"The last couple days have been nerve-wracking," John John Florence said after clinching his second straight World Title on Monday. The 25-year-old Hawaii-born surfer did it in front of a huge hometown crowd at Pipeline, his backyard, and his favorite wave on Oahu's North Shore. By doing so, Florence becomes the first World Champion since the late Andy Irons to capture his first World Title in back-to-back fashion.
Florence is famously laid back, but beneath the coolness there's been a ball of stress brewing underneath. He entered the Final of the season aiming to hold off four very dangerous threats. "Gabe was really surfing well. Julian really did well and Jordy was doing well in his first couple of heats. It was just looking like it was going to come down to the very last thing."
While Julian Wilson and Jordy Smith were eliminated from contention on Sunday, Brazilian Gabriel Medina, Florence's largest threat, still loomed heading into the last day of the season. Florence needed to make the Final to insure the World Title. Anything less put it at risk.
On Monday morning, Florence hit the water first in Round Four, and he seemed intent on setting the pace early. He opened strong against Caio Ibelli and Joel Parkinson, tapping into the early morning rhythm of Backdoor Pipeline quite nicely. All was going well for Florence until Brazilian Caio Ibelli, who's been a persistent thorn in Florence's foot since arriving on Tour in 2016, started causing trouble again.
Mind you, the Brazilian didn't even have a single point on the board with seven minutes left to go, when he finally locked into a clean Backdoor barrel. Two minutes later he repeated the feat, and nabbed the lead. By the time the score was announced there were only two minutes left, and it looked as if he'd foiled Florence again. But John John found an answer with 1:07 on the clock.
Florence pulled in to the tube on the takeoff and blasted through a doggy-door to exit -- clearly not enough, yet. On the next section John found a bonus barrel, and threaded it perfectly. He came out staring at judges, which is about as close as the low-key Florence gets to claiming. He got the score he was looking for.
Medina, meanwhile, had his death-glare going from the start on Monday. During his Round Four heat with former Pipe Master Jeremy Flores and friendly-fire rival Italo Ferreira the 2014 World Champ was being cagey with his priority. According to Flores, a little too much so. He felt Medina had kept him off a few waves on purpose, a move that technically should have cost him the right of way. But when a big set approached midway through the heat, Medina was still sitting in pole position, and he took full advantage with the highest scoring wave of the heat: a wide-open, backhand barrel.
Medina emerged from the spit staring back in the barrel, letting everyone know how much he was savoring the gravity of this moment.
Out the back, Flores was seething. In his mind that wave was his, and he'd just lost the lead. But while Medina seemed to be in command, not all hope was lost. Flores was only in need of a 5.44, and with just over three minutes to go he stroked into a Backdoor gem. Flores weaved through several sections and exited with an 8-point ride of his own, handing him a huge win, and sending Medina into a crucial Round Five match with Pipe's all-time greatest, Kelly Slater.
Slater, by the way, had a fun Round Four heat with his former students Kanoa Igarashi and Leonardo Fioravanti. During Kelly's Quiksilver days, Igarashi and Fioravanti were part of the elite international youth movement. Kelly's been charting their growth since they were both pre-teens. He's old enough to be their father, but is more like their smarmy uncle. Yoda was taking a pair of his Jedi into the Pipe lineup for what many assumed would be a nice little lesson.
Igarashi, however, had other plans. The second-year pro seemed inoculated against Slater's Pipeline mystique. He also seemed determined to pad his already solid Pipe stats. After all, Igarashi was a finalist last year, and he beat Slater twice along the way. On Monday he came through again, making another late charge to catch Slater from behind, and advance to the Pipe Quarterfinals for the second time running. Igarashi shrugged off his his 3-0 record against Slater to Rosy Hodge, but something tells me he'll find the right moment to gently remind Kelly.
Medina's match with Slater was one of the most anticipated of the day. Florence's fans figured that King Kelly was their best line of defense against the storming Brazilian, and in most years they might have been right. But Kelly hasn't been able to put in his usual Pipe time this year. His trick foot has kept him out of the water, and to a degree, out of rhythm. While he traveled through a few lengthy closeout barrels in their heat, he never did find his groove. Medina, meanwhile, looked fierce once again on his backhand. He rolled through to the Quarterfinals, improving his head-to-head record against the 11x World Champion to 7-2.
By the time the Quarterfinals rolled around conditions were starting to deteriorate. The good wave-hunting was more difficult with chatter on the face crumbling the tube sections. But that played right into Florence's hands during his match with former Pipe Master Julian Wilson. If John was nervous, he didn't look it. Indeed, it was the first time he looked like he was playing around in his backyard (which, by the way, he was). John exited the water victorious, and went back into his living room to relax, needing just one more heat win to clinch his second-straight World Title.
Medina meant to keep the pressure on John, and given all the magic he's been making over the past few months, doubting him seemed foolish. He's been lifting the spirits of his entire country during his recent tear, and whether it was the vocal Brazilian fans on the beach, or soccer star Neymar Jr. chiming in on social media, they weren't letting him forget it. But as conditions worsened in the Quarterfinals, Gabe struggled to find any open doors. And unfortunately for Gabe, Flores found a couple tight tubes to squeeze into at Backdoor, putting an end to Medina's miracle run.
Florence was being mobbed by family and friends in the Johnson's backyard as the clock wound down, while fans cheered him out from the beach. Meanwhile, Flores, along with Igarashi and Italo Ferreira, who were up in the next heat, paddled over to console a spent Medina, and congratulate him on his remarkable run.
"I tried my best," Medina said afterward, eyes still misty. "I'm so tired right now because I put everything out there, in the water. That was a long year. I won a couple events and I lost a couple. It's hard to deal with the ups and downs, but it's part of the game y'know. But I never give up. I just try hard. And yeah, I'm coming back next year."
While the celebration continued, Igarashi got the better of Ferreira in Quarterfinal number four, nabbing his 9th heat win in two appearances at Pipeline. While that's not exactly a huge sample size, it's pretty obvious that he likes this place. "I love this wave," he said afterward. "This is where I learned to tuberide. I've been coming here since I was a kid."
By knocking out Ferreira, Igarashi got to play the hero role again for some of his friends. He secured California its first Triple Crown Champion in Griffin Colapinto, and by double-qualifying for the 2018 Championship Tour -- along with Ferreira -- Igarashi helped open up two more spots on next year's roster for Michael Rodrigues and Pat Gudauskas. "I'm like Santa Claus, I've been handing out tour spots, and Triple Crown titles, you name it," Igarashi laughed.
Florence finally emerged from the Johnson's yard in time to hit the water against rookie Ian Gouveia in their Semifinal match. Gouveia, a second-generation star from Brazil, was on a mini-run of his own while fighting for his Championship Tour survival. It's been a rough year for rookies. Gouveia's only bright spot came in Fiji, where he took out Owen Wright on his way to a respectable 9th place finish. Nevertheless, an unlikely win here at Pipeline would keep his CT dream alive. Gouveia needed a miracle, and with just under three minutes left to go during his heat with the newly minted champ, he found one in the form of a messy backhand barrel that increased his small lead over Florence into a big one.
With under two minutes to go, Florence needed an 8.5 to make the Final. Given how sloppy the lineup was getting, it didn't seem likely. But then something clicked with John. He seemed to remember that this event, the one he's been watching his entire life, is still the monkey on his back. Sure, that second World Title trophy will be a nice bookend in his study, but there's a big blank spot on his mantle that's still begging for a Pipe Masters helmet.
With just over a minute to go, Florence somehow found a corner pocket that ran down the reef. He threaded his way through a chunky tube, then hit the accelerator upon his exit with his eyes fixated on the closeout section. There was little doubt what was coming up next: Florence flew into a lofty aerial reverse, and when he stuck it the crowd went wild, and Florence cracked his biggest smile of the day. The 8.7 shot him into his second Pipe Masters Final.
John John faced Jeremy Flores in the Final. The Frenchman was feeling a twinge of guilt playing the spoiler role. After ending Igarashi's second straight trip to the Semifinals at Pipe, Flores spoke to Rosy Hodge. "It's been a crazy day," he said. "Gabriel, I have so much respect for him. He's a good friend. To see these guys work so hard...and to be the guy to beat him...I really felt for him. I didn't want to be that guy. I'm just fighting my own little battle. It would have been cool to have John John and Gabe face each other."
In the break between the Semis and the Final, something crazy happened. The wind began to fade, and lineup started to settle. Midway through their match Florence and Flores found themselves trading Backdoor tubes in wonderful little slug-fest that delighted the fans. Flores threatened early with a solid 7.9, topping John by the midway mark. But when John John fired back with an 8.93, something bigger seemed to be happening, and everyone knew it.
Florence followed with another one, and you could see the weight falling off his shoulders as he kicked out. The day he'd been dreaming about his entire life had finally arrived. A Pipe Masters win and a World Title in his backyard? It's been his dream since he was a kid, and now it was just seconds away.
The clock ticked. One minute to go. Nothing.
It ticked down some more, as the water started draining off the reef, a sure sign of something to come.
35 seconds left. Jeremy Flores, holding priority, moved toward an oncoming lump.
30 seconds left. It was a real opportunity. Jeremy's was going to get a shot.
22 seconds left. Jeremy dropped in, went immediately behind the curtain, and wove his way through a couple of meaty sections before emerging with his fist over his head. He made it clear to the judges what he thinks of the score.
Florence, sitting out the back, could only shake his head and laugh at his fate.
Jeremy walked up the beach as the judges took their time to review the tape. They had to get this one right. Jeremy needed an 8.27. He got an 8.33. Flores just stole his second Pipe Masters crown in much the same way he'd nabbed his first in 2010 off of Kieren Perrow.
"Are you kidding?" Flores said, still stunned. "Winning the Pipe Masters in the final seconds against John John Florence? I couldn't think of any better way to win. These guys are next level. Congratulations to John and to Gabriel for an incredible year."
Florence took it in stride when he took the stage a few moments later. "I saw that wave coming and I was just going, ah no," he laughed. "Big congrats to Jeremy. That was amazing. I almost had it."
As for next steps, Florence left no doubt about his intentions from here. "I think I learned a lot this year, I'm gonna take all that, and put it into next year, and hopefully win again. I'm really enjoying it right now -- enjoying competing. It's a lot of fun."
2017 World Champion: John John Florence (HAW)
2017 Billabong Pipe Masters Champion: Jeremy Flores (FRA)
2017 Vans Triple Crown of Surfing Champion: Griffin Colapinto (USA)