Working at Surfer Magazine from 1989 to 1999, I witnessed the rise and rise and continued rise of Kelly Slater – which kept going, long long long after I left. Like for a couple of decades.
In 1992, I wrote a story for Surfer Magazine called U Can’t Touch This, about Kelly Slater’s win at the Lower Trestles contest – a kind of coming out party in front of the entire surf industry.
He was phenomenal – fast, graceful, close to perfect. Kelly seemed to have wings on his feet, he generated so much speed at Lowers, and made it look soooooo good.
Everyone wanted to surf Lowers like Kelly.
That was 1992. That was 25 years ago, and he’s still flying. Weird.
(If I was still at Surfer Magazine I would start a campaign accusing/suspecting Kelly of being a vampire:
He doesn’t get older, he just gets better?
He’s forty-fricking-five and he’s as good or better than he’s ever been!
What’s up with that? Ain’t natural!
Kelly breaks the f#$%^$ out of his foot at J-Bay but by Pipe it’s healed!
What’s up with that?
His girlfriend Kalani. She’s so slender! Kelly’s draining her!
Kelly’s a vampire! One of those broad daylight vampires like in Twilight, but still totally undead.)
Later on in the 1990s I went on a trip to an island in the middle of nowhere in the Kingdom of Tonga. I watched as Kelly and Tom Carroll worked over this barreling left reef pass. The two best surfers at the time, putting on a show. On that session I saw Kelly Slater do this weird, duck-dive take off, where he duck-dived into the barrel, got sucked up through the roof of it, got to his feet and kind of slid backward, made the drop and kept going.
What in the f???? was that?!!!!??? I still can’t believe my eyes. What was that? I’d never even seen someone draw a duck-dive takeoff on a piece of paper, but there it was.
I witnessed Kelly surfing a lot of Pipe Masters and other events, beat him at ping pong once (not easy) and came away from all of that with the impression that I – and the world – would probably never see a surfer as naturally, phenomenally talented as Kelly – from surfing impossibly fast in junk at Lowers, to those ridiculously late takeoffs he would make at Backdoor – spinning around ultra late, stuck in a falling lip, catting to his feet as he’s falling and somehow landing flat, setting an edge and then immediately accelerating through the barrel.
What was it Tom Curren said about Gerry Lopez? “Like letting an arrow fly.”
That’s Kelly at Backdoor. Poetry in motion.
Remember what Qui-Gon Jinn said about young Luke Skywalker? “He can see things before they happen. That’s why he appears to have such quick reflexes. It’s a Jedi trait.”
Well that’s why Kelly is a Froth Jedi. That is how he surfs Pipe and Backdoor: Taking off impossibly late, setting an edge against all odds and then he somehow knows even before those chandeliers, and warbles and boils and second and third sections exist, what those chandeliers, and warbles and boils and second and third sections are going to do.
Making impossible drops and coming out of barrels he shouldn’t come out of has always been Kelly’s Jedi trait and I didn’t think I’d ever see another surfer who had the Force as strong as Kelly.
But now there is John John Florence, and the Force is strong within that one. This is a bold statement, but it’s as strong as Kelly: Just as quick, just as fast, just as intuitive, just as natural, just as impossible.
Two Froth Jedi in challenging Backdoor is a beautiful thing to see and it was on full display at the 2017 Billabong Pipeline Masters – which John John almost won, but went far enough to win his second World Surf League World Title, in front of cheering hundreds – from little kids let out of Sunset Elementary early, to grandmothers sitting in the shade, watching the Froth Jedi at work.
Going into this Pipe Masters there were four guys with a shot at the World Title: Gabriel Medina, Jordy Smith, Julian Wilson and John John Florence.
This was the math:
This Pipe Masters came during a spell of bad weather sweeping over Oahu, bringing too much wind, gray skies, yuck – it looked and felt like California, and that ain’t too cool. The waiting period was December 8 – 20, with the Pipe Invitational held on December 6: whittling down 32 trialists to a final with Dusty Payne finishing over Benji Brand, Seth Moniz and Jack Robinson.
Then there were five rounds of three-man and two-man heats, in conditions that ranged from yuck!!! to f#@$%^!!!!. Too many highlights and lowlights to list but one thing that stood out was JJF vs Australian Ethan Ewing in Heat Six of Round Three. Coming down to the final seconds, the Aussie needed a 4.67 to win the heat and put John John’s world title in heaps of danger – and it looked like Ewing got it, pulling into a barrel on a smaller wave and finishing with a big floater.
There was a delay and drama as the beach and all of the North Shore was bedecked with Go JOHN JOHN posters, hats, t-shirts, etc. And wouldn’t it have been a waste of time and money if someone else won the title?
When the score came in at 4.6 there were groans and cheers. Back in the day, Derek Hynd might have called this a “career rip on.”
Tie goes to the marketing budget?
A big stormy swell during the waiting period shoved many tons of sand down toward Pipeline, so the final two days favored Backdoor – which was AOK because Backdoor is pretty much where the Pipe Masters is decided these days.
For the final day on Monday, December 19, all the World Title contenders were still contending. That morning, a text to Peter Mel at 7:00 AM got the response: “Looks better than yesterday, but less consistent. Champ will be crowned.”
And Pete was correct. The surf was clean in the morning but the swell was pumping at Off the Wall and not so much just up the beach at Backdoor – with only a few waves at Pipe. Had it been consistent through Backdoor all day, the results might have been different (Slater vs Medina) but probably not the end result.
Round Five had four, two man-heats with the winners moving onto the quarterfinals. It was clean and mostly Backdoor with everyone getting thoroughly shacked and maybe trying something tricky over the end reef.
The biggest heat of this round was Gabriel Medina vs Kelly Slater in Heat Three. Medina had to win to keep going, and he is the leading contender for backside Froth Jedi status as he is possibly one of the best ever at doing backside at Backdoor what the regular foots do at Pipe – making impossible barrels on his backhand.
Medina got a great one in Kelly’s face as Kelly was paddling back out.
Kelly actually ate a drop on one wave which was unsettling, but webcam analysis showed that Kelly might have been distracted by a sea turtle in his path as he was stuck in the lip. A fraction of a hesitation and Kelly went down.
And then Kelly did one of those super-late pull ins, only to have Medina pull the same priority move on Kelly that Kelly pulled on Joel Parkinson at Kirra a few years ago. Medina dropped in, blocked Kelly from continuing in a barrel that might have given him an 8+. They almost collided, Kelly threw double shakas and fell off.
For a moment it looked like Medina had pulled a boner and knocked himself out of a World Title, but the announcers explained the rule book: A surfer with priority can drop in on a surfer already going without fear of penalty. There was no penalty, but Medina did block Kelly from getting a higher score.
By the end of this inconsistent heat, Medina had Kelly comboed, so Star Wars fans hoping for a light saber battle between Kelly and John John in the final were disappointed. But the beach was going crazy for John John, who was already in the quarters and waiting for whoever.
In the quarters it was Gouveia vs Parko: Not much surf, so neither scored more than a total.
Julian Wilson had a shocker against John John in quarterfinal #2, and scored only 2.64 to JJF’ 17.60.
The Brazilians were as loud and flag-wavey for Medina as John John’s fans, and then they weren’t. Frenchman Jeremy Flores was the spoiler snagging a 5.43 at the end of quarterfinal #3 to knock Medina out of the contest and out of a World Title.
As a parade of flag-waving Brazilians waited for Medina down the beach, another group of flag-waving John John fans chased him up the beach and to the stairs up to the Johnson House – where John John got a champagne shower for his second world title, and Peter King handed around X2 hats commemorating John John’s second straight world title.
God knows where a Huntington Beach guy learned how to surf Backdoor that well, but Kanoa Igarashi ripped this entire event, and beat Italo Ferreira in the final quarter.
In the first semi Ian Gouveia and John John tried to make mountains out of molehills surfing Pipe and Backdoor, but the energy wasn’t there. They flung whatever when there were no barrels, both of them got barreled at Backdoor and they both flung crazy stuff when no barrels were on offer. John John actually ate a drop going left, but it’s unknown if it was because of that equal missed opportunity turtle.
With about a minute left John John needed an 8.5 without waves like that on offer. But John John seems to have inherited the wave charisma that Kelly Slater inherited from Tom Curren, and he Froth Jedi’d his way through a shutdown barrel, and iced it with a made 360 – that trick probably getting him into the Final.
In the second semi, Kanoa Igarashi had two waves before Jeremy Flores Froth Jedi’d his way through a decent Backdoor barrel, survived the foam ball and came out with a hands-behind-the-back claim. That was worth 9.37. Flores has skills.
That 9.37 combined with a low score was enough to get Flores to the final as Igarashi needed a 5+ with the clock counting down and nothing coming.
J. Florence and J. Flores in the final created some tongue twisters for the announcers, but fortunately the surf tuned back up again, giving these Forth Jedi a chance to show their paces.
There was a glitch in the Force with 30:00 on the clock as John John weaved and wove through a tight one that would have been a 9.+ if it had stayed open. But alas.
Flores got shut down on his next one also, and with 17:26 on the clock, the Frenchman needed a 5.08, but it was inconsistent so the two Pipe Masters sat and chatted about stock options or whatever wealthy pro surfers talk about.
Flores has a really really nice touch at Backdoor. He reads the wave beautifully and he times his fades and stalls and bottom turns for maximum tube time. On his next wave, he Froth Jedi’d his way to a 7.9
John John followed that with a bit of winding magic and scored a 8.93 so with 14:@5 on the clock, Flores was needing a 7.71.
John John improved his second wave with another barrel and with 10:27 on the clock, Flores now needed an 8.27.
With 18 seconds left (and WSL commentator Pottz talking about how John John rides the barrel anticipating things before they actually happen), Flores took off on a little nugget that didn’t seem to offer an 8.+ wave.
He came out of the barrel and threw a variety of salutes as the crowd roared. Had the Frenchman pulled an upset in the last few seconds?
He had. The judges gave him an 8.33, and Flores won the battle while John John won the war.
After that it was flags and good speeches and good vibes and all kinds of good stuff. A kid who had gone to school across the street from Pipe had won his second World Title and almost won the contest.
All was well.