Q&A with the three-time world champion as he brings curtain down on career.
Australian surfer Mick Fanning has announced he will retire from the World Surf League after the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach event in March.
The world champion in 2007, 2009 and 2013 has enjoyed an illustrious career and gained notoriety around the globe in 2015 when he fought off an attack from a Great White Shark at the J-Bay Open in South Africa.
1. When did you really start to sense that you were getting close to the end of your career?
I probably started having feelings about it through 2013/14 and definitely had them more in 2015, and always felt like there was times when I could have just walked away and been happy. Deciding to take six months off was a really scary decision, it took me a lot of time and courage to be ok with doing that. But it really paid off. However, very early on in the piece in 2017 I was like, this isn’t for me anymore.
2. What’s the feedback been like from your peers on this decision?
I did run it past a few different people on tour and I got mixed reactions – some were like you’re still surfing so well, why are you doing that, then others could just see it in me and see that I wasn’t there. There was some different reactions, which was cool, and there was other ones where they were just like ‘yeah I know’. It was just really cool to be able to share those moments with those people in different areas.
3. So many amazing achievements in a career that’s spanned close to 20 years. What’s the one thing you’re most proud of?
For me, it was all about dedication and just giving it my all. I wanted to make sure I gave it everything, so when I put my head on the pillow at night I had no regrets. World titles and event wins were all incredible, but probably the biggest thing that resonated with me was in 2015 when I came in from a quarter final heat against Kelly (Slater) and all my best friends and family were there. In surfing I’d already won everything, but in that moment I felt like I’d really won in life, and that was really special.
4. When you’re younger, competition wins are what really defines you and what you care about most, but as you get older is it more the friendships you’ve made along the way that really are the crucial parts for what you’ve done?
100 per cent. Growing up you’re obnoxious and you’re a little brat and all you want to do is just beat your heroes and beat basically anyone that you come up against – you’re like a dog with a bone, you want to get every last piece of it. I’ve spoken to other people who have left the tour and their thing is they don’t miss the competing side of things, it’s the friendships you have along the way they miss most. I was extremely lucky that I got to start and finish my career with friends that I went to school with; those friendships won’t just die because I’m not on tour anymore.
5. What’s the biggest heat you have been part of?
There’s been so many! Ones to win world titles, ones to win events, but I think the pinnacle of them all was the one with John John Florence and Kelly (at Pipe Masters, December, 2015). It was amazing and the waves were absolutely firing, and for me, I was the underdog paddling out. We all ended up getting some really good waves and somehow I ended up on top. To surf against the guy I’d always looked up to and always wanting to beat, to then beat him and also beat the guy who is arguably the best surfer in the world right now, in those conditions, that was a really big goal that I ticked.
6. In the context of your career, have you ever surfed a harder heat than that?
Learning that my brother had passed away earlier in that morning, all the pressure of what mattered for this heat or that heat just went out the window and it became just about going out surfing. For that day, I just had this confidence over myself where it didn’t matter what was going to happen, it didn’t matter which wave was going to come in, I just had that much confidence in myself and knew that he’d be looking after me, so I just went! On a normal day I would have been pooping in my pants, but on that day I think I was the calmest I’ve ever competed at; I just knew that waves were going to come, I had confidence in my ability to just go and knew that whatever happened, he’d be looking out for me.
7. There was that one wave you made, where you came up looking over the foam ball. In that moment what was going through your head?
That day was huge. In my first heat against Jamie O’Brian I just felt really heavy at that stage, there was so much emotion running through my body; but I got the wave, threw my head to the sky and it felt like it all just fell off. As I went through the next events, that wave where I came over the foam ball and put my arms up it felt like I had this real connection with Pete at that stage. It was like I was sharing that moment with him on a spiritual level. That was just really, really special; we all talk about being in the moment, and that for me was one of those times.
8. Who was your greatest rival?
Coming on tour as a cheeky 19-year-old, I was lucky enough to be able to jump on tour with some of my best friends – Joel Parkinson, Dean Morrison and Hedgey (Nathan Hedge). Being a bit cheeky, or being a brat actually, I just wanted to beat everyone. For me I just had this thing against Kelly Slater; it wasn’t a personal thing, it was more that I just wanted to test myself against the best. He was always a huge one – early in my career we went back and forth a bit, and then he just went on this streak for a while where he just absolutely destroyed me and I was just scratching my head thinking how can I beat him. Then towards the end of my career, especially last year, I got to surf against him three or four times, and to have that rivalry even though we’re both old as dirt, he was a guy I got really motivated to surf against.
9. What are you most looking forward to about life away from the tour?
The biggest thing for me, leaving the tour, is re-learning. I had a conversation with John John recently and he said “are you scared?” and I said, yeah, but it’s just one of those things. It’s like when you first go on tour, your world opens up and you get to learn and re-learn everything again. Everything’s new and exciting and I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen; all I know is that I’m going to go surfing and try and find amazing waves. But I’m also going to be learning about myself because instead of having a timeline dictating where I’ve gotta be all year, I have to create one for myself.
10. What’s the best piece of advice you would pass on to an aspiring professional surfer, now that you’re into the end of your competitive career?
I had so much advice given to me growing up, I was never one to hold back with questions. If something popped into my head and I didn’t know it, I’d ask someone, and if they didn’t know I would go and research it. Growing up my mum always said, just give it your all and never give up, that was pretty much it. I remember we had a sign on our fridge, it said ‘never give up’ and it was of a frog strangling a pelican as it’s going down it’s throat, and that was our thing, we just never gave up.
11. As a competitor how would you like to be remembered?
I wasn’t the most talented surfer compared to other people, but I knew what I had to do to get myself to a performance level to compete against the best people in the world. Maybe that’s it, that I’ve always given it my all. If that’s the way that I get remembered, cool, but another thing important to be is I always wanted to be a good sportsman. Sportsmanship was always a big thing for me. I remember as a kid, about 13, I surfed pretty badly and I lost a heat. I was throwing my board, carrying on like a little puppet and my mum just smacked me over the head and she goes, “if you ever carry on like that, ever again, I’m never bringing you to the beach again”. From that moment on, I made a point of shaking hands with my competitors, and just being honest, play by the rules.
12. Who are your picks for the World Title in 2018?
John John, two-time world champion, I felt like he finally got everything back together after a couple of weird years – and he’s untouchable in so many different areas now. Filipe Toledo’s growing into the tour and his stuff is incredible. And unfortunately Julian Wilson did his shoulder, I felt like he was building really good momentum. They have a drive in them you don’t see often. It’s going to be super exciting.
13. And on the women’s championship tour, the evolution of their surfing performance and also your picks for frontrunners for the title?
The women’s tour is incredible, it’s so exciting. I got to spend time with Tyler Wright last year in France, and to see the way she ticks is just incredible. She’s going to be so hard to beat again. I feel like Stephanie Gilmore’s going to put a huge year in. Obviously Carissa Moore is three time world champion, she’s truly incredible. And then Sally Fitzgibbons, I feel like Sally learnt a lot about herself last year and what it does take to win, and feel like she will have another extremely strong year.
14. Just finally, we’ve talked a lot about big heats and special moments. But to sum up, what your view of your career has been like? How much fun has it been? Battling for world titles, traveling with your friends, seeing the world and just basically enjoying the hell out of this?
It’s been a rollercoaster for sure, you have your peaks and valleys, but you know, when I look back on my time on tour it’s amazing memories – from building myself up to compete, to heat wins and event wins, celebrating with friends and just seeing places I never thought I’d even get to. That’s the thing I’ll take away, it’s just those memories that will last forever. Over a beer or two here and there they’ll always pop up and those stories will always keep a smile on my face.