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Exclusive: Florence, "I Got Injured and Just Went Damn"

After two years of dominating the field, the reigning 2x World Champ John John Florence entered the 2018 season with a different approach to years past -- aiming to relax and enjoy every heat.

But that didn't work.

While his surfing was still there, showing flashes of brilliance throughout the first few events, he was failing to secure top results -- a far stretch from the Florence we have all grown accustomed to.

Following an early round loss at the Corona Bali Protected, the 25-year-old tweaked his knee during a freesurf.

Although it wasn't understood at the time, the injury would ultimately force Florence to pull out of the season with an unknown return date.

During a recent chat from the North Shore, John talked through his current situation and what it will take to get him back on Tour.

John John Florence Injury Update
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Credit: parallelsea

The World Surf League: It's been a couple of months since your injury in Indonesia. Can you explain what happened?

It was during the Bali Pro event at Keramas. I was surfing down the beach from the contest. I'd lost my heat, but the waves were super fun. It was really rippable and I was excited to try airs. I think I had surfed for two-and-half hours so maybe I was tired, but I injured it trying an air.

It was actually strange how it happened. It didn't happen on the impact when I landed back on the wave, but when I was standing back up. I think my knee was out of place and it bent funny when I stood back up. I heard a pop and it definitely didn't feel right, then I fell and went underwater.

Immediately, I tried to compare it to when I hurt my leg in Tahiti a few years back, as it felt similar. I walked up beach fine by myself and sat there watching the waves for a little bit. That's when it started to stiffen, and I thought, "uh oh, something isn't right here."

John John Florence of Hawaii placed second in Heat 1 of Round 3 of the Corona Bali Pro, 2018. Florence was eliminated by Brazilian rookie Jesse Mendes in Round 3 of the Corona Bali Protected. WSL / Ed Sloane

The WSL doctors took a look at it and they thought it was an ACL tear, but they didn't know how bad it was. We got some MRIs in Bali, but it was still kind of vague and I didn't know how bad it was. No one would tell me. It was determined to be a high partial tear of the ACL.

From there, we flew to Hawaii and got MRIs on the new machines to confirm the diagnosis. We were on the fence about the surgery -- everyone that we spoke with recommended rehabilitating it without cutting into it.

With a partial tear, you have a good chance of healing all the way back and I thought that if I had the surgery, then that would technically injure more than it was to repair it. Mark Kozuki flew over from California and I worked with him for a week and immediately began to feel better.

The knee feels great now. I have no trouble walking on it, but I'm still stiff getting in low positions so I have a way to go before I'm fully healed enough to surf.

John John Florence of Hawaii prior to his Round 1 heat at the Corona Bali Protected, 2018. John John Florence WSL / Ed Sloane

This news removes you from the Title race for 2018. What was your headspace heading into the season and how has that adjusted since the injury?

Winning back-to-back Titles, the three-peat and AI (Andy Irons) were on my mind for sure. Coming into the year, I took a different approach to surfing on Tour. I set out to relax and enjoy every single heat, surf the way I wanted and see if it worked...it didn't really work.

Starting in Brazil, I switched back to the way I approached competition last year - which is still pushing to perform the way I want to but having a more structured competitive mindset to putting a heat together. I felt like that switch was working really well, but it was just a bummer that I got sick down there.

I stuck with that in Bali and felt really good too, but just had an off heat when I got eliminated.

So yeah, I didn't have the results I wanted first half of the season, but I was feeling really good about my surfing and about the adjustments I was making, starting in Brazil. I was really looking forward to completing at the Margaret River at Uluwatu and to the rest of the season.

John John Florence of Hawaii after his Round 1 heat win at the Corona Bali Protected, 2018. John John Florence WSL / Ed Sloane

Then I got injured and just went, "Damn."

It's okay though, it's a big learning experience and I think ultimately helpful to look at things from a different perspective. I'm trying to make the most out of the situation.

When you're competing, you're always so full on that you get stuck in one headspace and you can be resistant to different ideas.

In that sense, the injury has allowed me to slow down and figure out what's been working for me, what hasn't been and look at what's working for others and consider applying some of that to what I do.

How have you been occupying your time while rehabilitating your knee?

On the knee therapy, I've been doing one week on and one week off. On the off weeks, I've just been getting out and doing the things that I usually miss out on -- tons of paddling and a few races, which really offer you a different perspective.

I did a sailing race the other day and it's been really cool to hang with family as well. Nathan (brother) has been out scoring sick waves everywhere so that's hard to watch -- but being in Hawaii over the summer is a lot of fun.

With sailing and paddling, in both things, you're constantly reading what the waves and the water are doing.

You learn so much about positioning in terms of working with the water to make things really easy on yourself or really difficult. You're not just sitting still in a lineup and waiting for waves to come to you. Instead you have to move with it and you're motivated to learn really quickly.

I feel like I'm understanding so much more about the ocean and the way water moves and I'll apply that to my surfing when I get back on the board.

What do you think of the current Title race? Is anyone's surfing inspiring you for when you return?

Everyone on Tour is such a great surfer in their own way -- they're all different surfers with different styles and, at the CT level, you can learn things from all of them. I'm constantly watching the guys on Tour and learning new things.

Filipe (Toledo) is looking pretty good after his J-Bay win in terms of this year's Title race. He's such a good surfer. Even when I'm healthy and on Tour, he inspires me. He surfs how he wants to in heats and that's so hard to do.

I tried to do that in the beginning of the season and it's a really difficult balance between letting go and still competing, of being able to free surf and still have some structure.

Filipe goes as fast as he wants to and really lets loose. I admire that a lot. It's super fun to watch and it makes me want to find that balance when I return.

What's the scenario where you return to competition for the Pipe Masters?

The scenario for me to compete at Pipe all depends on my knee. Not going through the surgery, it's less certain what the rehabilitation time would be to get it back to 100%. I'm not coming back until it's 100%. I'm not coming back in a brace at 80% or something and risk hurting it again.

John John Florence's 2017 Journey to World Title No. 2
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The Hawaiian prodigy clinches his second World Title at the Billabong Pipe Masters.

More so because when I come back I do not want to be hesitant in any way. I want to go down the line as fast as I want, get lipped in the back of the head, land in the flats and be confident that I can surf at the level I want to.

On the CT, there's no way you can come back at less than your best and expect to compete. Everyone is too good at that level. So, I'm working hard on getting back to 100% and I'm really frothing to get back to it.

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