There are a lot of tattoos out there that speak to Hawaiian pride. A simple map of the islands is tasteful. Of course, there are any number of water and mountain images that make up sleeves. There's the more traditional Polynesian artwork, originally banned by missionaries, that has become a strong cultural tie. And then there's your straight-up "Hawaiian Pride" neck tats.
Twenty-year-old John John Florence doesn't have any ink, but right now he is as strong a source of Hawaiian pride as you're going to find in the islands.
Florence made the cover of Surfer magazine getting barreled in Indonesia as a grom -- a rather massive introduction to the surfing world. He joined the ASP World Tour in 2011 and quickly notched his first Vans Triple Crown win. With aerial skills and that innate ability to ride the barrel, Florence is loved throughout the islands.
In 2012, Florence has simply been astounding. He started the year with a win at the 5-star Volcom Pipeline Pro and then, shortly after starting his first full year on the ASP Tour, won the prime-rated Telstra Drug Aware Pro. He made the semis of the Nike Lowers Pro in May and then went to the Billabong Pro Rio, where he took his first World Tour victory. He notched semifinal finishes at Teahupoo and France and made a pretty good run at a second consecutive Vans Triple Crown title. For the second half of the season, he was in the thick of the title race with Kelly Slater, Joel Parkinson and Mick Fanning -- an experience that's sure to forge his character.
All of this has many wondering: Could John John Florence bring a world title back to Hawaii?
Aside from Dusty Payne and Fred Patacchia, who just requalified, Florence was the only Hawaiian on tour in 2012. (This year, they are joined by Sebastian Zietz.) That's kind of a strange thing, considering Hawaii's role in the history of surfing. To put it as simply as possible, these islands are the history of surfing. But if you go back to 1976, and the birth of pro surfing with the fledgling IPS circuit, you don't see a Hawaiian world champ until Derek Ho in 1993. Then there was Sunny Garcia's title in 2000. And these were one-offs.
There wasn't a true dynasty until Andy Irons' run from 2002 to 2004. So when Irons left this world with cloudy circumstances surrounding the cause of his death in 2010, it left a giant hole in the heart of the Hawaiian people. Although Florence (like Irons) is Caucasian, he is accepted as Hawaiian. And with that comes heavy interest in his quest for a world title.
"Ho a'e ka 'ike he'enalu i ka hokua o ka 'ale means to show your knowledge of surfing on the back of the wave. In Hawaiian, it sums up Florence's remarkable rise to the top of the surfing tour and to possibly win the world title in 2013. "John John has shown he has learned the art and mastery of riding a wave," says Tom Pohaku Stone, a legendary Hawaiian waterman and teacher of Polynesian culture.
"He has shown and proved he has what it takes to represent Hawaii as the best surfer today, following in the footsteps of Andy Irons and others like the Ho brothers and Sunny Garcia. Yes, we are proud of his accomplishment as a professional surfer," adds this historian.
Nothing is as Hawaiian as surfing. It held great significance in ancient cultures and still does today. The film "Bustin' Down the Door" by Shaun Tomson did a great job telling the story of how Hawaiians put so much stock in water skills. After centuries of losing their way of life to first the English and then the Americans, it was the one thing Hawaiians still had. And when the Bronze Aussies disrespected that, it caused a major to-do.
Hawaii still sees itself as an independent entity in the sporting world. Duke Kahanamoku won multiple Olympic swimming medals. Technically, they were medals for the U.S. team, but as far as Hawaiians were concerned, the medals belonged to Honolulu. Today, Hawaii is still its own region on the ASP books.
Nick Beck, 72, is a legendary Hawaiian paddler from Kauai. He was a teacher and vice principal at Hanalei School before a 25-year tenure as principal.
"I had all the kids you saw surfing competitively: Andy Irons, Bruce Irons, Reef MacIntosh, plus a thousand others who just surf," he says.
And, as he explains, Hawaiian pride is paramount, not necessarily any particular island.
"When Andy won, of course he had a lot of support from everyone at Hanalei School, but no matter where in Hawaii you're from, you spend winters surfing on Oahu, so you belong to many of the islands. It just matters that you're from Hawaii," Beck states. "You are representing, really, Hawaii. Not the United States. They surf as Hawaiians, and [Florence] is the first time since Andy passed away that we've had someone else, and it means a lot to the people in the islands to have someone there from the islands, who rides the waves there, be a world champion. Of course, the guys in the local breaks feel proud because the kids have grown up there and surfed, but they embrace a Hawaiian champion from any island."
And Beck has no question that the trophy will come back to Hawaii with Florence.
"He's young and has a great future, and once he wins, which I'm sure he will, he will also be embraced as the Hawaiian champion. Whether you're like Sunny Garcia or like Andy, it doesn't make any difference. Once you're the champion, all of Hawaii will be proud to have a world champion."
Hawaiians are pretty enthusiastic sports fans all around.
"Hawaii breeds football players and surfers. In fact, if you look at pro athletes in those sports, Hawaii has a huge number per capita. And I think that's pretty cool for being out in the middle of the ocean," says Freddy Patacchia.
In fact, there have been 81 Hawaiian-born players in the NFL throughout the years. Still, Patacchia doesn't think surfing gets the status it deserves within mainstream sports coverage, considering its cultural relevance in the islands.
"Culturally, it's still the main thing -- going to the beach and riding waves. But the sports news still focuses on the mainstream sports here. When Mick Fanning won his last title, there was a parade in Australia when he got back. There will be the same for Parkinson. But Andy Irons won three titles and you never saw that here."
But that is changing. The entire Vans Triple Crown is aired in Hawaii on Oceanic Cable channel 250 in HD.
"We're getting there. The surf teams at schools are showing parents that it's a legitimate sport and people are following the whole tour online. It's the sport of Hawaiian origin," Patacchia states.
And what might be the tipping point?
A Florence world title.
You still can't talk Hawaiian world champs without really discussing the contributions of the late, great Andy Irons. Beck is also aware of some of the questions that arose around Irons' untimely death.
"The image of a world champion affects a lot of kids. I see that in Hanalei, and if they see their idols in the party life, they think it's cool. But if they see their idols able to step aside and live a clean, straight life and still perform, it makes a huge difference."
This far, Florence's only addiction seems to be to surfing -- any wave, all day long.
Patacchia adds that Florence is motivated to travel, surf new places and wear a wetsuit.
"Traditionally, Hawaiians like to stay home, myself included," he offers, "and that can actually have a negative impact on your career. He has the sponsor support to get out there. Whenever I see him, he's thinking about chasing some swell to somewhere new."
One thing is certain: If the World Tour sees as many hollow waves as it did in 2012, Hawaiian pride will erupt like the Kilauea volcano.
"As a native of the Hawaiian Islands, we hold great pride for the accomplishment of John John," says Stone. "We would say it simply this way: 'Nui ka ha'aheo no ka hana nui o keia keiki o ka'aina, maika'i ka 'uhane no, John John. Cheeehuuuuu.' As Hawaiians, we are proud of our cherished son of our islands and the spirit of the islands that he carries for us all in his feats of accomplishment."