John John Florence has never been an outspoken fire-breather. He's not an overemotional chest-thumper, either. His mellow Hawaiian vibe is one of the lovelier aspects of his personality. Whether on the podium at Waimea Bay or Postinho, his smile seems to be getting softer and more innocent with age.
But we shouldn't be fooled. Beneath that supremely cool exterior there's a flame burning, and it ignited on Thursday at the Oi Rio Pro.
First the facts: Florence beat rookie Jack Freestone in the Final, and did so rather handily. In capturing the third CT victory of his career he jumped to No. 3 on the Jeep Leaderboard rankings, 5800 points behind front-runner Matt Wilkinson. And while that's a big gap on paper, just remember that we're heading into the dreamy portion of the schedule, with Fiji, J-Bay, Tahiti and Trestles on tap. It means nothing.
In Rio everyone in the Top 10 was eliminated before the quarterfinal. But this wasn't a continuation of what happened in Australia. Quite the contrary. It was nature doing its rebalancing.
Florence arrived in Rio still licking wounds. The sea of fresh-faced rookies and battle-tested replacements took their toll on him in the first few events. He was dealt two early-round losses at the hands of rookie Caio Ibelli, and didn't make it past the quarterfinals in any of the three events.
It was hardly the start of a world title contender's run.
True champions know how to bounce back, however, which is the challenge Florence now faces in 2016. Consistency has never been his forte, but it's something he knows he needs if to make a world title run a reality.
Though Florence is arguably the most popular surfer in the world right now, he's not at all driven by fame. Making good on the talent he was blessed with is his driving force. But talent alone doesn't win world titles, not anymore. There's way too much these days to drift your way to the top.
And despite the cosmic fortune that landed embryonic John John in the belly of a surfing mom living yards away from Pipeline, nothing is predetermined. His mastery is a result of incredible passion and practice. Lots and lots of practice.
The next journey for John John is inward, strengthening his resolve through adversity, be it bad waves, bad calls, bad food or bad injuries.
Rio was a test of his mental muscle, and he aced it. His demeanor during the nine-day grind was steadfast with a smile. His passion fueling the work when conditions were good, and his work fueling his passion when they weren't. It's a delicate balance, that motivational game, but if he's able to master it there's no stopping him.
That said, the list of contenders is getting larger every day in this new era. Rookie Jack Freestone may be late to the 2016 party, but he crashed it hard on Thursday by taking down Gabriel Medina in a hotly contested semifinal.
For Freestone to make the final in Brazil in just his second CT start as a rookie speaks volumes. He didn't seem the least bit awestruck, either. He expects to be there, and he will stay. It is worth noting, however, that both Jack and John John thrive in dumpy beachbreaks. Jack has D-Bah. John John has Ehukai. Both gutter and rip and roar with current the way Postinho does, which is why they looked right at home this week.
Medina may be a bit distraught after his stunning semifinal loss to Freestone, but he can take comfort in knowing he was the man to beat all week. His aerial antics dazzled the crowd and judges. And like Florence, after a slow start to the season he's building on momentum.
Even De Souza, who's had a rough go this year, is just outside the Top 5 after his semifinal finish. And he's no slouch at Cloudbreak.
While Matty Wilkinson is still wearing the yellow jersey and enjoying a decent lead, the rebalance in Rio just made the title race much more interesting. 5800 points is nothing in the scheme of things. Prepare yourself for Act II.