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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

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“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.

Slater: I went back three years later [1996], stayed there for about 10 days, and got it really good. A typical day now might have 30-plus guys out and it’s a tiny little zone with a short ride, but back in the ’90s, you could still surf it with no one out for days at a time. I spent 10 days there just getting to know the place, shooting a little bit of footage and some pictures. Once I spent time there, I could see that if a really giant swell came, it could be terrifying.

Williams: Back in the day, when we first started surfing out there, we were all scared for obvious reasons. But because everyone has gotten desensitized over the last 10 or 15 years, they’re just charging now. This comfort level is probably giving people a lot of false confidence. Because it is a super dangerous wave. I mean, you could straight up die out there. That’s been proven, unfortunately.

John John Florence (Two-time winner, Vans Triple Crown of Surfing): The first time I went to Tahiti, I was maybe 12. Growing up you see all these crazy photos, and you get this idea of the biggest, scariest wave ever. Going down there, I went with the expectation of seeing the heaviest wave in the world. The first time we pulled up it was probably four feet. I was just sitting on the boat, even though it was small, thinking there was going to be a 20-footer coming in. That wasn’t the case, but that’s what I was thinking… and I was terrified.

Doherty: At Pipe [Oahu’s famous Banzani Pipieline] you’ve got a collective memory going back 50, 60 years of guys evolving a method to surf it, finding where to sit. Teahupo’o has only been surfed intensively since the turn of the millennium. You’ve had this really steep learning curve of guys trying to work out the best way to actually approach it. You look back, the early years when the contest ran there, and it was clear the guys who were having their lives flash before their eyes. They knew they shouldn’t be paddling into this thing — because it had the potential to kill them — but you’ve got to shut that out and just go 120 percent. The speed that wave moves, the only way to catch it is paddling at the base of the wave. You’ve got to balls-to-the-wall commit. As soon as you see a wave, you’ve just got to put your head down and just go.

Florence: You’ll be sitting out there and it’s the craziest thing, the whole ocean moves out from under you. It’s surreal.

Williams: There are a million reasons to be scared and insecure, and not go.

Doherty: You’re at the mercy of the wave, just because it is so raw. There’s no real science that can unlock it. You’ve got some general principles in terms of things that might help you out, but if a wave turns out to be the wrong wave then you’re going to get punished. It’s no place for hesitation.

The Competitors

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KELLY SLATER

Describing Kelly Slater and his impact on surfing either requires an enormous word count or has to be limited to a few staccato phrases: 11-time world champion; Winningest surfer ever; Global icon. To call Slater “surfing’s Michael Jordan” feels too easy… but it’s also perfectly fitting. Or it would be if Michael Jordan had managed to double the length of his competitive prime. 

Williams: I met Kelly when we were both maybe 10 years old. Somehow I was never jealous of him, even though he beat me my whole career. I knew how much better he was. Even when we were 12, I picked up on it. He’s so open-minded and eager to learn. Not only sports, but everything. Whether it’s current events, or how stuff works, science, whatever… he’s open and eager and retains that information better than anyone I’ve met.

Porta: Kelly is like the old master magician. He plays with everyone. He plays with the media, he plays with the surfers, he tries to play with us [the judges]. He’s been around forever so he knows all the tricks. He knows all the reefs, all the take off spots, and all the right waves to take.

Williams: He’s always been extremely competitive, to the point where he rubs some people the wrong way. I don’t know Kelly as a cocky guy — definitely not arrogant — but competitive. It’s just in his bones, I guess. He’ll always come up with something to beat you at. He’s extremely driven and he’ll never be the guy who says, “Ah. You know what? I should just let you win one.” Whatever he was going to do in life, maybe if he was going to be a professor, because he’s very smart, he probably would have looked at all the professors, and found out a way to be the best one, somehow, or got the most awards, or… (laughs).

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JOHN JOHN FLORENCE

John John Florence was anointed the “future of surfing” when he was still just a kid. Raised on Oahu’s famous North Shore, the “Eight Mile Miracle” (a stretch of spectacular waves which includes the Banzai Pipeline) was Florence’s playground. Thanks to Pipe, Florence’s comfort in barrels is unparalleled — making his style a natural fit for Teahupo’o. 

Williams: I’ve known John John since he was a baby because he grew up where I live, on the North Shore. He’s a super nice kid — he’s so mellow, he has no ego, he’s just really cool. I’ve never really known his family, because you only ever see him in the water. We’d all take turns pushing him into little waves at age six.

Slater: I don’t remember the first time I met John. I know he was about seven or so. I’ve been surfing with him on the North Shore ever since and seeing him progress. We’ve been friends for a lot longer than we’ve been competitors. Beyond just the surfing, we have a lot of very close personal friends in common, so our lives are intertwined.

Hickel: My thinking is that John is a natural-born-killer in big barrels. He learned how to surf in that type of wave, at Pipe. He surfs waves like Pipe and Teahupo’o the way most surfers surf two-foot waves.

Porta: John was a child prodigy. I first saw him when he was about 13 at a qualifying event. He’s a lovely guy, well brought up and so well-mannered… but bit by bit I’ve been noticing that when he loses he takes it a little bit harder. At the start he took it on and thought, “I’ll take my losses.” Now, I see a little flare occasionally and I think he must be going, “Well, I should win more contests than I am.”

Williams: I don’t know if his heartbeat ever gets above 50. He’s really mellow. He’s not fidgety, he’s not that kind of athlete that might over-froth and get too excited. He just really buckles down and actually just kind of has almost like a cocky smile when the waves get crazy. Everyone tries to paint this picture of John John as being laid back but he’s got so much talent and he really loves to surf at his best, so he gets irritated or maybe even embarrassed when he’s not able to do that.

HEAD-TO-HEAD AT “CHOPES”

Florence has jokingly referred to Slater as “dad.” Slater calls Florence, “the best barrel rider in the world.” The two surfers know one another’s styles and like competing against each other. As a Slater versus Florence semifinal started to seem inevitable, the excitement grew — as did the swell. The wave itself would become the third lead character in the drama about to unfold. 

Doherty: There are clearly people who are built for Teahupo’o. If you looked at the draw, there were probably half a dozen guys you knew would be there come quarterfinal time. The way it was seeded, you could tell that if things kept going the way they should you’d end up with Kelly and John in a semi.

Porta: Everyone was anticipating the heat. Kelly’s been there for so many years, he knows Teahupo’o. Half the time that’s why he’s such a good competitor, because he’s so well-versed in what he’s doing. John’s grown up at Pipe and can ride the barrel better than most guys in the world. He’s one guy that you never take your eyes off of — even when you think the wave has closed out — because more often than not he pokes out somewhere.

Williams: When you knew the conditions and who it was going to be, you see that you’ve got two apex predators just trying to eat each other in perfect waves. You could look at that whole top 34 list of WSL surfers and go, “Okay… let’s just make the craziest heat we can make, right now, in the craziest waves” and that’s what you would’ve chosen. You would’ve picked 10-foot, glassy Teahupo’o, and you would have chosen John John Florence versus Kelly Slater.

Porta: Those two guys have their own little thing going on, like the master and the apprentice. Except the apprentice is so good.

Hickel: John’s not really an apprentice because Pipe is his backyard — so to make the drop, grab-rail, or go hands-free in a 12-foot tall draining, intense barrel, for him it’s like eating breakfast. He seems more casual, more reckless, more comfortable than any surfer out there in those conditions.

Doherty: There could have been no better matchup. It was almost like a passing of the torch moment. We’ve been wondering for about 10 years when Kelly was going to be on the way out. But if anything, he’s just gotten better. John came along and it was almost like a Vader/Skywalker kind of thing.

Slater: There’s certain guys you want to surf against in certain scenarios. Certain guys rise to the occasion. I’ve always liked those high pressure situations and the waves at Teahupo’o suit what John and I are each best at.

Doherty: It was really poetic that the pair ended up in that semi in those kind of waves. You’re just sitting there with a thing of popcorn. You knew straight away it was going to be a historic moment, before a single wave was ridden.

Hickel: Up to that point they were, hands down, the two best surfers in the event. I had to say that I thought that John John would go on to win… obviously, he had a huge task ahead though, which was trying to beat Kelly Slater.

The ‘Dream Heat’

The Morning Of...
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The Morning Of...

Teahupo’o isn’t always a wave you can paddle into. If it gets too big, a surfer would have to be towed in on a jet ski in order to gain enough speed to catch it without getting sucked over the falls — but the WSL Championship Tour doesn’t feature tow-in surfing. On a big day, the WSL philosophy is to run the contest and let surfers decide for themselves which waves are too big to handle, only adding to the intensity.

Hickel: I was making the call about whether or not we ran the contest that morning with Peter Mel [WSL Big Wave Commissioner and broadcaster]. We had a little tinny [outboard boat] and we planned to go look at the waves. Peter was getting the boat ready and I looked up to see first light coming and this gigantic wave broke on the reef and the spray went a full 40 meters in the air. I looked at Peter and said, “Whoa, it is huge.”

We took the tinny and headed out the channel. When we got out to the lineup it was still dark — first light — and these 20-foot sets were looming. Then, we realized there was a boogie boarder out there. This massive mutant wave starts coming and the guy beelines to it. There were no photographers, nobody filming, and no one in the lineup to rescue him. We’re going, “Who is that? Why is he doing that?” He took off and halfway down the face of the wave he went airborne. When he landed at the bottom of the wave he just got pulverized.

As we realized that the boogie boarder was injured, we saw [ex-pro surfer] Dino Andino coming to the lineup to drop [his son and pro surfer] Kolohe off. Dino went in the whitewash really quick, grabbed the boogie boarder, and off they went to hospital. That was how the day started.

Florence: You’re out there in the dark and it’s getting light, you don’t quite know how big it is. So you sit there and you say, “Okay, let’s watch one set.” The morning of the semifinal, we pulled over and the first big wave to come in was a tow wave and I was like, “Jeez, this is going to be a scary day.” When those tow waves come in, they’re not paddle-able. There’s no possible way to paddle into them.

I remember thinking, “If one of them comes to my heat and I can’t tell…” Because sometimes you can’t really tell if it’s paddle-able or not, there’s a real fine line. If you’re on that line — it’s gnarly, because if you don’t make it you’re going to get obliterated. The thing’s just going to eat you.

Slater: I didn’t get out there especially early. If you get out there and watch for too long, especially if it’s really big, you get psyched out. It’s better to just roll up and see one or two waves and then get in the water. If you think about it for too long, you can kind of overthink it.

Hickel: I remember that Peter Mel filmed me, which we don’t normally do before the official call has been made. He was so excited that he went ahead and asked on camera, “What’s the call?” And I said, “Peter, it is so on. It’s going to be an epic day.” Obviously, every call you make you try to be conservative, because you don’t know how the day’s going to unfold, but we could tell early. It was just so clear that it was going to be one of the best days for an event, ever.

Porta: Times like that you know: this is the day. Everyone’s feeling up and we knew straight away that it was special, before we even started. It was on the verge of towing, it was glassy, it had everything.

Slater: When I did pull up that morning, the first two sets I saw, you couldn’t catch by paddling, you would have had to tow. So I was like, “Oh wow, this is going to be an interesting day.”

Williams: There are only a handful of guys on tour who are as comfortable as Kelly and John John in those conditions. They’re not all the same. Even though they’re all the best surfers in the world, there’s a huge separation. John John and Kelly really want those bigger waves. It’s one thing to see a surfer want the biggest, craziest waves that come in, but then also have the skills to match that eagerness. That’s what separates those guys from the rest of the field.

Seconds into the heat, a massive set rolled toward the lineup. Florence paddled into the first wave, grabbed the rail of his board to make the drop, then stood tall as a giant ball of foam chased him through the barrel. In the video, he can be seen cutting across the face of the wave– displaying an unfathomable degree of comfort for someone with a massive slab of water looming overhead.

 

Williams: You’re just throwing yourself on the line when you paddle into waves that big. Everything in your body is telling you to jump off your board, or buckle under pressure. But John John was super confident. He was actually weaving in the barrel, letting go of his rail.

Florence: When it’s clean and perfect like that, as long as you’re 100 percent committed you’re going to make it most of the time. There are those times when you’re going to fall and it’s gnarly, you’ll get worked, but a lot of the time you’re going to make it. To have that feeling, when you’re making one of those barrels… it’s incredible… it’s like nothing else.

Porta: Remember, this is the first wave of the heat. It’s not like, “Let’s warm up.” It’s like, “Let’s get the best wave of the day.”

Slater: I didn’t want to battle for position too much during that heat because there were plenty of waves to catch. It really just came down to how you rode them and how deep you took off. With John, he’s a special individual, he’ll push himself. I like to say,”You get greedy on a wave” — you try to push yourself as deep as you can. John was comfortable doing that.

Florence: Coming out of the barrel, I was pretty stoked. I was like, “I wonder if that’ll be a 10?” No hands, on the foam ball. I didn’t think I was going to make it… then I did.

Hickel: I saw John John’s wave, and I said, “Hands down a 10.” Then you look up and see Kelly getting the very next one.

Before Florence had even started paddling back toward the lineup, a second clamor went up from the boats moored in the channel. Slater had committed to a wave of his own. After making the drop, he gouged a deep bottom turn and shot back up the face of the wave, riding so high that it presented the threat of getting sucked up and over the falls. 

 

Porta: John John starts to paddle and looks up to see Kelly taking off — so he gets the full show. He’s thinking, “Oh my God, how good is that wave I’ve just got? A 10-point ride.” Then he sees Kelly and he must be like, “Oh shit.”

Slater: Teahupo’o is such an intense drop that you can’t angle sideways down the line at all, there’s too much force pulling up the face of the wave. You’ve got to take off aiming straight at the beach, get down the face and then turn. I dropped in without grabbing the rail and then pulled my bottom turn and grabbed the rail. I knew I was pretty deep, really deep, in fact.

Porta: I think the subtly is sometimes lost on the casual observer. A lot of people probably would miss the tiny-but-amazing aspect of how high Kelly goes up the face of the wave. Everyone else in the world at that point would continue up the face of the wave and go over the falls.

Slater:  You’ve got to judge how fast the wave is going to go and then you’ve got to pick your line. When I pulled in, I thought I brushed off too much speed and got sucked really far up the face in the tube. When you get high up the face, gravity pulls you back down and I thought when I turned back down, the lip was going to be landing and exploding into me. So I thought I judged it wrong. When I made that, I knew that I basically got as deep as I could and there wasn’t going to be much room left on the [scoring] scale.

Hickel: Coming off the foam ball, changing the line, going so high up on the face, and then being able to draw down and come out of the barrel… Kelly put a lot of pressure on the judges.

The opening exchange created a conundrum for the judging committee. Unlike other technical sports, surf scoring is comparative — so for both riders to get a perfect score their rides would have to be deemed completely equal. Still, it wasn’t unheard of. TV broadcaster Martin Potter seemed to be thinking a tie would be the case, as he asked his fellow crew, “Have we just started the heat with two tens?”

Slater: I heard the crowds in the channel for John’s wave. We were paddling back out, and I said to him, “Are we going to be splitting hairs with that one?”

Florence: I was like, “I think so.” I saw Kelly’s wave [from the channel] and I was like, “That was sick, too.” We rode the waves totally different and the waves were just so good that we started talking, like it was a free surf or something.

Williams: They clicked into that friendly-competitive mode. They were just trying to entertain and surf their best and they weren’t worrying about flexing too much.

Hickel: By that point, we knew we had something special on our hands. There are moments in every sport… an alignment of the planets. You have the greatest rivalries or opponents meeting in the right conditions, and it’s a conspiracy towards excellence.

Doherty: I thought John’s wave was a 10 and then I looked up and Kelly’s was better. What does that make Kelly’s, an 11? It’s like the whole Spinal Tap thing. Where do you go? You can’t put an 11 on the dial.

Kelly Slater: At that point it comes down to really tiny particulars and just someone’s opinion.

When the scores were announced, Florence had a 9.9. Slater received a perfect 10. With more than 30 minutes left in the heat, Slater led by the slimmest possible margin.

Williams: My initial thought, when they both caught those first waves, was that John John’s drop was a little heavier. I thought the scores were going to be the other way around with John John getting a 10 and Kelly with a high 9, so I was kind of surprised.

Florence: I thought that I was going to get a better score by not grabbing my rail, but Kelly’s wave was amazing — I think his was a 10, 100 percent.

Porta: Kelly effectively did a re-entry inside a 12-foot barrel. That was the tiniest piece of separation. That was the difference. Every other day of the year, every other heat, John’s wave was a 10. It just happened to be that Kelly was right behind him and our job is to compare.

Florence: At that point, we’re essentially back at zero, you’re just starting over again… almost. I just knew I had to get another one.

Slater: When I rode my second wave, I felt it wasn’t going to be on that same level. Then it became clear to me that my first one was the best wave I was going to catch out there.

Florence: I felt so confident and comfortable out there that I was excited. My next wave came and it was another 9 [9.1]. Then he got another 9 [9.77 following an 8.17]. Your adrenaline is running so hard you can’t even think straight.

A WSL heat is judged by combining each surfer’s two best scores, regardless of how many waves each rider takes. As the heat progressed, Slater and Florence traded waves. Florence’s second wave was a 9.1, followed by a 9.4. Slater’s second wave was a 8.17, followed by a 9.77. This gave Slater a commanding lead and meant that Florence would need a 9.88 to win.

Slater: I realized that the heat was going to end up coming down to decimal points.

Porta: When they’re surfing that well it compresses the scale. I call it a “game of nines” because your scale now only seems to go from 9.1 to 10.0. As a judge, you’ve gone from 100 scores you can put down to 10.

Slater: I basically had it in my head we were going to tie or he was going to come back and beat me.

With the TV crew giddy over what they were witnessing, the swell flatlined. As the clock continued to run, neither surfer took a wave and it began to look less and less likely that Florence would find the wave he needed to get his score.

Doherty: The great problem with Tahiti, the only one, is the fact that it has such long periods and the waves travel so far that you get big lulls. You have to do some waiting, which sets up the atmosphere a little bit because you’re building to something and you’re hoping a set’s coming.

As the lull between sets dragged on, the crowd seemed to grow despondent, fearful that Florence wouldn’t get one last shot. Then, with only 46 seconds on the clock, in a moment that seemed pre-scripted, a rogue wave rolled toward the lineup. Florence immediately paddled, made the drop with a hand on the rail, released, re-grabbed the rail, and released a second time before the wave spat him out.

 

Doherty: For that wave of John’s to come in the dying minute, for him to have a shot at it — it was Hollywood. It was out of a Hollywood script.

Florence: Coming out of the barrel, the whole channel is erupting. It’s like Waterworld out there with the entire crowd screaming.

Slater: We sat there waiting for the scores for a long time at the end. I didn’t at any point think, “I’ve got this thing sewn up.” I still thought we were going to tie or he was going to beat me.

Florence’s scores rolled in slowly — 9.8, 9.9, 9.8, 9.9, 9.9 — with the high and low scores being thrown out (as per WSL rules), the final average was a 9.87. That left the two surfers in a dead tie, a contingency that the WSL rulebook accounts for.

Doherty: They’re just sitting there waiting, going, “What do you think?” “I don’t know, it was pretty good.” It was like a conversation that could happen anywhere, at any break around the world. There was no fist-pumping. The reaction when it got read out, John couldn’t actually fathom. He goes, “Oh, it’s a tie? What does that mean?” Of course Kelly knew, because Kelly lies awake at night reading the rules (laughs). He knew exactly what was going on.

Florence: Kelly knew right away. He’s like, “Oh, we tied and I won because — ” I didn’t understand it at first. The way I understood ties was that they go back to your third best wave… but I was wrong.

Williams: The tie counts back to the best single wave. So Kelly had the 10.0 over John John’s 9.9.

Florence: I was definitely disappointed. I wanted to win. I wasn’t thinking about money, maybe a little bit about [WSL Tour] points, but mostly I just wanted to win the contest.

Doherty: There was no fist-pumping, no claiming. They probably surfed the greatest heat that’s ever been surfed and they’re just there, “Oh, okay,” shake hands and paddle away. It’s just a whole lack of hyperbole and bluster. It was magic, because it actually… that was a perfectly reflective moment of how surfing should be: an inherent modesty. It was a classic little moment.

The Aftermath

No surprise here: Slater and Florence won the "Heat of the Year" at the World Surf League Awards in February.
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No surprise here: Slater and Florence won the "Heat of the Year" at the World Surf League Awards in February.

No sooner had the scores been announced, then Slater had to start thinking about surfing in the final against Gabriel Medina. The heat would be held just a half hour later. With the surfers, announcers, and judges all still reeling from the semifinal, Slater headed back into the lineup.

Slater: I had put everything into that semifinal. That was the climax for me. Then I had to go back and surf again and refocus. It was difficult because I feel like I had to hit reset. In a way, I would have been happy had John won the heat so that he had to surf that final. I was mentally spent at that point.

Hickel: Watching the final, we all knew it couldn’t be replicated, that heat. It didn’t matter what happened, it wouldn’t be as good as the semifinal.

The final still provided some great waves, but it couldn’t escape the feeling of being a comedown after the Slater versus Florence battle. In the end, Gabriel Medina — surfing with calculated precision — took home the championship with a total score of 18.96 to Slater’s 18.93.

Slater: I guess I used up my magic, so to speak. I was fine with it. I just felt like I let John John down by not winning. We had agreed, “Whoever wins this heat, has to win the final.” Both of us had had such a good event to that point that we felt like, “If I’m going to beat the other guy, I owe it to him to go on and win the whole thing.”

Hickel: Kelly was the last to arrive to the podium for the awards ceremony and I was there to do the presentation. There hasn’t been a time I’ve seen someone happier to get second place. He was in awe, saying, “Oh, this was the best day ever” and “I’m so happy that I got to surf this.” He was in such a high, beaming mood that it just made that podium celebration really special.

The contest window for the 2015 Billabong Pro Tahiti opened on Aug. 15 and the one-year anniversary of Slater v. Florence is Aug. 25. Perhaps this will be the year that Slater finally shows signs of slowing down, though no one we spoke to would dare bet on it. Florence is coming back from a foot injury and made it clear that he’s fired up to try to recreate 2014’s magic. Still, everyone involved seems to understand that those sorts of peak experiences don’t come along very often.

Doherty: It was just a perfect moment in time. Kelly, probably on the way out, at his favorite break and John John just starting to catch fire and become the surfer everyone wants him to be. Here they were in 12-foot Teahupo’o, in front of the world.

Williams: If you call it the best two-way heat ever, you’re not going to have a lot of people be mad at that statement.

Florence: Wow. When you hear it talked about that way, it’s pretty cool. It was one of the few times where I don’t know what I could have done better and just that feeling alone is great.

Slater: Coming out of that first wave I thought, “This is what my whole life is about, these moments right here, this second.” Just knowing you’re in the exact place you’re supposed to be on Earth. The score doesn’t matter then. If I got a 9.9 and John got a 10 or vice versa, it really didn’t matter because that’s when you forget all that. Your experience is way beyond the result.

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