This has been a sad week for die-hard surfing fans, with 3 x World Champion Mick Fanning taking to social media to announce his retirement from the WSL Tour.
The 36 year is still on the top of his game, ending the 2017 season with a 12th ranking, which has left many wondering: why now?
“I feel like I’ve just lost the drive to compete day-in day-out now,” says Mick. “It’s been something I’ve been doing for 17 years, and even before that through QS and Juniors, and I feel that I just can’t give it 100 per cent anymore. I’m just not enjoying it as much as I was in the past. I still love surfing, and I’m still super excited by it, but I feel that’s there’s other paths for me to take at this stage in my life.”
And fair enough really, the bloke has earned a break. Fanning has been through it all in his 20 year career. He has overcome personal tragedy, career-threatening injury, an infamous shark attack and all whilst reaching surfing’s highest echelon three times.
"After posting [his retirement announcement] I had a shower, and got into bed. It was just another night. I didn't think people would care that much," said a humble Fanning. "I've had an amazing career. Sometimes it was good, sometimes it was bad, but I learnt so much, not just about myself but about everyone around me".
When speaking to Fanning, you get the sense that he's searching for a higher meaning, something beyond competitive surfing. Whilst his passion for the sport is clearly still there, his allusions to further discovery, exploration and personal growth signal a desire to explore beyond the confines of the competition jersey. "Never stop learning," Fanning repeats, a mantra that underpins this stage of his career transition.
It's this quest for growth, combined with superhuman modesty, that has been instrumental in Fanning’s path to greatness, a journey that has incorporated all the attributes of a true champion.
Mick first joined the World Tour in 2002, after winning his first CT event as a wildcard entry at the 2001 Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach. It was a win that pushed him up into the elite levels of surfing, and a moment that put his name on the map as a man who was going to make Teahupo'o sized waves in professional sport.
In 2004, after only two years of being on the World Tour, Mick sustained a career threatening injury while surfing in the Mentawais, tearing his hamstring off the bone and putting him out of the water. His comeback to the Tour six months later was a stirring win in front of 20,000 fans at his home break, Snapper Rocks, and set the tone of resilience that would underscore his career.
His incredible 2007 season saw Mick usurp a dominant Kelly Slater for his first world title. Followed closely by a second title in 2009, Mick clawed his way from nowhere to catch runaway ratings leader, Joel Parkinson (one of his closest mates and now business partner). His third title in 2013 again came against reported rival Slater, and cemented his place among the sport's greats.
“We definitely had a rivalry, in and out of the water,” Fanning said of the Slater rivalry. "There have been times when we battled, and times where we celebrated," he admitted before summing up their complicated relationship with trademark Fanning humility. “In my eyes, he’s the greatest athlete of all time.”
Fanning's appeal extends beyond the sport of surfing, and he became a household name worldwide in 2015 after fending off a great white shark on live television while surfing in the final at South Africa's J-Bay. The footage of the incredible incident went viral, sending shockwaves through the surfing community and beyond.
Over the course of his career Mick has been through more challenges than most of us could imagine. He’s seen both professional triumph and personal tragedy under the scrutiny of the public eye, and worked through injuries that would have ended others’ careers.
“After so many years on tour, it’s been so fun,” says Mick. “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.”
While the WCT will certainly miss Fanning’s signature style and dry wit on the WCT, the sporting legend is optimistic about the future of competitive surfing without his presence on Tour.
"It's an exciting time. The talent that's out there is phenomenal, and what the kids are doing these days is next level. Things that we never dreamed of. I truly love watching them do it. It's exciting to see where these kids are taking the sport."
Fans still have a month to catch Mick in action, on home turf at the Quiksilver Pro in Queensland, before Mick’s final professional wave at next month’s Rip Curl Pro in Bells Beach. “I’ve always had in mind that my last event on Tour was going to be Bells. That’s basically where I started my career, it was my first ever CT win, and I feel really connected down there.”
Whilst still tight lipped on the details of future projects, Fanning's retirement has opened up his schedule to work on pet projects such as his Balter Brewering Company, MF Surfboards, and creative collaborations with RedBull (more surfing under the Northern Lights?.... "Why not"). "I'm just going to keep dreaming," joked Mick when summing up his plans for the immediate future.
Fanning has created a legacy that is sure to inspire future generations of surfers, and with his new sense of freedom and drive for growth, one thing is for certain: this won't be the last we see of Mick Fanning.