“It’s even harder to stay at the top in sports than it is to get there.”
That quote was attributed to Babe Didrikson Zaharias in the early 20th century and has remained true for decades. Winning one championship is difficult, but maintaining that excellence with everyone giving chase becomes even more demanding.
John John Florence met the challenges necessary and rode a breathtaking path to his second straight WSL world title, Monday afternoon at the Pipe Masters on Oahu. Completing a terrific season that had drama right up until its final moments, Florence became the first surfer since Andy Irons to follow up on his first world title with his second the very next season.
Coming into the day with just one man still capable of de-throning him, Florence would have needed to reach the final heat in order to clinch back-to-back crowns. But when Gabriel Medina lost in the quarterfinals to Jeremy Flores, that requirement disappeared and John John was instantly guaranteed the 2017 championship.
Last season, Florence managed to clinch the title in Portugal prior to the Pipe Masters. It made his homecoming a celebratory event, but it removed much of the drama from what is typically the most exciting contest each season.
This time around, Florence was in the driver’s seat but had to avoid an early elimination and multiple surfers with chances at swiping the title. He got the benefit of the doubt from the judges in round three against Ethan Ewing, a heat that could have easily swung the other way. But after clearing that hurdle, Florence made his way all the way into the final heat.
Never having won the Pipe Masters is the glaring omission from John John’s career resume. It’s his home break, having grown up just steps from the Pipeline sands. He’s been victorious over and over and the Pipe Pro, he’s a three-time Triple Crown champion and he may very well someday be considered the best surfer of all time. But he entered Monday still unable to call himself a Pipe Master.
The stars seemed to be aligning and he had a fitting final opponent in Flores — a former Pipe Master, himself. Florence was about to cross off his one as yet unchecked accomplishment when Flores pulled off an 8.33 barrel ride less than 30 seconds before the horn, earning his second career Pipe Masters title.
Maybe it’s better for John John to still be without a Pipe Masters win. He doesn’t necessarily need motivation beyond just maintaining his top position in the tour’s pecking order, but it allows us to keep watching that one carrot that has remained just out of his grasp. I have no doubts he’ll grab it one day, but it’s great to know it’s still out there for him to chase.
In addition to both John John’s triumph and near miss, the rest of the WSL’s end of season housekeeping fell into place on Monday. Griffin Colapinto became the first California surfer to win the Triple Crown as he held on by a mere 12 points over Kolohe Andino and a charging Italo Ferreira.
Ferreira’s run to the quarterfinals, coupled with Kanoa Igarashi’s semifinal appearance, opened up two spots for Qualifying Series surfers to earn spots on the 2018 CT. Those will go to Brazil’s Michael Rodrigues and American Patrick Gudauskas.
Florence, Medina, Julian Wilson, Jordy Smith, Matt Wilkinson, Owen Wright, Andino, Adriano de Souza, Joel Parkinson and Filipe Toledo round out the season’s top 10 in the rankings.
Kauai’s Sebastiaz Zietz finished just behind in 11th place, his best final ranking of his CT career. Zietz had a strong campaign, reaching the fifth round in six contests, including a runner-up showing in France.
2018 is going to be a monumental season with new stops, new formats and new technology. But regardless of the fresh feel, John John Florence will still be the man to beat as he sets out to once again defend his well-deserved world title.
David Simon can be reached at email@example.com.