Examining the Modern Movement of Progressive Surfing
By Cash Lambert
Higher aerials, unthinkable rotations and spray-infused turns: by all accounts, 2016 was undoubtedly a year of unprecedented progression in the sport of surfing. 720s. Airs at Peahi. Waimea Bay highlight reels. Unanimous 10s. Expectations were surpassed, jaws were on the floor, and “are you kidding me?” inundated social media threads.
As 2016 drew to a close and the surf community reminisced on the year that dripped with salty progression, the next question was simple: what’s next? What new heights can surfers achieve in 2017, having already set the foundation for rapid expansion?
We decided to pose this question to a select group of surfers: John John Florence, Conner Coffin, Filipe Toledo, Leonardo Fioravanti and Kanoa Igarashi, in order to find out where their progressive motivations come from, how they define progression and how injuries play into their mindset.
While they couldn’t give us a clear indication of what insane airs and turns we can expect in the future – and understandably so – they did provide tasty breadcrumbs based on the progression they are seeing in lineups today.
John John Florence
In 2016 you did it all: you won the In Memory of Eddie Aikau, won the World Title and the Triple Crown. What’s your motivation to continue pushing your skill and your progression in 2017?
I’m not going to think of it as doing better this year. Instead, I’m going to work on all the little mistakes I made in 2016 and better myself. I have a lot of things that I can do better. When I won the World Title, I felt as though I could have kept going and kept getting better. So I’m looking forward to continuing that, just tweaking things here and there.
Progressive surfing: can this continue to improve as well? Or do you think there’s a ceiling as to how far it can go?
I don’t think here is a ceiling. The things guys are doing in freesurf world…I think that should come on Tour. Doing extra spins like Albee [Layer], and maybe, I don’t know, a backflip followed by 2 snaps and then full rotation air or something like that. That’s what I think is going to be the future of surfing: combinations.
So combinations are what we have to look forward to?
Yeah. Albee’s tricks, those will be the new air reverse, too. If you don’t do a huge one, it’s going to be scored a 4.5. It’s hard to say where surfing is going to go, it has progressed so far in just the last 10 years. You see guys like Filipe doing the craziest airs in heats, and I’m hoping to see guys at JBay taking off and doing a carve, right into an air with a snap, barrel and air, just continuing to mix it up.
Progressive surfing can mean a host of different things, so what’s your definition of it?
Progressive surfing is trying to take surfboards to a new place on a wave whether it is in the air or on a face, just faster surfing and with surfing more power, more flow, connecting with big combos. A lot of people would say progression is in the air, and I feel that it is. Progression, to me, is also about going down the face of a wave, with steeper drops, bigger drops. The way surfboards have changed let’s you get into different parts on the wave, and progressive surfing also means turning harder and faster.
When we’re younger, we emulate those we see on edits. As you’ve grown, do you continue to emulate guys like Dane? Or do you have to find your own style?
Watching a ton of footage helps. To me, some of the turns Dane [Reynolds] does in his recent edit Chapter 11…those are my favorite turns. I look up to him for raw power and unpredictability. Growing up, I saw Dane surf around home, and I was always excited to watch him. He progressed not just in the air but also with turns… we think of him as powerful but he knows when to be light and when to be powerful. He has that dynamic to his surfing, and he does airs you don’t expect because he does crazy turns too. John [Florence] is pushing it a lot, riding smaller boards in bigger waves. I love watching footage and saying ‘ok I did that turn where could I have finished it to get more speed to go into another big turn instead of wasting time in between…I could have thrown an air in there too’ and so forth.
As progressive surfing continues to reach greater heights, how is it that you’re staying not only with the trends, but ahead of them?
I always watch other people’s surfing. I’m not going to copy that guy, but I’ll pick up on nuances and try to make it my own. You pick up a little here and there and try to do your own thing. Watching yourself helps… having that critical eye for that was good but how can I make it better and how can I make it my own comes into play. For me, it’s about trying not to push as hard and position myself really critically so I’m not overpowering the wave. It’s minute stuff but creative carves or rail turns and how can you make it different…that’s what separates you from what everyone else is doing.
How did growing up near Santa Barbara influence your surfing to be progressive?
I grew up surfing point breaks every day, and I rode longboards and single fins, eggs and weird boards like that. I didn’t start riding shortboards until 8, but I had surfed since I was 4. Riding longobards and surfing point breaks, that has a lot to do how I approach surfing. Back then, Taylor [Knox], Dane those guys weren’t doing airs at Rincon, because why would you do an air when you could ride the wave to the freeway? I gravitated towards their surfing and it fit the waves, doing turns and carves and watching guys with good style. What you enjoy doing on a wave, that’s what I gravitate towards, and also how I tried to develop in my surfing. Even with those guys people who say power surfing is dead, yeah they do airs and incredible surfing on face but that gets them through 70 percent of their heats or more. This year, John developed that side of his surfing more and it paid off. He went to airs when he needed to use them but he had strong side to compliment that. I think it’s about developing the whole package.
What do you think the future of progressive surfing is going to look like?
Maybe airs going down like backflips and stuff like that…I also feel like it will go more to even bigger turns, everything all flowing together. Someone in a heat may pull a crazy air and go straight into a huge turn, I think that will be happening more and more. Boards will start to change, too. I’ve been riding the same equipment for a while, and I’m no shaper, but I feel as though it’s bound to change. And the whole wave pool thing….who knows what’s going to happen with that, it’s progression of our sport. I’m sure there will be events in a wave pool at some point.
You started out the 2016 competitive year with an injury at Snapper Rocks while landing an air. As progressive surfing continues to move forward, are injuries something that’s on your mind as a consequence of going too big?
Surfing progressive is amazing to watch, but for the guy who’s surfing that way, there’s a risk to get injured. I was always doing crazy airs, trying to put surfing on another level and that happened, I got injured. I’ve been working on training to do maneuvers and not thinking about getting injured. Once you think about getting injured, it happens. It was hard, because I was fired up to start the season and then I had to stay out of surfing for 2 and a half months, and I’m still working to get to 100 percent. But I used it as a time to get healthy and eat better. I watched the contests from the couch, and when you do that, you see things differently.
How would you define progressive surfing? Is it more about airs, turns or both?
Progressive surfing, that’s when you try to take sport to another level. It’s about trying to improve and not just with airs, but with big turns. And then we see things like Jamie O’Brien taking softops out at Pipeline, I think that’s progressive. It’s trying to improve and making things different.
When you’re on a wave looking at a section, what’s your mindset?
Once I’m on the wave, I don’t think about what I’m going to do. Of course you have to read the wave, whether it’s going to barrel or have an air section. My thought process is that when I stand up on a wave, it could be my last wave, so I want to do a new maneuver or go big. I don’t think about two floaters and a turn – I think about going big. Every time I paddle for a wave, that’s my opportunity to do something crazy and land it and everyone’s going to talk about it and I’m going to feel good.
Take us back to your grom days: who were some of your biggest influences? And how did you mesh those influences with your style?
I always watched the movies, the edits. I’m a big fan of Mick [Fanning], Andy and Bruce [Irons]. The style that I surf, it’s more like Dane, Matt Meola and Chippa Wilson. I try to mix it up and get a bit of Mick Fanning with Chippa Wilson, mixing that and putting it in the water. When I turned pro, I said now I have to improve, because all those guys are always getting better. Today, I still watch all their movies, and it gets me pumped to go surf.
Have any words of advice for the younger generation on the best way to keep pushing the sport forward?
Keep focused, and believe in your dreams, because sometimes it gets really hard. keep. Keep a close relationship with your family, you have go to school and just, you know, charge. Go big, try to do some new things every day and try to improve everyday and have a good relationship with God. Its simple, but it is the best advice: Training, school, family and God.
The average surf fan can name a handful of surfers from places like Australia, Hawaii, California, and Brazil. Coming from Italy, you’re certainly an outlier: how did your hometown influence your surfing style?
I started surfing near Rome, where I grew up. There was a little beach club we went to where the owners were surfers, so they put me on a surfboard. After that, all I wanted to do was spend time on the beach and surf. It’s been my lifestyle and has turned into a career. I was lucky enough to go to France and Portugal and surf when I was 8 or 9, and got picked up by Quiksilver at 10. If there was a day of waves at home, I’d surf all day because we don’t get to surf all day. For me, all I want to do is have fun and enjoy things. Growing up in Italy, there were so many things to do at home like soccer, skiing, and I wanted to have fun. I try to bring that into my surfing.
Airs, turns, wave pools: how do you describe progressive surfing?
Surfing is progressing, but power surfing is still important. It’s the base. The best surfer is not the one who knows how to do a crazy air or big carve. If you want to win or be in top 10, you have to do airs, power turns and every kind of style. It’s very important to have everything in your repertoire. I’ve been working on being consistent in everything and I can pull out something in the last second of a heat. Also, progressive surfing is mainly about innovation. As we’ve seen in the last 5 years, the airs and the turns John John, Albee, Dane have been doing are on a different level and this new generation is bringing the surfing level to the next step. I think it’s going to keep on going up and there’s going to be more guys like John and Albee doing crazy turns and crazy airs and bring our current level to the next level.
Certainly you’re training to be on the forefront of the progressive movement. Besides training on your own, are you learning from your peers as well?
There’s a few guys I’ve had a lot of heats with this year, like Ethan Ewing, Griffin Colapinto, Kanoa and Zeke. When you battle one of your friends or someone the same age as you in the water, you become enemies and it pushes the level of surfing up. Even when I surf with friends Kanoa or Zeke, we’re having fun but pushing each other to bigger things. I hope we’re going to be competing against another for the next 10 years.
In 10 years, when you all may still be competing against one another, what will we be saying about progressive surfing?
I think in 10 years… I really don’t know where surfing will be. It’s definitely going to be going forward to the next step, maybe everyone’s going to do 540s or maybe no one will do another one. When you see 12-year-old kids doing full rotations and alley oops like Eli Hanneman, when he’s as old as John John who knows what will happen. We have to wait to find out, and the level will be high.
Although progressive surfing may look different from one person or another, what fuels it is motivation and a desire to push forward. Growing up in Huntington Beach, how did you develop that passion?
I was hooked ever since my Dad pushed me on a surfboard at age 3, but it came second to school. Surfing was something I felt like I had to earn in order to do, because I would have to do a certain amount of homework before surfing. I was always trying to surf as long as I could get to the beach before dark. So the hunger built inside of me. I made the most of it, accepting the fact that I had to go to school and all I thought about during class was surfing. Winning at the NSSA level got me addicted, and I wanted to keep taking it to the next level. And growing up in Huntington was the best thing that could happen to me. It made me search for waves… It also made me always on the hunt wanting to get good waves.
And you’re bilingual – for the younger generations filling the ranks in the QS, is it important to be able to speak multiple languages?
My first language was Japanese. I grew up with that in the house, learning English at school so I have a tongue for learning new language. Japanese is such a hard language… I have surfing friends from other countries, and I’m open to learning the language and the culture. Our Quiksilver team manager taught us from a young age to always try and meet new friends, don’t just stay in a small group because we’re going to be going to these countries for a long time. I don’t look at it as work, I like learning Portuguese while in Brazil. Now I’m learning French. I never studied them in school, but my friends from other countries are in my ear so that forces me to learn.
When you think about progressive surfing, how important is flow?
I think flow is such an important factor that no one really gets. For me, progressive surfing isn’t one air or full rotation. I think it’s the guys who can consistently do and do it with flow, going from maneuver to maneuver is so hard and technical and one little arm degree and placement can make a big difference. Guys doing big carves into full rotations, I think that’s the future of surfing. Anyone can can pump down line and do full rotation… they have all the time in the world to do it. The guys who can fit into small sections I think are the most progressive. I think that’s what I wanna be one day. Guys like Filipe and Gabriel.
Why do you think the sport is advancing so rapidly?
It’s advancing because of technology, not just technology with surfing but technology with humans. Some of the stuff the companies are doing…slow motion cameras, crazy tech with wetsuits, we’ve never had the opportunity to see how fast we’re we’re going on a wave or see if our foot was in right place. Cameras help with the technical parts of the sport. Surfing is turning into a real sport with it being in the Olympics… people are taking it more seriously and that makes it more interesting to watch.