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Mick Fanning Interview | Why the Former World Champion Took a Year Off From Contest Surfing

When Mick walks away, as with most things in his life, he sure doesn’t fuck about

Words by Ben Mondy

“Once I got to the end of 2015 I was just empty, I had nothing left in the tank. That year was obviously a tough one,” says three-times ASP World Surfing Champion Mick Fanning, slightly underplaying a 12-month period during which he’d been attacked by a great white, gone through a marriage break up, lost a second brother and just missed out on a World Title. “But for the three years before that, I’d also been in title races and that takes a lot out of you. I felt I just I couldn’t give anymore and I needed a break. I needed to walk away and fill up the tank.”

I was talking to Mick in Norway at the end of last year. It was 3pm, and the sky was as dark as ink. Outside a howling Arctic wind threatened to Wizard of Oz the wooden house into another dimension. Usually at that stage of the year he would have been focusing on Hawaii, either training for Pipe, or donning the singlet with the seething WQS masses at Haleiwa. When Mick walks away, as with most things in his life, he sure doesn’t fuck about.

“We paddled out for a surf under the Northern Lights…I was screaming like a schoolgirl”

“Just a few days ago I ran outside and it was snowing,” he recounted. “Then it cleared and there was this magical three-hour sunset, just as the waves got better and better. After a surf we had a fantastic dinner and a quick nap, then at midnight we paddled back out for a surf under the Northern Lights. It’s these kind of moments where you realise just how awesome it can be putting yourself in positions that would be impossible if you were on tour. I was literally screaming like a school girl.”

Mick Fanning surfing off Lofoten, Norway in November 2016. Credit: Red Bull Content Pool

The backend of 2016 saw plenty of moments like those for Fanning. After competing at Trestles in California, he caught the Red Eye up to Alaska. This was his second trip up there, but unlike the first, which featured glacier surfing with Mason Ho on a Rip Curl ‘Search’ trip, no boards were packed. Fanning travelled up to Bristol Bay on a trip for environmental group Wild Ark.  

“We checked out a chunk of land where a company plan’s to build the world’s largest open pit mine at the headwaters of two major river systems in the area,” said Fanning. “However these systems are responsible for 50 per cent of the world’s wild salmon, so it desperately needs protecting. At Wild Ark the aim is to buy land all around the world, leave it untouched and then create experiences for people that they can’t have anywhere else.”

“We were walking around seeing bear shit, and there was talk of wolves, so we were freaking out a little…”

While the rest of the tour were prepping for France, Mick was hopping on a float plane each morning and heading to a different river to fish for salmon, and then camping out under the Alaskan stars. “We were walking around seeing bear shit, and there was talk of wolves, so we were freaking out a little, but the place is so beautiful and so wild it’s incredible. It was new to me, but I’m learning a lot through Wild Ark and trying to find ways to help protect these type of places.”

Mick Fanning in Lofoten, Norway in November 2016. Credit: Red Bull Content Pool

“If we can get people up here we can create an experience that lasts a lifetime,” he continued, more animated. It’s obvious that the trip has had a big impact on him, being so different from his normal mission to find surf. “I mean I will never ever forget this last trip. At one stage Ronny Blakey who came along was just screaming out: ‘How good is the Earth!?’ at the top of his lungs. And a month or two down the track we are still texting and talking about it, so the experience stays with you. If I can influence others to experience that same thrill of nature then hopefully we can all make a difference.”

“If I can influence others to experience that same thrill of nature then hopefully we can all make a difference…”

Fanning has a long history with both environmental and social causes. He is a long-time ambassador for the Starlight Foundation, which offers dream trips for kids suffering with cancer, as well as now with Wild Ark. And over the last 10 years Fanning has donated both his time and money to a whole raft of charities, while taking great pains to stay out of the limelight.

“As surfers it’s pretty natural to have an interest in the ocean and the environment,” he said. “I’ve just been lucky in my position to have been offered some amazing opportunities by some people doing amazing work. It’s a privilege, really. There’s inspirational people out there doing the hard yards, I do bugger all really, just weigh in and help when I can.”

Mick Fanning surfing beneath the Northern Lights in Norway. Credit: Red Bull Content Pool

He is, of course, being modest, and it’s this unsung work that was a big part of the reason why he was an awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia earlier this year, Australia’s equivalent of an MBE. It was no surprise then that last year Fanning used to the time to immerse himself in different environments. His travels from Alaska to Africa to Norway further cemented his commitment to protecting the world’s natural places.

Of course it hasn’t all been serious business. Before Norway I had caught up with Fanning in London, just after he had scored epic waves in Ireland, the place of his father’s birth, and it was obvious that a good time was also very much on the agenda. “The highlight was the second night,” he smiled. “We were in a club and it was just before Halloween and every one was dressed up. Parko [Joel Parkinson] went upstairs to get some drinks and came back down 20 minutes later dressed head-to-toe in a full shark suit. He’d bought it off some guy who had worn it as his costume. He then snuck up behind me and scared the shit out of me. We all hit the deck, we were laughing so hard.”

Stories of partying with Calvin Harris and Taylor Swift in Las Vegas, of big nights in Dublin and other raucous evenings surfaced over those whiskies in Soho and I asked him if that too had been a bonus this year. Fanning in world title mode was so strict with his training regime, and so careful not to let his alter ego “Eugene” off the chain, that those type of evenings were few and far between.

Mick Fanning surfing off Lofoten, Norway in November 2016. Credit: Red Bull Content Pool

“The main difference is that I’ve been able to stop and be present with people,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking, well, if I have three beers then that will affect training the next day. So it was more about being there and if it felt right then do it, and if it didn’t, I’d cruise home. I’ve been just following my feelings at the time more, which is pretty cool.”

Amsterdam followed after London, however it wasn’t Red Light Districts or hash cafes that he was looking for, but a bit of time alone. His travels invariably involve a posse of at least three, often more, and for all his explorations to the furthest reaches of the globe, it was never done alone.

“Amsterdam was really mellow. I was on my own, so it gave me time to think about things,” Fanning says. “I just went and I was just me. I reconnected with myself and walked the streets with absolutely no plans and soaked it all up. I was anonymous and just doing whatever I wanted to do.”

Mick Fanning stoking the fire in Alaska. Credit: Kirstin Scholtz

Part of that contemplation was Mick trying to decide his next move, both personally and professionally. “I’ve been writing plans down and seeing how different things fit, but nothing is set in concrete. It’s hard to figure out. Once I do a pre-season and get back to a level of surfing that I’m truly satisfied with, I’ll have a better idea,” he said. “I do know that competing this year was very different. It felt light and that’s a feeling I’d love to incorporate if I go back. I’d aim to try and keep that light feeling and not get bogged down in the stress of it all.”

Last month I checked in with Mick again. He was back at home on the Gold Coast, and straight away I sensed a renewed focus, as if a switch had been flicked. He was training as hard as he ever had, the ankle injury had recovered, and his sabbatical Zen had been replaced by the famous Fanning competitive mindset.

“I’m raring to go, the ankle is sweet and I can’t wait to compete at Snapper,” he said. A few days later he announced he’d be competing full-time on the Championship Tour in 2017. “I think it’s the biggest group of legit title contenders we’ve ever seen on the tour ever and I want to be part of the race. I’m all in.”

Mick Fanning heading for a soul surf in Lofoten, Norway in November 2016. Credit: Red Bull Content Pool

However his year travelling and experiencing some of the world’s most fragile, and dramatic environments, have left an indelible mark on Fanning. “While I’m going to be doing everything I can to win another World Title, I’m going to try to keep some of the momentum and not forget what life can offer,” he said. “Last year was an incredible chance to go explore without plans and see where it led me. Getting out of my comfort zone has provided me with the biggest lessons and the most memorable experiences of my life. My tank is full, I’m ready for whatever comes next.”

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