In 2003, John John Florence and Kolohe Andino faced off for the first time. A fun-sized day at Lower Trestles, they drew each other in the Mini Grom division of the NSSA National Championships. Florence took the win in the five-person Final. Nine-year-old Andino settled for 5th (Carissa Moore finished 3rd). Now Florence and Andino sit one and two in the world, respectively.
For the last 16 years the careers of the two surfers have paralleled one another to a large extent. In the early 2000s, they were anointed the face of a new, rising grom insurgency. The surf industry was flush with cash, the rivalry between Andy Irons and Kelly Slater had captured everyone's collective attention, and the popularity of surfing was soaring. All of a sudden the normal highway to surf stardom via the QS was detoured by these kids who's voices hadn't changed.
Andino, who's father, Dino, was the '85 NSSA National Champ, was surrounded by the best and brightest in Orange County. Perhaps none more influential than the meticulous, detail-minded Mike Parsons, who remains by Andino's side today. Along with shaper Matt Biolos, another lifelong supporter, Parsons and the Andinos began putting the pieces in place that would someday, hopefully, put him at the pinnacle of the sport. He signed deals with Red Bull and Billabong. In elementary school he was already traveling with Irons, Joel Parkinson, Taj Burrow and company. He was well-seasoned early in life.
"I just want to stick around until Kolohe's on Tour, then I'm out," Irons famously stated.
By 2009, Andino had amassed a record nine NSSA National titles, topping the previous record set by Bobby Martinez. The talk around Andino was not if he'd win a World Title, but how soon. It was an incredible burden to shoulder for a kid who was yet old enough to drive, but Andino learned how to handle the pressure, shield himself from the hype and focus on what he needed to do to accomplish his goals.
Florence, meanwhile, reveled in a childhood on the North Shore of Oahu. His notoriety came not from being entrenched in the heart of the surf industry or attracting big brands, but rather from his early exploits at Pipeline. When he was five years old he surfed Pipe for the first time. A little toe-head riding giant blue mountains. For the surf world it was love at first sight. Florence and his two brothers were well looked after by the North Shore community as they evolved into the watermen they are today. Jon Pyzel has always supplied them with boards.
Florence was the golden child and Andino was the competitive animal. They were different but equal. Today they're on the same surf team at Hurley, and all these years later, after going toe-to-toe in an epic clash during the Final of the Margaret River Pro--the second time they've met in a Final at Margaret River--the journey continues.
"There is no one I'd rather lose to than John because I look up to him and his surfing so much," said Andino after the Final, who's class on the podium this year has been exemplary.
Heading into the Rio Pro, Florence, in the yellow Jeep leader jersey, is comfortably 5,740 points ahead of Andino. And while Andino continues to search for his first career CT win, Florence already has two wins this season, as well as his two previous World Titles. The competitive record and momentum may appear to be on Florence's side, but disregarding Andino's grit, determination, drive and talent would be foolish.
Andino, who's still only 25 years old, is in the midst of his best career start on the CT. He barely missed out on a breakout win at the Quiksilver Pro, stumbled at the Rip Curl Pro with an early round loss to wildcard Jacob Wilcox, but bounced back strong, making the Quarterfinals at the Bali Protected and then finished runner-up behind Florence in Western Australia.
"It's funny because I guess John is sitting in the No. 1 spot and I'm at No. 2 and we are heading to Brazil and staying together so that will be really fun," Andino continued.
If there were ever an arena suited for Andino, it is Rio. The tricky beachbreaks are similar to what he grew up surfing in California and there are few more consistently explosive in puntable wedges.
When it comes to the crowd factor, Andino's a diehard sports fan and appreciates the spectacle. He grew up idolizing Kobe Bryant, not just because Bryant was the Lakers' star, but because Bryant was relentless in his pursuit of greatness and relished every opportunity to shine on the biggest stages. Andino has internalized this ethos and woven it into the fabric of his competitive mindset. He's up everyday at 4:00am, going through his routine on the Pilates equipment, spending time in the water working on his surfing and his boards, and training like the champion that he so aspires to be.
There's a hungry international pack hot on the heals of Florence and Andino, but for the moment, it's not that different than when they were kids. The stakes may be higher and the spotlight brighter, but once again, the two are stealing the show.
Watch the Oi Rio Pro live June 20-28 on Worldsurfleague.com, App and Facebook.