John John Florence fulfilled a unique destiny today, a chronicle foretold ever since he first made his way out to the surf spot in front of his home, Pipeline, at just five years old.
But growing up a stone's throw from the world's most famous, and most deadly, surf spot is far from a guarantee of pro surf career accolades. An aspiring young pro has much to do before etching his name alongside a hallowed list of the sport's all-time greats. Competing on the Qualifying Series as a teenager, John grew up in the public eye. Learning on the job, finding a balance. Staying true to his reputation as the world's best freesurfer, yet competing smart. Processing losses and setbacks whilst learning from them, growing with each win.
It was fitting, then, that when a celebratory scrum erupted around the 24-year-old Hawaiian shortly after 9 a.m. local time, it did so on the deck of the surfers' area of the contest site, where Florence had been watching on with the demeanor of a casual observer. Whilst many in similar situations might have preferred to let such moments unfold from the sanctity of the locker room, away from the glare of thousands of camera lenses, Florence looked on as the very picture of relaxation, even making himself available for a live interview midway through the heat. Minutes later, as Conner Coffin defeated Jordy Smith in the second Semifinal, having wrested the lead by virtue of a 9-point ride for a deep barrel, Florence was crowned the 2016 World Champion.
"I couldn't have done this without my mom, my family, all my friends back home," said an emotional Florence. "Oh my gosh, I'm so stoked. It's been a long year, the best of my life. So many fun events, I've learned a lot. I can't believe I won the World Title. It's really gotta sink in. I was expecting it to go to Hawaii, I'm kinda still stuck in that mode. My whole life has gone towards this, learning so much about competitive surfing. I couldn't have done it without all the support I've had."
Florence's historic year started off with him winning the Eddie Aikau Invitational in giant surf at Waimea Bay, putting his name alongside some of the most legendary watermen in history. A lukewarm Australian leg started his 2016 Samsung Galaxy Championship Tour campaign, before a win at the Oi Rio Pro in Brazil kicked off what would ultimately become a life-changing season. Making Finals at J-Bay and Teahupo'o saw him take the World No. 1 yellow jersey, although the latter saw him withdraw partway through the Final with a knee injury.
But shaking aside physical trauma with the same relative ease that he's shown as the Jeep Leaderboard ratings leader -- arguably a blessing and a burden for any surfer -- he went on to bring his A-game to competitions. He found a Semifinal finish in France, followed by a win in Portugal today, where an impressive, crowd-pleasing final performance that resembled a freesurf edit more than a competitive heat delivered Florence the sport's ultimate prize. After Kiron Jabour and John Pyzel, John's friends and mentors since childhood, had chaired the new World Champion over the hallowed sands of Supertubos to the presentation podium, Florence not only won the World Title trophy and $100,000 in prize money, but he also became the recipient of a brand-new Jeep Wrangler.
"There's so much to take in, a lot of emotions," Florence said from the presentation podium. "I tried airs, I felt relaxed, I'm super stoked to win the event too. It's been my dream to win the World Title ever since watching Kelly [Slater] and Andy [Irons]. I might cry or something later.
"I've had some tricky heats here, I couldn't have done it without everyone in my camp. Thank you to everyone who's been coming down here every day, supporting us, thank you for having us here in Portugal. The biggest challenge I've had, once in the lead, was holding on. People wondering, 'Can he?,' it can get inside your head. I've learned a lot about myself this year. Now I'm just excited to go home. To be the World Champion, I don't know how to feel yet."
Conner Coffin, the runner-up, was also upbeat. "I haven't made a Final since Portugal (on the Qualifying Series) three years ago," he said. Coffin climbed five spots on the Jeep Leaderboard ratings to 19th, three places above the requalification cutoff. "The waves are so fun here, the fans are incredible, there are waves everywhere, I feel at home. I just want to say thank you to everyone here, you guys are amazing. I paddled the wrong way for one wave, I would've loved the win but I'm really happy for John, congrats to him. It's crazy to think I went up like five spots [on the ratings]."
And so today at Supertubos, on a cool, gray unassuming morning, Florence became the third new World Champion in as many years, ushering in an exciting era for the sport with performance levels being pushed to ever greater heights before an ever-growing global audiences. As the kid who knew how to line up at some of the world's most infamous surf spots before he knew to tie his shoelaces, today he became the fourth Hawaiian men's World Champion, in the 40th year of crowning them, and a brand new chapter in surfing history begins.