John John’s reign in Rio a sign of things to come?

Well, would you look at that. The best surfer in the world has thrown his name into the world title mix. In this bizarre start to 2016, we might have a new favorite to finish the season with the yellow jersey.

The Oi Rio Pro was claimed by John John Florence, who leaps 10 spots up the leaderboard into third place for the season. Matt Wilkinson still leads the field with Italo Ferreira in second and Sebastian Zietz in fourth.

But the comfortable cushion Wilko had in Australia is beginning to constrict a bit after his second- round defeat in Rio. Seven more contests on the schedule means everybody still has an opportunity to envision a championship run.

Florence, who is destined to capture a world title eventually, certainly has a path to such a run with a few more big results. His best events are all still in front of him, namely Teahupoo, France and Pipeline. With most of the current top 10 in that echelon for the first time, nobody is really battle tested regarding what it might take to hold off the entire field down the stretch. So Florence’s positioning is as good or better than anyone’s right now.

Being naturally gifted is at least some part of every pro surfer’s DNA. With John John, he just looks like he was born in a barrel and hasn’t ever felt like leaving.

That’s not to say he hasn’t put the work in. It’s just that you can see the effort on other surfers’ faces and in their movements. They seem to be riding to a sharp, high-tempo soundtrack. With John John, every wave he rides could be looped over a slowed-down Jack Johnson song on muscle relaxers.

It somehow makes everything he does seem all the more impressive in comparison. When athletes reach amazing heights and we see the effort it took to get there, we can marvel but we understand the path. For some who make it look too easy — like Bo Jackson, Ken Griffey Jr., LeBron James in other sports — their exploits seem irreplaceable. It’s just too naturally good to think it’s something another could accomplish.

So when John John is at his best and doing John John things, we just sort of shake our heads in awe. It’s not “Can you believe he did that?” It’s more like “I kind of knew he was going to do that, but I can’t believe I got to see him do that.”

We may look back on Rio as the stop we saw Florence begin his quest for his first world title. But in this unpredictable season, nothing is a certainty.

The next stop on the men’s Championship Tour will be the Fiji Pro, starting June 5 at Tavarua. The Fiji Women’s Pro opens earlier on May 29.

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David Simon can be reached at dsimon@thegardenisland.com.

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