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Kelly Slater V. John John Florence: An Oral History Of The Greatest Heat In Surfing History

On Aug. 25, 2014, Kelly Slater and John John Florence surfed against one another in a semifinal heat at the Billabong Pro Tahiti. It was everyone’s dream matchup — surfing’s most iconic champion versus the living embodiment of the sport’s new era. On the eve of the first anniversary of this already legendary contest, Uproxx spoke to Slater, Florence, ex-pro Ross Williams, surf writer Sean Doherty, and numerous World Surf League (WSL) officials about the historic duel.

The Wave

Teahupo'o1

“It is a super dangerous wave…you could straight up die out there.”

There are certain stops on the WSL tour that lend themselves to the sort of high drama promised by Kelly Slater and John John Florence surfing head-to-head — perhaps none so much as Teahupo’o in Tahiti. The wave is legendary, spoken about with the hushed reverence and fear usually reserved for sea monsters. Listening to people talk about “Chopes” (as surfers often call Teahupo’o), you can hear the awe in their voices.

Renato Hickel (World Surf League Tour Manager): To me, Teahupo’o is the most challenging wave on tour, hands down. When it hits the reef it jets up in a split-second — like the whole ocean folding in one place.

Sean Doherty (Surf journalist and historian): It’s just this monstrous force. These swells swing up at the bottom of the south island of New Zealand, traveling unhindered, and Teahupo’o is the first thing they hit. You really don’t see them coming.

Rich Porta (World Surf League Head Judge): Because the wave draws so hard off the reef and comes out of such deep water, you have to really watch your takeoff technique. Just to get in the right position is so difficult, and I’m just talking about free surfing. During a contest, there’s a whole new set of variables to deal with.

Doherty: The water is gin clear, so you can see the bottom. You’re looking down and suddenly you’ll notice that you’re being dragged out. That’s the only sign you’ll get that a set’s coming. It stalks you out of deep water. Being in the right spot when a wave comes, there’s a real science to that.

Ross Williams (Retired pro surfer, World Surf League commentary team): Teahupo’o is one of the most technical drops in surfing. It takes a ton of courage, because you have to paddle way before the wave gets to you, so you’re committing yourself, knowing that if you picked the wrong wave you’ll get pitched over the falls. You have to go like a dog with rabies, then you have to have the skill to knife your board under that lip, and, kind of, free-fall or slide down the face.

Kelly Slater (11-time world champion): I surfed Teahupo’o in ’93 for the first time. I had heard rumors about it before that — only that it was this really gnarly wave that you couldn’t surf over a certain size. It was still unknown back then. No one was taking boats out to it, you’d paddle off the beach to get out there. It was just regarded as a very dangerous, obscure wave.

Doherty: In ’97 they held a qualifying event there but it was only three or four-foot and wasn’t really showing anything. The following year, they hit a 12-foot swell with some west in it. There was no webcast, it was all pretty jurassic at that stage, but the first photos came back and it was like looking at something from another planet. You couldn’t actually fathom that waves like that existed. It was just really ugly and running over itself. People saw it and lost their minds.

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