John John associates the word Pipe with the word home. And here’s a Backdoor homecoming. Photo: Brent Bielmann

So this wasn’t really how you play the game 20 Questions. Twenty Questions is where you ask someone a series of broad yes-or-no questions and try to figure out what they are thinking of in 20 tries or less. But this isn’t that. Yes-or-nos have no place here. Thus, John John gives us hearty rejoinders, abundant insight, ample words. Like: John would be scared to have which girl in a heat? John has interest in the oceanic sciences? John’s still not convinced Kelly’s air wasn’t a fluke? Read on. —Beau Flemister

SURFING: What was that like in Portugal, suddenly realizing that you had a shot — if things had gone your way — to win a world title? Did it sneak up on you, or did you always have that in your mind somewhere that you could win it?
It snuck up on me. I thought I was pretty far out of title range coming into Tahiti. When I won France, then it really put me there, and I was like, ‘Whoa, it’s pretty close.’ I was getting pretty amped about it. I had to make the finals in Portugal and I had felt so confident in the last three events. And even though I had a bad first heat at Peniche, in the second round I made my heat. So I had that confidence going again and I seriously thought I could make the final and keep it going through Hawaii. It seemed like everything was happening that needed to happen. Gabriel and Kelly both lost first round; I was still going all the way to the semis. I had that last heat in the semis where I was definitely thinking about the title but at the same time I was pretty far off and I kept the pressure off myself. But when I went out in the semis I wasn’t super bummed I lost. I was right there but it would have still been a pretty far shot. I wasn’t even bummed on my performance at all, the waves just didn’t come to me and sometimes that happens.

Second half of the year, your results got way better. Did something happen, or what did you do differently to build momentum?
I focused more on the events. Usually I’m just freesurfing, enjoying skating, not really thinking about it, but I’ve been resting a lot more. Focusing more on the events, surfing before the events, surfing after the events, but not over-surfing myself. One of the main things I was doing before was over-surfing myself and getting tired. I was surfing six hours a day, no matter what. If the waves were fun, I was surfing all day, especially at home. Now I’ll go down and surf before the event, then I’ll surf after the contest and that’s it. I’ll hang out all day and be super mellow. I found a little program that works and I’m sticking to it.

You’ve built a pretty good seed for 2015. Was a shitty seed an issue for you at all this year?
Yeah, it’s pretty cool to have a good seed going into next year because I’m not against Gabriel and all those guys the first couple rounds, which is really nice. It seemed like I kept getting Gabriel in the beginning of this year. But I’m really excited for next year because like I said I found a program that works and I’m going to take it more seriously. Knowing I got that close this year by only really doing well in the last four events, and I was still kind of in the race after doing so bad at first… I feel like a fresh start coming into the year will be a lot nicer.

Do you consider yourself patriotic at all in terms of coming from Hawaii?
Yeah, I would say I consider myself patriotic for Hawaii. Hawaiians want other Hawaiians to do well. All the Hawaiians, we’ve all grown up together and surfed and done contests together. At the same time, we all have that total love of surfing together. But I don’t think country or anything like that really matters. We’re all on the same chart, trying to do the same thing.

What if you won the world title and got carried up the beach and someone threw an American flag on your shoulders. Would you embrace it?
I would definitely embrace it but I would definitely ask for a Hawaiian flag. We’re part of the USA too, so it doesn’t really matter. But I would want a Hawaiian flag if I won a world title [laughs].

Let’s do a word association. I’m going to say each break on tour and you tell me the first thing that comes to mind. Snapper: Crowded.

Margaret: Windy.

Bells: Power.

Brazil: Beach breaks.

Fiji: Barrels.

J-Bay: Turns.

Tahiti: Bigger barrels.

Lowers: Skate-park.

France: Unpredictable.

Portugal: Sardines.

Pipe: Home.

Who’s your favorite girl surfer?
It’s a toss-up between Steph and Carissa because they both totally rip. Steph and Carissa really are amazing surfers. I was watching Steph surf Lowers and I was blown away. I couldn’t even believe it. She’s got such a beautiful style, so amazing. And Carissa is taking barrels to a whole other level. Turns, too. I’d be scared to have Carissa in my heat. At Lowers or Bells, or something — it’d be scary. She’d probably get 8s and 9s.

Who besides Kelly do you feel most competitive with on tour?
It’s really whoever you’re surfing against at that time. You get in these rhythms every two or three events where you’re up against the same person a lot, so it builds up these mini-competitions where you guys have your little battles. Mini rivalries, really. Each event you’re like, ‘OK, I’ve got to get them in this set, or I’ve got to get them in that one.’ But it seems like it’s always changing.

What about off tour? Anybody you’re pretty competitive with just freesurfing?
It’s the same thing, really. Whoever’s out in the water, whoever I’m surfing with at that moment in time, if they do a huge air, you’re like, “Damn, how’d you land that? I want to do that.” Then you want to do the same thing. Same with barrels and big waves. How surfing is nowadays, everyone’s so good. Everyone’s so hard to surf against. Everyone’s doing bigger and better things on every wave.

Kelly just landed that frontside 540 air. Are there any airs that you’re trying to land that haven’t been done before?
Eventually I want to land one of those for sure. I dunno, I just go surfing though, I don’t really have a maneuver in mind. I’ve never been one to try new things. I like trying flips and stuff for fun, but I just like going as fast and as high as I can go. What Kelly did was pretty insane. I’d like to see him land one again, though, so we know it’s not a fluke. He’s gotta solidify that one…[laughs]

If you weren’t a surfer, what would you probably be or pursue and why? If I weren’t a surfer, I’d still be in other action sports. I would skate or snowboard or do something like that. They’re just more fun than other sports. But if I weren’t in action sports, I’d probably go to college and become some kind of scientist. It seems like that would be pretty fun.

Which science interests you most?
I’m pretty into biology and oceanography. Anything to do with the ocean. Oceanography would be insane. I’d love to go out and study in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where only the people that work for NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association] are allowed to go. That place seems really cool and pristine. I bet there’s a lot of waves out there too.

Obviously, everyone wants a piece of you. You have a lot of obligations with your career now. How often are you ever completely alone?
Not very often. Probably when I come home in the summertime mostly because I usually get home and none of my friends are home yet. My brothers will be traveling. I’ll get home and it’s actually the most relaxing time. Coming home after a trip in the summertime.

So you’re not too used to having a handler wherever you go?
No, I love being alone. It’s nice and quiet and there are no expectations of you.

Is it hard juggling a full schedule on tour with freesurfing and other projects?
Yeah, it’s definitely difficult. I’ve been finding it difficult this year because you want to squeeze each freesurf in, plus you’re looking at swells. It’s tiring and when you’re stuck at a contest and it’s flat where you are, that gets pretty frustrating. At the same time it’s fun, it keeps me busy. I know that someday I’ll retire and I’ll be glad that I’ve done everything I’ve done and then I’ll have a big nice break.

Do you feel like you have a different approach on boards than your peers? It doesn’t seem like you stray too much or try unconventional fish-type boards.
Surfboards are a funny thing. I get way too freaked out with too many boards. Even with two different boards, I’m like, “Ahh! Too much!’” I use the same fins and try to ride the same board. Obviously if one board’s not working I’m going to try and change it and ride another one, but my boards have gotten to a spot where I know I have two or three boards and I know that they work well in pretty much anything.

What are those two boards?
It kind of changes each year, and I’ll go back and forth between a couple models. But this year it’s been “The Bastard” model by Jon Pyzel. [6”1” x 18.65” x 2.31” x 26.5L] I also have two good squashtails and a few really good pintails. A few 6’1” pintails, a 6’0” pintail, and some 6’0” squashes that I rode at Lowers and small days in France.

But you pretty much go between a 6’0 and a 6’1?
Yeah, most of the time.

Is that different from most guys?
I’m not sure. I see some guys showing up to events with, like, 30 boards. I’m like, “Whoa — how do you know how all those work?”

You’ve been pretty tight-lipped about the movie you’re making. Is there anything you can tell us? What movie are you talking about? [laughs]

Ha! Wow, nothing?
Yeah, we’re working on a project, but I don’t believe in over-hyping things. I don’t want anyone to over-hype it. When it comes out, it comes out. And hopefully, people will like it.