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The Pro Surfer Talks His Beginnings, What Lies on the Horizon and Everything in Between

Written By: Ashlee Polarek
Photographed By: Corey Wilson

Mick Fanning, also known as “White Lightning,” didn’t begin his surfing career the way you might think. You may imagine an eager little grom charging the shore with his board in hand, ready to shred the best he can. This was not the case for Fanning. “Being the youngest, [my brothers] had to look after me. They all wanted to go to the beach so I got dragged along and dragged out the back on a surfboard,” he remembers. Well, thanks to the big bros, Fanning would later come to secure three wins at the ASP World Tour.

Before he was surfing professionally, Fanning was a burgeoning soccer star. He continued to surf at the same time, picking up a sponsor with Quiksilver. “I was heavily into soccer at the time. I got approached by Quiksilver and started getting free product. As history shows, soccer was no longer a priority but it was seriously like I met Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny together,” he jokes.

Surfing would eventually take the mainstage in Fanning’s life when he was 13. “I got sponsored by Quiksilver and that was it. I thought I was going to be a pro surfer. Nothing else mattered really.” During the superstar surfer’s first year on tour, Fanning, 22 at the time, took fifth place in the world, earning him the ASP—Association of Surfing Professionals—Rookie of the Year. From then on, the trophies continued to roll in.  

In 2003, Fanning took fourth place in the world. It was widely predicted that he would snag the world title the following year. However, life had other arrangements, as Fanning tore his hamstring off the bone in a free surfing accident. He was forced to get surgery, preventing him from entering competitions for six months.

When faced with being broken both physically and emotionally, he gave himself a pep-talk. “You have two options, you either tuck your tail in or you rebuild yourself and turn into a champion,” he thought. Upon returning to the world of competitive surfing, Fanning secured a gripping win at Snapper Rocks and placed third by the end of the Championship Tour.

When it’s time for competition, Fanning makes sure to get into the right headspace. “For me, I always try to be calm, confident and focused on my job. I try to quiet the mind and surf from my center,” he explained. And it works, because when you watch Fanning surf it’s like a beautiful dance. He makes it look so simple and graceful as he twists and turns while flowing along massive waves. “A lot of it is just getting the body switched on. Just before I paddle out I like to visualize as well,” Fanning said.

For surfers, it’s about connecting with the energy of the sea as well as getting in touch with mother nature and learning what to expect. “Some people have a sixth sense when it comes to reading and feeling the ocean. You can definitely feel the change in energy in swells and density in the water. I guess the easiest way to explain it is like a quarterback reading a game of football and feeling the to and fro of who is winning. We are doing it with nature, but you never beat her,” he laughed.

In 2007, Fanning claimed his first ASP World Tour title of his career, beating out rival pro surfer and reigning champion Kelly Slater. During the year, Fanning kept to himself focusing on the tours and competition. At the time surfing was a free sport. There were typically no routines or pressures to train. But since then, it’s changed. “It’s so much more professional these days. When I first got on tour it was all ‘happy go lucky’ where now it’s a full time job.”

Fanning adapted to the evolving environment of the sport, which made for no surprise when he won a second ASP World Tour title in 2009, once again beating Slater.

Fanning loves watching others succeed, too. One of his favorite moments was watching one of his best friends, Joel Parkinson, win a world title in 2012. “For me, I was just so proud of him, I  watched him achieve a life long goal.” The camaraderie is real, and so in line with Fanning’s character.

Following his best friend’s win, Fanning secured himself a third 2013 ASP World Tour title. He continued to win in other competitions the following year, including the 2014 J-Bay—Jeffreys Bay—Open title. During his return to the J-Bay in 2015, things took a turn for the worse. Just minutes into the final, a fin was spotted right next to Fanning as he sat waiting to catch a wave in the water. What followed made headlines around the world. Splashing occurs, then suddenly he disappears.

The moment was seen by thousands on live television and all over the web, with real life reactions by the commentators capturing the shock and fear of the attack across the beach. For nine seconds, he disappears from view. A shark took some interest and got caught in Fanning’s leash. He did what most would forget to do in fear. He put the board in between himself and the shark, fending it off with multiple punches.

Thankfully, Fanning got away unscathed; he was shaken up, but in one piece. However, the attack didn’t keep him down for too long. Shortly after the incident, he was back in the water. “I got itchy feet sitting on the couch after 10 days of not surfing. Sure it was scary but I took it as a once in a lifetime thing. After 36 years that’s the only close encounter I’ve had and hopefully the last.” Spoiler alert: it wasn’t. While Fanning was surfing J-Bay in July of 2017 during a competition, there was another shark sighting. Although no attacks happened, he and another surfer were pulled from the water well in advance. The irony lied in the fact that this particular incident happened almost exactly two years after the 2015 encounter.

In 2016, Fanning decided to take some time off from the sport, choosing to compete in select competitions. After the attack in 2015, the loss of his brother in the latter part of the year and 14 straight years of touring called for some reflection. In this period, he learned a great deal. “I learnt to be a passenger in life. All my life I have tried to control everything and in that year, I finally let someone else drive. It was a great feeling and I learned a lot [through] observing others and myself.” In 2017, Fanning returned to competing, including the 2017 World Championship Tour.

At this point, it’s more than competition that brings him to the water. It’s a place for him to clear his head. “The ocean is so powerful in the fact that it has so much healing powers for so many things. Surfing will always be apart of my lifestyle for this reason,” he said.

As for the future, Fanning is looking forward to a book that he and photographer Corey Wilson have been working on. When it comes to spreading the good word about his passion, he gives this advice to anyone looking to learn how to surf: “Take your time, don’t rush and have fun.” Surfboard or not, that is a piece of advice we can all adhere to in all walks of life.

Gone Too Soon: If Fanning could surf with anyone, it would be the late Andy Irons. “Surfing with him was amazing. He would push you so much but also made it so fun, talking rubbish the whole time.”

Fanning’s Favorite Surf Spots

-Fiji
-Tahiti
-Hawaii
-The Gold Coast

Light It Up: When asked about his favorite time to paddle out, Fanning said “First light. When the world is quiet and the anticipation of what the day will bring is an amazing feeling.”

Mick Fanning@mfanno