Mick Fanning is a three-time surfing world champion. He twice pipped the legendary Kelly Slater to the season-ending number one spot in some of the most exciting competitive surfing ever seen. He is a big supporter of the sport’s elevation to Olympic status. Oh, and he is also the guy who fought off a Great White shark attack in the middle of competition.
Let’s deal with the shark first, it is hard not to. It was the 2015 Jeffreys Bay Open Finals in South Africa, a major stop on the World Surf League (WSL) Championship Tour. Fanning was in the water, two minutes into his final against fellow Australian Julian Wilson, when a Great White came at him. Fanning was briefly pulled under before lashing out in desperation. The shark eventually broke his leash and Fanning swam for his life.
“I can’t do an interview these days without someone mentioning sharks,” Fanning said, with a mixture of amusement and resignation.
Remarkably, the Australian was back in the water within a week and 12 months later he recorded a truly life-affirming victory back at Jeffreys Bay. Slightly less heart-warming was the recent footage showing Fanning once again being pulled from the water in Jeffreys Bay as a three-metre Great White passed underneath him during this year’s WSL stop.
Understandably, the 36-year-old was delighted to recently be associated with a different kind of creature, as the Australian public voted to name a newly-discovered water spider after their favourite surfing son.
I’m a big sports fan and I always enjoy watching the Olympics so I can’t wait to see what kind of performances and pressure we see with medals up for grabsMick Fanning
“It was a bizarre piece of news to receive,” Fanning said. “It’s refreshing to talk about another critter. I've only seen photos of it but it can be found just a short drive from my house so at some stage I’ll go for a mission and try to find one in the wild.”
Back to the sport he has served with such distinction for the past 14 years. Fanning was over the moon when he heard that surfing will be on the programme in Tokyo in 2020.
“I’m a big sports fan and I always enjoy watching the Olympics so I can’t wait to see what kind of performances and pressure we see with medals up for grabs,” said the man who was champion surfer in 2007, 2009 and 2013.
At 36 and currently sitting outside the top 10 of the WSL Tour ranking, Fanning is not certain of exactly how he wants to be involved, he just knows he has to be there.
“I guess I wouldn’t completely rule it out (competing in 2020) but there’s so much talent coming through the ranks at the moment and my guess is that by 2020 there will be better prospects for medals for Australia,” he said. “If that’s the case I’d love to assist an Aussie team in a coaching role.”
There would surely be no-one better for the phalanx of elite Australian surfers – the nation currently boasts the leaders of both the men’s (Matt Wilkinson) and women’s (2016 world champion Tyler Wright) ranking lists – to learn from.
Interestingly, Fanning is adamant that it is the Olympic movement itself that has a lot to learn from surfing.
“Obviously the Olympic audience is massive so hopefully it will attract new fans to the WSL. But I actually think surfing will have a really positive impact on the Olympics too,” he said. “It’s such a unique sport, there’s really nothing like it. Not too many sports pit athletes against nature the way surfing does.”
After his own brush with nature, Fanning took much of 2016 off, his first time away from the WSL tour in nearly a decade-and-a-half. His choice of activity is indicative of the extraordinary hold this sport has on its converts.
“Surfing is such a unique sport in that when you step away from competition all you really want to do is go surfing,” said the man who spent part of last year surfing in Norway under the Northern Lights. “Sometimes the trips are scheduled as sponsorship obligations but most of the time we’re all out there looking for some quality surf.”
For the uninitiated, Fanning tries to delve a little deeper into the obsessive nature of many of his fellow surfers.
“The feeling you get floating across a lump in the ocean on a surfboard is really hard to explain but once you experience it, something clicks,” he said. “You want to do it again so you can ride different parts of the wave, take on new locations, improve your read on the ocean, experiment with equipment and test yourself in bigger swell.
“I think it’s the evolution of your own surfing that becomes addictive. It doesn’t matter what level you’re at, you feel that progression and it’s incredibly rewarding.”
Despite being arguably the most famous surfer in the world right now, Fanning remains unsure as to whether his future lies in or out of the water.
“I felt the hunger for competition when the tour kicked off (in 2017) but to be honest I’m feeling a little caught in-between at the moment. I love competing but I’m also being drawn to life beyond the tour,” he
“I’m committed to the 2017 season but I’ll reassess at the end of the year.”
Either way, we’ll see him in Tokyo.