is a hard one for me, even like doing exercises in the gym. I always have trouble with it. I do it, but I don't have a lot of fun doing it. I find stretching is really sore for me, I get really stiff after surfing and so self inflicting the pain for me, even if you're trying to breathe through it, is so hard.
OC: What is it you do after surfing then?
JJF: I have a pretty good recovery routine and some active recovery type things and some stretching that I do, that helps me. But I usually am stretching with someone or training with someone because it's it's really hard for me to do it by myself.
OC: Do you think you would quite like to do like team sports? Because it sounds a little bit like you like the idea of doing stuff with other people?
JJF: Team sports are definitely fun. Or sound fun. We've done some team things with the WSL in the wave pool and so that's been really cool to have that because surfing has never been a team sport for us so having that team camaraderie is just like, you have your friends just yelling, GO! And so that was really cool to feel that. But as for actually training within a team sport I think I would have trouble because I like really creating my own routine. You know my routine might not fit the next person's routine. It's fun to do it for a couple of days, create like a little training camp of sorts, but for the long term, I think, I just enjoy creating my own little routines.
OC: Watching your film Tokyo Rising, you were playing a little bit of basketball. I think you might need a little bit of help there, but you were doing some cycling and some tennis. Do you dabble in other sports or do you have to be super careful about not getting injured?
JJF: Injury is not the thing that worries me as much as just time in general, having the time to do other things. Cycling has been a fun one because it's just really good training for your cardio and things like that. Endurance. My brother and I spent a lot of time in the summer riding bikes, and it's pretty amazing. After riding the bike and getting longer and longer days of riding, how much more time you can spend in the water and be less tired. We're having six hour sessions, pretty regularly after riding the bike a lot. And so that was one thing that I really did like. As for basketball and tennis, those are just fun things when we're on the road. Break it up a little bit.
OC: You also played a little golf but you could get some tips from Kelly Slater. Which reminds me, after you took the last USA spot for the Olympics, did you guys talk? What did he say to you?
JJF: We didn't really talk about it too much. I think he congratulated me and that was about it. I think it was just quickly after the event and then usually after the Pipe Masters everyone leaves pretty quickly. And even though Kelly lives here most of the time, I still don't see him very often. And so, yeah, I hadn't really talked to him really up until the end of this year, we were talking about doing a surf trip possibly, but that was about it.
OC: Was he bitter about you taking the spot? Because, yes, he's won 11 world titles, but he is one competitive man. He wanted that spot.
JJF: Oh, he is very competitive and I'm sure he was bitter. But I didn't see any bitterness and he didn't show any bitterness to me. But I'm sure he definitely wanted that spot. And I think just out of true competitive spirit, you know. I think and I hope, he's probably happy in a way too.
"I've known Kelly since I was a little kid, and if It had gone the other way, I would have been stoked for him. I think it's amazing what he's doing at his age and the way he's competing with the rest of the field. He's been winning world titles since the year I was born and to see him out of the Pipe Masters getting ten point rides and battling me for this Olympics. It was amazing to see. I hope I'm able to do something like that when I'm his age."
OC: You know, you've made it when you're known as just one name like Kelly or, Serena or LeBron. He's definitely made it to that sort of status. What about for you, with your name? Can you explain why you get called John John?
JJF: I honestly really don't know the answer to that question. It's just kind of something I've been called since I was a little kid growing up here in Hawaii, and I don't remember the first time or anything about it. I think my mom called me when I was a little kid. She doesn't call me that anymore. But, yeah, it just kind of stuck.
OC: Do you have a preference?
JJF: I don't have a preference, no.
OC: So what's next for you? Obviously, you're sitting tight in Hawaii. Have you ramped up your training and the preparation for the start of the Pipe Masters on December 8?
JJF: Yep, I've definitely started ramping up training quite a bit and getting my equipment together and then just getting my mind back in the competitive mindset. You know, we've been off for a while now. No events. And so you definitely have to get your mind back into that competing and thinking about how you want to compete while you're surfing because for me, I love free surfing so in my mind, I don't care what wave I'm going on, I'm just going to go and go as fast as I can and try something really big. And there's not really any thought of points to it for me. I have fun falling 50 or 60 times in a row and then finally making something. But that's not necessarily the best thing for a heat.
OC: Do you listen to music before you start a heat?
JJF: I do listen to music before I start a lot of the time, and sometimes I don't. It just depends how I'm feeling before the heat. If I feel like I'm as excited, then I try to use music to bring myself back up. And then if I'm overly excited, like highly caffeinated, then I won't listen to music. I'll have headphones on just to kind of block out noise and people talking to me. But I change it up depending on how I feel. I listen to a pretty wide variety of things. It's always changing. Sometimes my brothers find newer music that's pretty exciting. But I've grown up listening to like Rolling Stones and Black Sabbath and things like that. And so that's always in my playlist for sure.
OC: This Instagram live is going to take your screen time through the roof, and I believe you don't usually spend that much time on your phone. What is your screen time on average this year?
JJF: On my phone, my screen time average is not very high. I think it's like an hour or so.
OC: There's one last question. It's about gratitude, because I think this year has definitely proven to all of us that there's still a lot to be thankful for. So what what is one thing today that you're grateful for?
JJF: I think today I'm grateful for my friends and my family, and the time I've had. I've gotten to spend a lot of time with friends and family this year more than I have in the past. And so for me, that's been pretty special and I'm thankful for that.