How he fought of a shark – and Ellen Degeneres – to stake his claim as the country’s most recognisible sportsman, one vying for surfng immortalit and a fourth world title.
In 2013, the sport of surfng was sold for the frst time in 30 years. Two gents, one an American football marketing honcho, the other, Kelly Slater’s manager, bought the broken, then incumbent Association of Surfng Professionals, relaunching as The World Surf League in 2014. Samsung secured the naming rights and further deals with Facebook, Youtube, ESPN and Fox Sports, among others, were also quickly penned. The endemic surf brands came onboard, some more reluctantly than others. For the frst time, professional surfng had direction – set to become world-class, direct-to-consumer entertainment, delivered in real time. But honcho and manager could never have predicted that a lone surfer would do more to grow the sport in 15 seconds than the entire company could achieve in years. It just so happened to be in the most horrifc live scenes imaginable. And it could’ve ended the sport forever, had that shark not missed Australian surfer Mick Fanning during the Jeffreys Bay fnal in South Africa this July. While more than 22 million people (and counting) have viewed that clip on Youtube, the incident, alone, is not what makes Fanning. Fending off a ferocious sea creature and escaping death is indeed worthy – but so too is attacking a fourth world title with another shark, in the form of Kelly Slater, still going round.
GQ: Has the attack changed the way you look at surfing? Mick Fanning: I guess it’s more away from surfng. It’s reiterated the fact that we’re only here for a short time. Near-death moments happen to a lot of people. It makes you pull the reins in and look at what’s going on around you. It’s not like you have to change everything, but you make adjustments. I’ve realised if there’s something I want to do, I just do it. And I’ve made sure I show people in my life that I care about them. GQ: Are there still haunting moments in the quieter hours?
MF: The frst few days when I got home were pretty heavy. I was getting fashbacks. Now, it’s slowly becoming fewer and further between. When I frst got back in the water, I was really on edge – I was jumping at shadows, little bits of whitewash, splashes on the surface. I’m a lot more aware now. It feels like I see everything in the ocean, which can be good, but it can also be bad for trying to switch off and relax.
GQ: Everyone seems to have a theory on what happened that day – what’s yours?
MF: I think the shark was actually going for my board. That’s all I can really elaborate on. We’ll never know, but my instinct says it was going for my board, and unfortunately I was on top.
GQ: Or fortunately…
MF: Yeah, a bit of both [laughs].
GQ: Do you think surfing’s grown as a sport in light of the incident? MF: As much as it sucks, yeah, surfng has hit a whole new level. If I’m walking through any airport, random people will come up and go, ‘Oh, you’re that guy.’ I just think that moment, being captured on TV, and how fast it got sent around the world, it blew up like nothing we’ve seen. A lot more people are interested in and are following surfng because of it.
GQ: And what about Julian Wilson [who came to Fanning’s aid during the attack]. Have you guys had time to digest what happened together?
MF: We spoke about it when we frst got home but since then we want to keep it fun and enjoy the time. I haven’t really seen him but I’m sure there’s some emotional stuff inside too, which he’d be able to tell you more about. It was a scary moment for a lot of people.
GQ: We’ve heard rumours that Ellen Degeneres, Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel called wanting you on their shows – Degeneres willing to fly you to LA in her private jet? MF: Well, they didn’t ring me personally [laughs].
GQ: Each of your titles have been won at the back end of the season, as opposed to an early lead. Are you feeling that kick again this year? MF: Yeah, I found some good form going into J-bay. In Tahiti my preparation was pretty bad – there was so much going on after J-bay. But with how busy the line-up is at Trestles [California], I went early and all the things I usually rush through, I took my time with. I have personal goals and if I pull those off, then awesome. If not and I lose, awesome. I still get to go surfng and enjoy what I’m doing.
GQ: World title or not, it has to be the biggest year of your life.
MF: Oh, for sure. Even if I don’t win, it’s been a crazy 12 months. You never think something like that will happen. We’ve all lost loved ones, but to have an incident that I was able to walk away from and have no scars and it just be a mental recovery, it’s been a big emotional ride. n