John John Breaks His Back
From Stab Issue # 49
Words by Charlie Smith
Photos by Dan Russo
John John sits folded into a leather chair in a middle class Newport Beach, California home. The rain outside is thick and slanted. Angry black clouds have filled a sky normally bright and scented with coconut suntan lotion and reduced tar cigarette smoke. Inside it is dark because lamps have not been properly adjusted to the failing light. They have not been turned
He sits folded and sluggish. Sluggish in the way professional athletes often are during downtime. His curly blonde hair hides underneath a green stocking cap. Black jeans, a touch too baggy for he is Hawaiian, hide his legs. A black hooded sweatshirt keeps him warm. John John Florence.
He is tired of the second John, just wants the first, but I am older than he and have seen more life and know that monikers like John John are bestowed only on the very worthy. John John Kennedy. John John Williams III on Sesame Street (just the cutest black child ever). John Boy on the Waltons (basically John John). He should never lose the second John. It is an honour.
Sluggish. Folded. Uncomfortable maybe because his back is broken. Not metaphorically. Not from carrying the weight of expectations since he could first stand on a surfboard. Not from the heavy crown placed on his curly blonde following a North Shore season for the ages. No. Broken literally. A vertebrae in his lower spine fractured. A broken back.
“Did you bounce off the reef?”
“Nah, I didn’t even touch the reef. The lip broke my back.”
John John Florence, broken by the wave, the very water, that made him famous. Makes him famous. He could not see what happened, only feel, so we steal the external details from photographer Daniel Russo who watches most of the North Shore’s best waves and captured this particular one on his camera.
“It was a wave they usually call a runner. It runs all the way across the reef so you can take off really deep, like almost backdoor. So he took off deep but on a real mellow wave that looked like the kind that usually spits perfectly. He drops in, grabs his rail and it was almost flawless. That day the swell was building and it was this long interval sort of swell with lots of energy. That is when you get waves that look eight feet but have the energy of 15 footers. There is just so much energy in the water. And, sometimes these big energy waves hit sections of the reef and mutate. They are not normal. And sometimes it’s section and it looks great. So with this wave, John (John) is deep in the barrel and it hits the end section, the sandbar end section, right in front of the Volcom house. Sand had built up a lot on the reef there and it just jacked the wave. It tripled in size. Stood straight up in the air. Just flared. And then instead of barrelling over or crumbling it came straight down like a waterfall. Instead of peeling it just dropped. Now John (John) is in the barrel crouched super low. He doesn’t see it jacking up but he was expecting to get spit or bucked so he was as low as he could get and glued to his board. The lip dropped directly onto his lower back. The whole wave, all that energy just landed on his back and compressed him through his board.”
The Pipeline giveth and the Pipeline taketh. John John has been giveth many many barrels. He has been giveth titles and fame and sponsorships. And now, under the water, as he was pushed deeper, he felt something wrong. He felt something taketh from his body.
“I didn’t even really get worked that hard. I’ve been worked way worse out there but something didn’t feel right. I came up and there was another set and I couldn’t even grab my board. I had no strength. So I went under again, popped up and flopped on my board. I couldn’t even paddle or anything and there was a bodyboarder and a bodysurfer there who saw I was struggling so they helped me to the channel. I lay there for a minute with my face on my deck and then started coming in very slowly. I didn’t want to make a scene.”
Daniel Russo could see something wasn’t right. He could see that John John didn’t grab his board and scratch directly back into the lineup. And then he saw something very disconcerting. The lifeguards were going crazy with the ski. Getting it into the water just as fast as their North Shore hardened sinew could. Not a good sign. Not even kind of good. And there they raced to the lineup… and past the lineup. Past everything. A fisherman had become distressed out to sea. Unrelated to anything cool.
John John had, meanwhile, reached the sand. He stumbled up, taking a circuitous route because, in his very words, he didn’t want to make a scene. And he made it to his house. Unnoticed. With a broken back. With a broken back. Broken. How many soldiers, firemen, fighters, blue-collared toughs would have done the same? Would have sucked up the pain and the racing mental pictures of worse-case scenario and shuffled to a quiet corner? I would think less than a handful. And here, an 18-year-old boy had enough Hemingway sense to man up and not cry publicly. Amazing.
He lay on his couch feeling mostly wrong and eventually was taken to a Honolulu hospital for x-rays. “I went to the hospital for x-rays but they didn’t see anything so I went home. But one of my friends is a surgeon and he looked at my x-rays and could see something wrong, so I went back to the hospital and got a CAT scan and I had a fracture in my lower back.”
Hemingway sense. Understated masculinity. And even as he sits folded into a leather chair in a middle class Newport Beach, California home he does not over dramatise his broken back. He merely chuckles, good-naturedly, about his rehab. “I didn’t even know what a squat was the other day.” Amazing. And, again, I am older than he and have seen more life and know that this right here, this broken back and laissez-faire attitude is the stuff of legend. Not just the broken back but the sense not to whine about it. Selling an injury is cheap. Men should go to their graves with countless untold injury to both body and heart. Unspoken trauma.
Yet, how does a potentially life-altering injury, a possibly career-ending blow, change an 18-year-old on the very brink of major success? Does he worry? Next time he paddles out at the Pipeline will he shy away from those waves that have defined him? When I ask he looks at me, eyes amused.
“Every wave you can get hurt out there.”
Not one drop of over-dramatisation. Not one speck of it. Simple as that. He will be out there this coming winter with a healed back the same as he was before. Dialled in. Making his art.
And, beyond any doubt, surfing the Pipeline is an art. Knowing where to sit, finding the boils, lining up with the right tree, knowing which wave will do what. And then and then paddling, fighting off the pack, dropping down, holding on, searching out the proper line, holding on, riding through, holding on but looking steezey, proper, perfect. Not dying.
The artists young John John has watched, learned from, are Kalani Chapman, Bruce, Andy (he speaks of Andy in the present tense) and Jamie. Jamie O’Brien. The same Jamie he stole the heavy crown from this season. What does he like about the way Jamie paints?
“Everything. Jamie surfs it different than anyone else.”
Will there be an angry back and forth this coming winter between the two? Jamie does not like to lose in his backyard. John John does not like to lose in his backyard. Will there be blood curling glares and internet rage and sabotage? John John says no. He says that he loves Jamie and that Jamie was not at his best this last winter because he had had a broken arm and had just got back into the water when he beat him. He had only been surfing the Pipeline for a few days, in fact. But, still, I am older than he and have seen more life and know that what makes almost everything in the life I have seen more of twice as beautiful is rivalry. True rivalry. Batman would be a dull rich and ageing homosexual without his Joker. Superman a strange eccentric without his Lex Luther. And there must be hatred to capture the imagination. I tell John John the sport of surfing needs this. He looks at me, eyes amused.
His amused eyes will not detour. It will be pure pleasure watching the two blond Hawaiian-bred haoles attack the wave they love most. With so much on the line. Jamie has broken both his legs, on separate occasions, at the Pipeline. Now John John has broken his back. The two will sit in the water and they might be speaking about what pre-packaged sushi at Foodland is best or how it is awesome they can share a beautiful moment but I will say they are speaking about how much they loathe each other. Jamie shit talking John John’s mother. John John shit talking Jamie’s father. This will be our rivalry.
The rain outside is thicker and even more slanted. John John must begin his physical therapy for the day. Yoga, stretching etc. And, when done mending, John John will leave to travel to Australia for competition at Margaret’s and then other primes and six stars. If all goes well he could qualify for the tour this year, mid-way. Amazing. Fresh off a broken back.
He has grown into his body and is surfing better than he ever has and is ready. It will be exciting when he is on tour. There is so much exciting young blood coming up the ranks. Exciting.
But, what everyone will really be waiting for is this coming winter when John John Florence and Jamie O’Brien bob next to each other in a cleared-out Pipeline lineup. Each wearing a coloured singlet. Each burning holes through the other with blue blue eyes. What everyone will be waiting for is John John to say, “I own this fucking wave JOB. You are a tool and a has-been. Nobody ever liked you and I am the new king.” And Jamie to respond, “Go to hell, child. I will finish the job this Pipeline started. I will motherfucking break you in half.”