Introducing John John's Pick for the World's Best Junior - Stab Mag
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Frame and video: Nate Cox / Channel Islands

Introducing John John’s Pick for the World’s Best Junior

Luke Swanson is not a soccer player.

Words by Michael Ciaramella

In last year’s Stab Surfer of the Year poll, we asked 50 of surfing’s most influential figures who they believed were the most impactful surfers of 2020. 

John Florence won by a landslide, Steph Gilmore ruled all women, and no junior could touch Jai Glindeman after his performance in the Electric Acid Microdose

As incredible as it would be to win this peer-poll, there’s something special about simply being recognized by the top names in the game—especially those who finished in the top-10 of the poll themselves. Even one vote from a surfer of this caliber would send a kid’s confidence through the roof. 

Meet Luke Swanson: 17, voracious learner, aerial savant. Photo: Keoki Saguibo

While Hawaiian teen Luke Swanson finished 10 votes shy of eventual junior winner Jai G, Luke’s referrals came from elite company. Specifically from the first and fifth finishing surfers, John Florence and Mason Ho. 

“I’ve known Luke for a long time. When he first started popping up, he was like 10 or 11 and had really good form—one of those rare groms with like nice form, not really trying airs too early, learning to surf on rail, and all formed out. The next time I saw him, he was popping airs, landing most of them not just wasting waves hucking, and still had such good form,” Mason said. 

“I’ve had a lot of fun surfing with Luke lately,” John said. “He’s done some pretty crazy airs into the flats.”

As John mentioned, he hasn’t just seen Luke’s clips on IG (or from down the beach). Due to their shared coach, Ross Williams, John and Luke trained together a number of times over the past year. In one now-famous incident, Luke defeated John in a mock heat, the punishment for which was eating a can of spam. John, however, did not eat his spam, which resulted in mockery from coach Ross and an awkward position for young Luke. 

What is he gonna do, force the 2x World Champ and best surfer in the world to consume canned ham innards? Of course not. So he let his surfing do the talking and let John off the hook. 

While this moment was character-revealing in itself, we decided to dig a little deeper into the kid who John has claimed as the world’s best junior. 

So we gave Luke a call, and here’s what we learned. 

An endless supply of CI’s never hurt a kid’s chances of success. Photo: Keoki Saguibo.

Luke is the third of four boys, all sons of a former soccer pro turned medical doctor. They spent their early years in Mililani, Oahu’s center, a decent drive to any surfable coast. But the drive wasn’t really the problem. 

“My dad pushed all of us into soccer,” Luke said. “He loved it, so he thought we would too. But one after another, we all ended up moving away from it. He was pretty bummed, but we all seemed to enjoy surfing and skating a lot more.”

When Luke was around seven years old, his family moved to the North Shore, where Luke’s fondness for surfing turned into a full-blown obsession. He improved quickly, spending most days at his favorite wave Rocky Point, where he caught the eye of Quiksilver and eventually Freddy Patachia, who became his first major sponsor and coach, respectively. 

“Freddy had just retired from the CT and decided to do coaching for a little,” Luke said. “I was like 12 at the time and being coached by this absolute icon, I couldn’t believe it. We worked on everything from heat strategy to technique, and he helped me grow a lot as surfer. I’m still really close with Freddy today.”

Luke competed plenty as a kid but admits he was always in the middle of the pack. Never the worst kid in the draw, but he wasn’t winning everything in sight, like, say, Eli Hanneman. 

“I’ve always looked up to Eli,” Luke said. “He’s been such a beast forever, just winning everything. I could never get close to him. But we’ve become a lot closer over the years, and now it feels more like a competition between us.”

I asked Luke about Eli’s recent Instagram callout.

“Oh yeah,” Luke laughed. “That was pretty funny. Everything with Eli feels turns into a competition, even freesurfs. So when he posted that, I was like, alright, let’s do this. So I went through my hard drive and picked some of my heaviest slams.”

Luke’s primary launchpad is Rocky Point, which is widely regarded as the North Shore’s high-performance hub. What most people don’t realize is that the section Luke (and most modern fly-guys) are hitting is nowhere near the deep, safe channel. These airs are being performed over the shallowest part of the reef, waist-deep at most, and typically result in a dozen waves on the head every time you try to paddle back out. For my money, it’s one of the worst places on the North Shore to be when a seat rears his head, and the average punter wouldn’t imagine floating the end section, let alone throwing some fat air to the flats. 

I asked Luke how he got so comfortable hucking himself over shallow water.

“I just grew up with it,” Luke explained. “It’s kind of all I know.”

I asked if he’s ever gotten hurt trying airs out there. 

“Not really…I’ve hit the bottom a few times, but it’s pretty flat so you kinda just get bruised.”

Oh, the resilience of youth.

Over the course of a 40-minute call with Luke, I couldn’t help but think he was incredibly eloquent and well-mannered for a 17-year-old. Luke’s coach, Ross Williams, confirmed this sentiment when describing their relationship.

“Luke behaves like someone much older,” Ross explained. “He’s just a super mature for his age, extremely thorough for a grommet. He’s constantly taking super thorough notes and he’s really analytical. He gets a little bit of that from his dad. His dad is a doctor, so he has a kind of left-brain approach to surfing.”

While Mr. Swanson may have failed to pass along any soccer-adoring genes, he did bestow Luke with the mind of a future champion.

“But he’s also so talented,” Ross continued. “He’s so good in the air, easily one of the best in his peer group. He’s got big ambitions, and rightly so. He’s just a great kid. I can’t say enough good things about him.”

AND he loves dogs. Photo: Keoki Saguibo.

I asked Luke what it’s like working with Ross as a coach.

“Ross is amazing,” Luke explained. “We’re totally on the same wavelength. He loves to get super technical and detailed, which is how I like to learn.”

And how does it feel to win a (mock) heat against two-Johns?

“I’ve actually beat him twice now! I think I’m technically 2-1 against him,” Luke laughed. “We only ever practice in terrible waves though, and I think I’ve won both heats with a buzzer-beater air. But it’s still pretty cool.”

In the coming years, Luke will look to extend that win streak to the QS, so that he can eventually meet John on the CT, where it counts.

I asked Luke what parts of his surfing need more work, to compete against the world’s best.

“Probably my forehand rail game,” Luke said. “On the North Shore, it’s pretty hard to find lefts that allow you open up on big carves. The regular footers have Sunset, Haleiwa, and if you’re John, Rock Pile. But there’s nothing like that for goofies. Most of the lefts here are quick and wedgy, which are great for airs but not carves.

“I actually feel like in general, goofies aren’t as good as regular-footers at rail surfing,” Luke continued. “I don’t know if it’s because the Tour has more rights than lefts, but when you look at guys like John, Jordy, Mick, and Parko, there aren’t many goofies who can do what they do on the face of the wave.”

An astute assessment from the Hawaiian teen, who is too young to remember the right-foot-forward sorcery of Occy and Luke Egan, but old enough to recognize unique nuances of the sport.

Amazing footwork, too. Kid would have made a hell of a soccer player.

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