John John Florence: The all-star USA surfer on the Olympics, and the sport’s long overdue racial reckoning

Surfing’s Olympic debut is missing one thing: the native Hawaiians who invented the sport, writes Josh Marcus

Tuesday 08 June 2021 22:36 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


During the summer of 2020, for practically the first time in his adult life, things moved very slowly for John John Florence, a laid back 28-year-old from the sleepy North Shore of Oahu, Hawai’i, whom many consider the best surfer on Earth.

He’d just finished a 2019 where he blew out a ligament in his knee in Brazil, had surgery, zoomed through a year-long rehab process in a superhuman five months, then, in the final event of the World Surf League (WSL) season, clinched a spot representing the US at the upcoming Olympics in Japan, where surfing will make its debut. All this, only to see the pandemic shutter surf events around the world the whole next year.

So, he stayed home. Though if you’re John John Florence, home isn’t half bad. As the virus raged on the mainland, the mop-topped surfer spent his days off rehabbing, diving, sailing, and – of course – surfing with friends and family.

“Everything feels like it revolves around surfing,” he told me of the North Shore community, though by the time he said it, he was on the road again, calling in on Zoom from Australia this spring, quarantining ahead of the revived WSL season. “Everyone who lives in the community has something to do with the ocean. People are out in boats, sailing, canoes, diving, fishing, and doing all these other things.”

He also began farming on land he purchased up the road from his beachside home, battling quick-growing guinea grass and harvesting herbs, carrots, tomatoes, bananas, and honey in such abundance he couldn’t give it away fast enough.

“Ever since I was young I’ve always been interested,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to have a bigger platform to be able to learn and do it. I spent almost every day up there kind of just learning. You start growing things, and you learn by doing.”

It was a dreamy few months, and a vague echo of the way Hawai’i was before it was colonised. For centuries, native Hawaiians used an abundant natural ecosystem and advanced agricultural techniques like fish farms to keep everyone fed with enough time left over to enjoy the ocean, too. It was in this context, surrounded by warm water, located between wave-generating storms in both hemispheres, Hawaiians invented and mastered what we now call surfing, more than 1,000 years ago.

Surfer John John Florence grew up on a stretch of beach known as the Seven-Mile Miracle for its world-class surf spots.
Surfer John John Florence grew up on a stretch of beach known as the Seven-Mile Miracle for its world-class surf spots. (Courtesy of John John Florence / Parallel Sea Productions)

Just as that period came to an end with the arrival of Westerners, and more permanently after an illegal, US-backed coup in 1893, so too did Mr Florence’s blissful hiatus. Competition restarted, he left home once again, and most importantly, he’s about to be thrust into “learning by doing” once again on a platform bigger than any he’s ever known –the 2021 Olympics.

He’s already achieved a few lifetime’s worth of victories: racking up back-to-back world titles, creating a number of instant-classic surf films, and inking a reported $30-million deal with action sports brand Hurley, the highest in the sport’s history, before splitting to form his own brand, Florence Marine X, which launched this spring.

But the Olympics take the sport to a different level, not surfer against surfer, but nation against nation, with a world’s worth of cameras, geopolitical currents, and big-business cash all converging for two high-stakes weeks in Japan.

He’ll go from being a brand ambassador to something akin to a diplomatic one, and that’s where the complexity really begins. Mr Florence, who was born and raised in Hawai’i, is white, and the islands will compete under the US flag in Olympic competition, even though WSL events – not to mention numerous Hawaiians with native ancestry – still regard the islands as their own autonomous nation.

About a year late, surfing may join the rest of the US in its own kind of racial reckoning. Many may imagine surfing as the realm of easy-breezy, sunburnt beach bums, but the reality is far more weighty. Surfing is perhaps the world’s most popular and thorough form of cultural appropriation, its ascendance to the global stage inseparable from the ongoing pain of Hawaiian conquest.

Mr Florence surfs apartment building-sized swells with a terrifying nonchalance, often seeming to somehow have spare time before he cuts ridiculous turns or whips flips straight over the top of waves. Now, though, he’s faced with a kind of wave he’s never had to ride: history.

Surfing may be an ancient cultural practice, but it’s only been an organised professional sport for a few decades, after the first pro contests began in the 1960s. Its Olympic history is even shorter, though not for lack of trying.

Duke Kahanamoku, a native Hawaiian Olympic swimmer who won five medals for the US between 1912 and 1924, is considered the godfather of modern surfing, and helped popularise the sport by giving rapturously attended demonstrations across the world. He always wanted to see surfing in the Olympic games, and likely would’ve won even more Olympic hardware as a surfer, but it would be another century, thanks to a slick Argentinian businessman named Fernando Aguerre, before that dream became a reality.

Mr Aguerre, one of the founders of the beachwear brand Reef, has been the chairman of the International Surf Association (ISA) since 1994, and has been lobbying for Olympic surfing for decades.

“I was inspired by the words of Duke Kahanamoku,” he told The Independent. “This is like 80 years since he asked for it, and nothing really happened. I decided that was maybe the opportunity for me to do it. In hindsight, sometimes ignorance is a blessing.”

Part of the essence of surfing is how fleeting it is. To catch a wave, you need to be at the right spot, on the right beach, during the right combination of ocean conditions. Even the best rides can be just seconds long, but that’s what makes each one so precious. No other sport is so intrinsically tied to living in the moment, and to the infinite variety of nature itself. That mix of conditions is hard to plan out 10 years in advance. What’s more, most major host cities aren’t near great waves. Even now, there are only a few wave pools around the world that can really replicate surf-quality conditions. As a result, the quest for Olympic surfing felt quixotic for years, even to insiders.

“Everybody thought it would be great if it could happen, but everybody thought the probability was almost nil,” Greg Cruse, the head of USA Surfing, America’s national surfing body, told me. “People looked at [Aguerre] like he was kind of tilting at windmills.” Still, Cruse said, behind Aguerre’s charming demeanour and habit of wearing eccentric outfits, is a deft political operator. The two surf organisers would sometimes play chess at events, and Aguerre beat Cruse every time. “He’s probably the only one in surfing that I’ve known, and I’ve been surfing for 50 years, that could’ve pulled this off,” Cruse said. As a young man, Aguerre and his surf buddies helped lobby none other than the Argentinian military dictator Jorge Rafael Videla Redondo to lift a 1978 ban on surfing.

John John Florence will surf for the United States in the Olympics, even though Hawai’i competes as its own nation in world surfing contests.
John John Florence will surf for the United States in the Olympics, even though Hawai’i competes as its own nation in world surfing contests. (Courtesy of John John Florence / Parallel Sea Productions)

After years of Aguerre schmoozing his way through the opaque echelons of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the games added surfing and skateboarding to the roster in 2016 for their world debut in Tokyo, eager to engage a new generation of sports fans.

The event will feature 40 men and women from around the globe who qualified via WSL and international competitions, and take place over a to-be-determined, multi-day stretch – whenever waves are best at Japan’s Tsurigasaki Beach, 62 miles outside of Tokyo.

It will mark the ultimate ascension of surfing from a cultural practice to a truly global sport-business-media force. Annually, at least 35 million people paddle out all around the world, and the surf industry is worth nearly $10 billion dollars.

To Florence, the waves at Tsurigasaki aren’t daunting. They’re expected to be smaller than the ones at his home breaks in Oahu, which can reach more than 80 feet tall at their biggest. Nor is it the competition. Florence is extremely chilled out, in person and in competition, focusing on one wave at a time without too much distraction. It’s representing Hawai’i, and all that comes with it, that he’s still wrestling with.

“When we compete, you’re always kind of representing your home, but it’s not on the scale of the Olympics, where you’re going and representing your country,” he said. “I haven’t wrapped my mind around it. I’m always trying to represent where I’m from.”

And what a place to be from. Mr Florence grew up on a stretch of Oahu known as the Seven-Mile Miracle, home to more world-class surf spots than most countries. It’s there that he went from a prodigy to a future world-champion, and where he became a part of surfing and Hawai’i’s very specific culture, where giving and earning respect is just as important as your abilities on the wave.

Legend has it that Florence, the son of a surf-loving single mother, Alex, started surfing at age two. He could climb a tree at the surfside cottage they shared with his two brothers, Nathan and Ivan, and see some of the most famous waves in the world. All three of the Florence boys grew up to be pro surfers.

Once they got old enough to paddle out, they began sharing the water with the pros who flocked to the North Shore each year for big-wave season. Kelly Slater, the most decorated pro surfer of all time, recounted in a recent Hulu documentary, Tokyo Rising, how he’d make sure the pint-sized Florence didn’t accidentally paddle out into an area beyond his abilities. Though even as a kid, the young John John’s skills on a surfboard were legendary.

Jon Pyzel, a famous surfboard maker based on the North Shore, remembers watching Florence one day when the boy was still just seven or eight years old, riding a custom board Pyzel had made him. Soon, the tyke was doing an “air”, flying up over the top edge of the wave, as a skateboarder would from a ramp.

“I saw him pop a little air and land it and just keep going. That is radical,” Pyzel said. “That was 20 years ago. Pro surfers weren’t even doing airs in contests at that time. To see a little 8-year-old on a brand new board, the first time he ever rode it, and land it with ease, I really remember that day well.”

He’s not the only one drawn to the surfer, whose demeanour is as humble as his skills are electrifying.

Though Florence is what’s known in Hawaiian as a haole, a white person without native Hawaiian ancestry, this never gave him much trouble.

Hawai’i itself is a deeply unequal place, where native-descended people are far more likely to be poor, in prison, and, more recently, sick with Covid, but in the water, and in Florence’s small Oahu town, something like the much mythologised American melting pot actually existed.

“In general, people that give respect are respected in Hawai’i, despite your skin colour. I would say white people that grow up in Hawai’i definitely have a different path as far as being a quote-unquote local,” Ross Williams, a decorated pro surfer who grew up on the North Shore and now coaches Florence, told The Independent. Owing to waves of migration – coerced and otherwise – contemporary Hawaiian culture is a rich mix of native people, Filipinos, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and others. Florence, an amazing surfer and all-round nice guy, fit right in. “He’s so mellow, and respectful, and quiet, and he’s obviously respected for what he does in the water,” Williams added. “For John, he’s never really had an issue. When you’re immersed in the neighbourhood and the culture, it’s not too big of an issue.”

In that native Hawaiian culture, one of the foundational values is aloha, an abiding respect, warmth, and humility towards people, nature, and life itself, and the young surfer has aloha in spades. It’s a spirit of coexistence he says he learned in part in the water. In the “lineup”, the group of surfers waiting in the zone of arriving waves, younger, more inexperienced riders are expected to honour those with more skills or local connection to the surf spot. In the lineup Hawai’i, where the entire nation was robbed from its native people in large part because of its waters, this dynamic is especially important.

“There’s a lot of order in the crowd out there,” Florence said. “The people who have surfed out there the longest have the biggest claim. If [recently deceased champion surfer] Derek Ho even looked at a wave, it’s his. You’ve been surfing it two of my lifetimes. It’s pretty awesome to have that.”

John John Florence is an avid sailor and conservationist in addition to a world-class surfer, and he grew up on Oahu’s rural North Shore, where he says most everyone has a connection to the water.
John John Florence is an avid sailor and conservationist in addition to a world-class surfer, and he grew up on Oahu’s rural North Shore, where he says most everyone has a connection to the water. (Courtesy of John John Florence / Parallel Sea Productions)

At age 13, Florence became the youngest surfer ever to compete in the pro Vans “Triple Crown” event, and since then has gone on to conquer the sport, winning titles, starring in surf movies, and in general coming to be an athlete symbolic of his entire sport, the Leo Messi or LeBron James of surfing. Perhaps only Slater, who has 11 world titles, a video game bearing his name and a reference in a Travis Scott rap song, outshines him, though the 49-year-old vet’s time at the peak of the sport can only last so much longer.

In 2016, by the time Florence was 24, he won his first WSL title, after which children were given the day off school in Oahu and mobbed him in the street. He got a plaque, “presented on behalf of the North Shore community and the people of the nation of Hawai’i,” calling him “among the greatest Hawai’ian surfers in the history of modern surfing”.

As an individual, then, Florence had been welcomed into the realm of the immortals like Duke Kahanamoku, but the sport as a whole still occupies a complicated place in the relationship between the US and Hawai’i. In 1898, the US defied international law and annexed the islands, a sovereign country with its own royal family and consulates around the world, without any formal treaty or agreement between the two nations. Surfing, perhaps the greatest link between the two nations besides sugar, pineapple exports, and military bases, is deeply implicated in that history.

Many Hawaiians, along with the WSL, don’t consider the islands a formal part of the US. When Florence competes in pro events, he wears the Hawaiian flag on his arm. In Tokyo, however, thanks to a series of behind-the-scenes machinations at the IOC, it’ll be the Stars and Stripes. That’s even though a group of native Hawaiians set up their own independent Olympic committee for the islands, with its own surf athletes, and applied to compete separately from the US in 2018. The effort is part of a broader movement running a provisional government-in-local-exile for the Hawaiian nation. Its leaders say the Hawaiian Kingdom is still intact but illegally occupied since the late 19th century, and their work is similar to that of past provisional governments set up during wartime occupations, such as during WWII.

So far though, these activists say their efforts have been ignored by the IOC. Once again, the islands have been forced to become part of America, and this time, it’s over a sport they invented.

In 1893, a group of wealthy haole businessmen, with the support of the US Marines, deposed Hawaiian Queen Liliʻuokalani.

US President Grover Cleveland condemning the plot as a “substantial wrong” only possible with US help, calling for its undoing, but his successor William McKinley corralled legislators into unilaterally annexing the islands via a “joint resolution” of Congress in 1898 that circumvented the formal treaty process. Hawai’i was a tantalising military harbour during the ongoing Spanish-American war, which saw the US emerge victorious as a global imperial power.

“These individuals had nothing,” said Keanu Sai, a University of Hawai’i political science professor and native Hawaiian, of the original coup plotters. “All they had was a piece of paper that said they were the provisional government. The US could no more annex Hawai’i by passing a law, whether you call that a joint resolution or not, than Congress could pass a law annexing Canada tomorrow.”

This original theft was made permanent when Hawai’i became a US state in 1959, following its pivotal role in WWII.

Mr Sai, an ambassador of the group re-establishing the Hawaiian kingdom government, has been goading international organisations to recognise the islands’ autonomy for decades, including bringing a case in 1999 called Larsen v. Hawaiian Kingdom all the way to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, where Hawai’i was treated as a distinct party in a dispute over legal jurisdiction. The professor saw surfing as another way to ask the fundamental question: what does the world owe a country it allowed to be wiped off the map?

“We’re getting technical,” said another of the organisers of the Hawaiian surf team, Isaiah Helekunihi Walker, a Brigham Young University history professor with native Hawaiian ancestry who wrote Waves of Resistance: Surfing and History in Twentieth-Century Hawai’i. “We knew it was kind of a longshot. It would be a political statement for the IOC to recognise that.”

But it’s not that far-fetched. Puerto Rico, which also became a US colonial possession during the Spanish-American war, has its own Olympic team. One year, the Games featured a team made up of refugees from multiple nations.

The roadblock in the way of a Hawaiian team, then, is not as much formal as political. It would mean striking out against the United States government, a tall order for the ostensibly apolitical Olympics. That Olympic neutrality, of course, is semi-imaginary, given that neutrality is a political choice all its own, and Olympic organisers make all kinds of political choices like hosting the competition in authoritarian nations like Berlin in 1936, China in 2008, or Russia in 2014, and famously kicking American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlons out of the 1968 games for raising a Black Power fist on the winner’s podium.

Ultimately, the all-Hawaiian surf effort failed. IOC president Thomas Bach and sports director Kit McConnell never responded to the Hawaiian Kingdom National Olympic Committee (HKNOC)’s application.

The IOC did respond to a detailed set of questions about the application from The Independent, but wrote the following in a statement: “The IOC’s rules for recognition of a sport organisation as an NOC [national Olympic committee] are clearly established in the Olympic Charter.

“As a prior condition, the applicant ‘NOC’ must be established in a ‘country’, which is defined in the Olympic Charter as an ‘independent State recognised by the international community’.”

Hawai’i was an independent state recognised by the international community before it was invaded, and many of its treaties with other nations are still on the books, but that does not appear to have mattered here.

“We were kind of hoping they would have the courage to do it, but it hasn’t really happened yet,” Professor Walker said. “They just sort of shelved us.” They haven’t heard from the IOC in three years.

And some of the most prominent potential advocates for a Hawaiian surf team steered clear as well.

“Trying to form something is not the same as doing something that is viable,” Fernando Aguerre, the ISA president, told The Independent. “You could try and create an independent country from California and Texas because you think those states should be independent. But creating a committee for that is not the same as being able to do that.”

As part of their efforts, the team Hawai’i organisers reached out to prominent athletes from the islands. All-star surfers like Zeke Lau, Keanu Ahsing, Coco Ho, and Imai DeVault all agreed to join. The HKNOC also reached out to another big name: John John Florence. Walker said one day, he paddled up to Florence in the lineup and asked if he would want to be a part of the Hawaiian team.

“‘Hands down, I would rather surf for Hawai’i,’” Walker remembered him saying. “Even though he’s about to go surf for the United States, he’s still very much identifies as a local boy from the North Shore.” His most recent surf film is called Maps of Home.

Later though, they heard through Florence’s representatives he wouldn’t be joining the effort.

Florence told me, on the Zoom from Australia, that conversations about race and politics are playing out “behind the scenes” in surfing, but that he didn’t want to wade too far into the Hawaiian identity and nationhood debate, a topic with a huge diversity of opinions.

“That’s such a complicated question,” he said. “It just goes to the meaning of what you consider true Hawaiian.”

Florence has largely avoided talking about it that kind of politics throughout his career, though he is a die-hard environmentalist, and has made sustainable materials a major part of his brand.

“I am trying to stay far away from the politics,” he said.

Carissa Moore, a four-time world champion surfer from Honolulu with native roots, will also be competing for the US at the Olympics. She won’t be able to wear a Hawaiian flag, but she’s working with Walker to design a crest for her board, featuring Rell Son, a pioneering Hawaiian women’s surfing champion, and Duke Kahanamoku.

The reason this all matters is because surfing is far more than a sport or pastime in Hawai’i; it occupies a profound role in native Hawaiian culture itself.

More than 1,000 years before surfing was part of the Olympics, he’e nalu, or “wave sliding” in Hawaiian, came to prominence in Polynesia and Hawai’i and became a major part of life. It still is, despite centuries of war, disease, conquest that threatened to eliminate it.

“It’s not a sport. Hawaiian surfing is an identity,” said Cliff Kapono, a 90th generation Hawaiian and pro surfer. “It’s a way to interpret the world around you.”

Surfing represents the refinement and deep understanding of the ocean in Hawaiian society, descended as it was from master sailors who crossed the oceans long before most Europeans ever did, navigating by the stars. On the islands, people had the resources, time, and skill to exalt in the ocean.

“It was also a highly sophisticated form of scientific expression,” Kapono, who is also a working ocean biologist, said. “When surfing, it takes just as much energy to ride as it does to learn the tide and the winds. It just encompasses this idea of connection to the natural world. That’s something that I know my family hasn’t lost, and I know that a lot of Hawaiian families haven’t lost.”

According to Scott Laderman, a University of Minnesota historian and author of Empire in Waves: A Political History of Surfing, for most of world history, Polynesian and African peoples have been the great swimmers of the world.

“The ocean was seen as a terrifying space,” he said. “Most white folks really couldn’t swim. Most of these explorers, they couldn’t swim.”

Though it’s sometimes called the “sport of kings”, Hawaiians of all social classes and genders surfed. So did Hawaiian gods and goddesses.

“Surfing was sort of a bond for all the people together,” said Tom Pohaku Stone. He’s a former pro surfer, surf history expert, and native Hawaiian who crafts traditional wooden surfboards. “Whenever the waves came, everything was put to rest, it was time to surf. It wasn’t time to work,” he added. Missionaries have described finding towns completely empty, with food still sitting on the table, on good surf days. “Bottom line is, when the surf is good, everyone drops everything and goes surfing,” Mr Stone said. “When you look at it that way that tradition lives.”

But that tradition, as was Hawaiians’ connection to the land itself, was nearly severed by force – with help from the US. Olympic surfing still bares these scars.

The arrival of Christian missionaries and other outsiders in Hawaii brought foreign diseases that killed more than 90 per cent of the native population, some 450,000 people gone. The brutal transition to a plantation economy squeezed things further, leaving less time to surf compared with traditional ways.

Hawaiians never stopped wave riding, but the realities of island life just made it that much harder, even though white people took to the sport soon after they took the islands that created it. In the early 1900s, businessmen and elites formed the all-white Outrigger Canoe Club, where people like former coup plotter and post-coup Hawaiian president Sanford Dole learned surfing and outrigger canoeing. Surfing quickly became a way to sell tourists and transplants on Hawai’i and coastal California, then blossomed into a full-blown cultural phenomenon in the 1950s and ‘60s thanks to the likes of surf movies like Gidget and The Endless Summer, and the music of the Beach Boys. Only for some though; beaches across the country have a history of racial segregation, including in Hawai’i.

The sport has a particularly strained relationship with the US military and its influence, the same force that helped take over the nation of Hawai’i in the first place. In Southern California, home to a new middle class after World War II and its abundant military defence contracting jobs, kids had the time, money, and beachside homes that let them surf. Major innovations like surf board materials and the wet suit have their origins in the armed forces. Many great surf spots in the US sit on lands first used for coastal defence. Japan has a vibrant local surf culture, thanks to US troops who occupied the country following the nuclear devastation of WWII – though the limits of that enthusiasm are currently being tested. Public opinion has soured in Japan about hosting the Olympics at all, after already being delayed once because of Covid.

The spoils of surfing have been segregated, too, with white American and Australian males having wracked up the most endorsement deals and celebrity status.

As a result of this wholesale US adoption of surfing—on a business, geopolitical, and cultural level—to many, the picture in their head of a genuine surfer is something closer to Sean Penn’s Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High than to Duke Kahanamoku. Cultural erasure erasure has followed Hawai’i’s political erasure more than a century before.

But Hawaiians, despite all this, have kept surfing.

“Today, surfing for Hawaiians, and especially for native Hawaiians, it’s like an unbroken link to an ancestral past that people identify with culturally,” Mr Walker said. “Surfing is kind of like a final frontier, an area that has not completely been colonized like the government was. For a lot of Hawaiians, it’s like, ‘No, this is our thing.’”

But that thing, like much else in Hawaiian life, is blended deeply with the US now. The US Olympic surf squad will feature Ms Moore, a native Hawaiian from Hawai’i; Mr Florence, a haole who grew up in Hawai’i but isn’t Hawaiian; Kolohe Andino, a white guy from California whose name is Hawaiian; and Caroline Marks, who is from Florida.

Still, despite the disappointment for some of no Hawaiian team, many are still extremely proud that Mr Florence and Ms Moore are representing the islands, even though it’s under a US flag.

“The representation of the islands is fantastic,” said Mr Stone, the native Hawaiian board maker. He was once a member of Da Hui, a group of native surfers in the 1970s who banded together to protect local spots they felt were being overrun by disrespectful white outsiders and wealthy pros, sometimes doling out beatings to make their point. (Da Hui now runs a community non-profit and surf brand.) “Carissa Moore and John Florence. They’re going to represent the US and they’re going to represent Hawai’i, and I’m very proud of them, and everyone else that’s attending.”

(Mr Florence re-injured his knee in May in Australia, but hopes to be fit enough for Olympic competition this summer).

Not that it’s all bad, in the eyes of the surfing faithful. Backers of Olympic surfing hope the spotlight in Tokyo will help inspire sports ministers around the world to put more resources into building the sport. That could help erase some of the barriers to entry in surfing. Even used gear can cost hundreds of dollars.

Others point to how Team USA could inspire future surfers, especially young girls. Despite the aloha ideal, an insular, macho culture can take root at many surf spots, even though women have always been surfers, dating back to Hawaiian goddesses. Despite the tortured politics around the US team, it’s still notable that a native Hawaiian woman will be taking such a prominent place on the international sporting stage.

John John Florence hopes to use his outdoor apparel brand, Florence Machine X, to turn people into conservationists.
John John Florence hopes to use his outdoor apparel brand, Florence Machine X, to turn people into conservationists. (Courtesy of John John Florence / Florence Machine X)

At a recent historical exhibition, Mai Kinohi Mai: Surfing in Hawai‘i, at Honolulu’s Bishop museum, boards from past surf luminaries as well as Mr Florence and Ms Moore were displayed. Ms Moore came one night, and was greeted with a throng of young fans.

“There was a line of all these little teen and tween girls that were so excited to get her autograph and talk to her,” Michael Wilson, one of the exhibit’s organizers, told me. “That for me was one of the highlights for me.”

Mr Aguerre, the ISA president, is also hopeful the games can shine a spotlight on urgent issues like climate change and the many ways it’s affecting the ocean.

“It will be positive for surfing, positive for the Olympic games, and positive for mankind,” he said. “We treat playgrounds great. You see how they treat golf courses. We don’t treat the ocean like we treat golf courses. I’m an idealist.”

That’s the spirit behind Mr Florence’s other big move this year outside of the Olympics, launching his new brand. His movies are always subtly environmental, eschewing the fun-in-the-sun vibe of early surf films for a wide-eyed wonder at the power and beauty of the waves . His rides are often shot in high-def, ultra-slow motion, or underneath the waves themselves. In one of my favourite shots from Mr Florence’s first big film, 2015’s widely laudedViews From A Blue Moon, he looks backward at a cameraman as they both cruise through a surreal tunnel of water, as if to say, along with the audience: can you f—ing believe this?

“I like looking at the world from the perspective of it not being our world, almost as if you’re just seeing it for the first time,” he told The Independent.

Surfers are extremely attuned to the weather and ocean, and traveling around the world, Mr Florence has seen how surf spots have changed over his lifetime alone, and how his native Oahu experienced record flooding earlier this year. His new company, Florence Machine X, is a gamble that he can use his personal influence to turn people into climate-minded conservationists.

It makes shirts, board shorts and wetsuits, aiming to use as many recycled materials as possible to lessen their carbon footprint. He’s betting if enough people go enjoy the ocean, like he has nearly every day of his life, that will inspire them far more than any haranguing PSA ever could.

“If you can inspire people to go outside, go adventure a little bit, or you can inspire people about how beautiful the world is, how much it’s worth protecting—when people have that personal experience to it, they say, ‘Ok, I get it.’”

Mr Florence in many ways is flipping the old colonial trope of the adventure-seeking white adventurer on its head, if such a thing is possible for a multi-gazillionaire pro athlete. Florence Machine X’s tagline is “get out there and explore,” but the purpose is not human conquest and imperial ambition, but rather undoing its worst effects. The champion surfer, outside of competition, has made documentaries charting his sailing voyage to the Palmyra Atoll, a once-polluted US naval base that’s become a hub for island climate change research.

“I just like to go surfing, and I’m proud of where I’m from,” Mr Florence said, adding, “I just don’t think of there being a difference in anyone. We’re all just surfing.”

With surfing in the Olympics, perhaps even more people will be inspired to experience he’e nalu, and to share in the joy and fellowship that many surfers like Mr Florence feel for each other and the planet. But until the sport fully reckons with its history—not just the beauty of surfing but the ugliness of how it arrived to the world—some part of that joy will always be incomplete.

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