Mick Fanning revisits his past and looks toward his future in Ireland.
Photos courtesy Rip Curl
After a whirlwind 2016 in which Mick had a close encounter with a shark at Jeffrey’s Bay, separated from his wife and lost a brother, he decided it was time to take a sabbatical from the world tour. It was time to reset, get back to the basics and get to know himself again. He spent the year travelling the globe, venturing to places he’d only dreamed of in the past… During that time, it only made sense that he returned to his roots – the land of the Irish. Because as you’re reading this, he’s facing one of the hardest choices of his life – will he return to tour in 2017, or will he hang up his jersey forever?
But this is special. This is the penultimate day of the Meo Rip Curl Pro in Portugal, andthere is a world title race afoot. John John has an outside chance to clinch the title,provided he makes the final and Jordy doesn’t win the contest. Which is interesting initself, but not what caught my attention. What caught my attention is that Mick Fanning,a fixture in the last decade’s world title races, and who is taking a gap year to decide if heeven wants to compete again, is upstairs. He excused himself 20 minutes ago to “take anap.”
Taaake a naaap…
Nice try, champ. The fact that I can hear the webcast means he can’t sleep, can’t sleepbecause he is invested in the race, invested in the race ‘cause he misses it — the jerseys,the performance, the pressure — and so maybe, just maybe, this is a clue to the presentlyunsolvable puzzle called The Future Of Mick Fanning.
I must confirm. I tip-toe up the stairs, heart pumping like a cop on his first raid. Thump-thump. Top of the stairs. Thump-thump, thump-thump. Down the hall, floorboardscreaking. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump. I reach the room and peek aroundthe corner and -– he’s fast asleep. In the bed next to him, Irish grommet Gearoid Mcdaidis under the covers, phone raised above his head. He gives me a nod, then returns hisfocus to the webcast.
John John beats Michel Bourez and Adriano de Souza with a 16.33 heat total, andadvances directly to the quarterfinals. From Mick’s side of the room, Joe Turpel’s voiceis joined by a light snore.
Remember the Comfortably Numb trip? Where we went to a frozen northern land androde glacier waves and real waves, too? That happened right after Mick walked off thebeach at Bells Beach. He was missing Margarets, starting his sabbatical because, as Iwrote in that story, “After a rollercoaster 2015 that included contest wins, a shark attack,a marital separation and the death of his brother amidst a world title race, he figured hehad met his drama limit for the decade.”
The year off was supposed to be an exploration, of himself and life outside a jersey, tosee if competition was still quenching his surfing thirst. Or, if it was maybe time to retireand do something new — video trips, make beer, save the elephants
After Comfortably Numb, I would have bet big money that he wouldn’t retire. He’d betoo bored, I thought. And the structure that contests provide cannot be overstated — theonly thing worse than having to be somewhere is having nowhere to be at all. How manyfreesurf trips could he go on? Mick is a competitor. Didn’t he have more to accomplishon tour? Another world title, perhaps?
But today, here in Ireland, I’m not so sure. After seven days, 950 miles, 10 surfs, 43drinks, eight Irish sing-alongs, and a few heart-to-hearts, I must say, he seems genuinelycontent. So, what is next for Mick Fanning? What direction will he travel in 2017?Forward — and that’s about all we can say for sure.
People probably look at it and think it was last year that prompted this [year off] when it actually wasn’t. It was something that had been building for two or three years, and I think that the events from last year were the final nail in the coffin. Like, “Just take a break, go do you for a minute. Fill up your fun tank.” Because I got to the end of and, once I finally got home from Pipe, I just had nothing. I was totally empty.
I often try and help other people because I always feel like I’m in a place where I can do that, but this time, I couldn’t even pick myself up. Something had to change. Just to be out of the spotlight and outside of my comfort zone, be in places where I wasn’t getting looked at. Because it felt like people were looking at me going, “Is he OK?” They don’t always have to say something, you can just tell by how people are looking at you. And I don’t need to be reminded of it everyday, because I am thinking of it anyway. But when you walk down the street in Dublin and not a soul knows who you are, you’re just a passing person. And that’s really refreshing.Mick
It’s our first morning in Ireland and Mick’s doing 75 mph along a narrow, windy, stone-walled road. It’s 5am. Still dark. We’re driving three hours to a wave-rich region in the north, trying to get there at first light. Mick handles the oversized van with a confidence he brings to most things he does in life. I feel safe. I doze for a bit. I awake to Mick’s voice.
“How’d you guys sleep?” He asks us (photographer Corey Wilson, filmer Nick Pollet and me). We’re on a wider road now, and the first light of day is forming a dim dome to our east.
We all slept fine.“I had the weirdest dream,” he says.“What was it?” I ask.“I was at a comp, I don’t know where the event was, it felt like a city, New York or something,” he takes a sip from his water bottle. “I don’t know if I lost the heat or what, all I knew was that I had to get out of there. Just grab all my stuff and leave. But every time I went back to my locker there was something more to clear out. Obviously there were boards and wetsuits, but then there were like, [dress] suits and other luggage, just weird stuff that I would never take to the beach. I just wanted to sneak out and disappear, but cameras kept following me and I was like, ‘Just go away…’”
A clear message from his subconscious? Entertaining nonsense that I’ll interpret for this story’s benefit? Regardless, the relative anonymity that Mick’s experienced has certainly been a perk of his year off. More space to live and think and grow, uninterrupted.
As we analyze Mick’s dream, the sun creeps skyward and the Irish pastures turn from black to a vibrant green. In the grass: cows lie down, horses graze, sheeps are spray painted with double digits, a crude form of livestock ID. Going ‘round a round about, Mick sees a white horse. We stop to pet it. Do we still have that apple in the van? We do.Mick feeds the white horse the green apple and we get back in the car. We drive.
Gearoid Mcdaid, local ripper and Mick’s newly minted Rip Curl teammate, meets us at aleft slab. There are a few guys out, a few guys checking it, and the waves are absolutely pumping. Four-to-six-feet and perfectly groomed tubes. We watch two sets, suit up and paddle out.
Mick chats with the ever-expanding local pack and only goes for one out of every 30waves or so. When he commits, nobody else paddles, and he gets deep backside barrels across a shallow reef. On land, a trickle of humans has turned into a flood, and dozens of people line the cliff, watching. Gearoid will later say he’s never seen so many people there.
I am the first one out of the water, and as I change from my suit, I see a car racing down the residential street. The driver slams his breaks and reverses, parallel parking like avalet on New Year’s Eve. He jumps out, slams his door and runs — literally runs —toward the cliffs. When he passes me, as if to justify his haste, he says, “Heard Mick Fanning’s out there.”
didn’t have to go and chase all these different things. And while I was still busy, I was busy doing things that I wanted to do.
you lose your heat, it’s like, “OK, when am I getting home? What do I have to do for the next event, how do I get my body right for that event? Do I book accommodation? Are my boards ready? Is my mindset right?” But now, I can actually stop and be more present.And that was one thing I’ve learned — is that you can just be here. You can be here today and deal with tomorrow when it comes
“I forgot I had to save enough energy to climb back up,” he says as he collapses in a heap at the changing plateau. “This is one of the most beautiful setups I’ve ever seen.”
That night, we join the local crew at the pub for Guinness and stew. It’s Friday. The placeis packed. We sit at a long table and eat and drink to our heart’s delight. During a breakbetween bites, I lean over to Mick to talk over the hum of the bar. “I noticed you doingthis thing at the right…” I say, and I reenact the motorboat exhale. “Is that some sort ofspecial breathing technique?”
“Nah, mate,” he says. “I think I was just nervous.”—
What do I miss about tour? Just friends, really. You travel with these people for so long and you ride highs and lows with your competitors, but they are also your family, and the people that pick you up and help you out when you’re on the road. And you don’t miss everyone. [laughs] But that’s a trend, speaking to older people that have retired — they miss their friends. But there are a whole lot of other people out there, too.
Boards are packed, wetsuits are dry. We are in Ireland’s far north and we aren’t lookingfor waves. We are here to surprise Mick’s family, a dozen or so aunts, uncles and cousinswho live next door in a small town above a craggy bay. Mick’s dad was born and raisedjust up the road. As we drive up the headland toward his godmother Barbara’s house, Iask why we didn’t call first.
“Well, we didn’t really know when we we’d be getting here…” Mick said. Then he grins,“…but really, I just don’t think Barbara would have been able to hear me on the phone.”
10 of Mick’s relatives are in Barbara’s living room. To say this is a small town isan understatement.
• Barbara asks Mick a dozen question about his family, his trip here, the last timehe visited, etc. At one point her cell goes off, a loud techno rhythm blares fromthe flip phone. Mick’s cousin leans over, “We had to change the ring tone so shecould hear it.”
• More tea, biscuits. Barbara disappears.
• Barbara busts through the living room door with a faded surfboard under her arm.Mick left it here last time he visited. We ask if she’s going surfing. She shushes usand wags her finger. We all laugh.
There are awkward silences, but Mick sits stoic through them all, forgoing every opportunity to say, “Welp, we should probably get going.” He’ll later tell me, “You don’t get that opportunity everyday, so it’s good to take the time to show them you appreciate them.”
That time and appreciation doesn’t stop with family. He Face times with friends from the road. He takes selfies with randoms on the street. He promotes other people’s agendas on his social accounts. Friends, acquaintances, strangers — they are all approached with respect, patience and intrigue. As 12-year-old Sabre Norris said on her Instagram,“Sometimes, when I ask adults questions they talk to me like I’m a baby. Mick never does. He talks to me like I’m an adult and gives me proper answers.” His ability to make someone’s day is as honed as his frontside carve and, dozens of times everyday, Mick has the opportunity to exclude or include, and he almost always includes. That’s rare for anyone, and nearly unheard of for someone with any inkling of fame.
It is this ability to effortlessly connect with people that makes me question his return to tour. Because sure, he has a family of a couple hundred people that he sees on the CT, but there are 7.4 billion people on earth. That’s a lot of selfies to take. A lot days to make.
Which isn’t to say the tour is good and free surfing is evil, or vice versa. But it’s thepolarizing nature of the decision that seems to fit with his zodiac label. Here he’s faced with a fork in the road, equipped with vehicles that are suited for each. The choice has always been solely his own, trouble was, he wasn’t in a place to make a clear decision at the start of the year. He’d been through a lot. He had to rebuild. And it’s only now that he’s coming to the point where he can make that decision from a place of strength.
took a while, but…I’m not running from issues anymore. It’s like, OK, I can deal with shit now.—
It’s our final day and we are back in Dublin. John John won the title yesterday. We weren’t watching. We were nursing a hangover from a night out at the northern-most pub in Ireland. An evening of drinking and singing and banjo playing with the local crew.Last night we went out in Dublin, caught a comedy show and heard some more live music.
“It’s John,” he says. As in, recently-crowned world champ John John Florence. “I textedhim yesterday and he just wrote me back.”
“What’d he say?” I ask.
“Umm…” Mick swipes his finger across the screen and reads quickly, almost bashful,“He said, ‘Thanks for the text. I’m so stoked. Couldn’t be happier. Thanks for inspiringme. I’ve learned a lot from watching you and can’t wait to learn more. Hope you’rescoring waves and enjoying the year.’”
“That’s awesome,” I say.
“Um…yeah…” Mick’s looking down, his wheels are turning. I don’t know what he’sthinking, but I know what I’m thinking — I wonder if John would have won if Mick hadbeen there. After a few moments, he looks up at me, “What were we talking aboutagain?”
Tonight we’ll see The Lumineers in concert. Tomorrow we’ll leave. Mick will go toLondon for a few days to rendezvous with Parko, Alain Riou and Ben Howard. Then he’ll go to Amsterdam for a week. By himself. He’ll work on a book project, he’ll wander the city, he’ll be invisible. Then he will go to Norway to surf beneath the northern lights. Two weeks later, I’ll bump into him in the Dubai airport on his way home, theplace where he’s going to “sit with it” and make the right decision. He’s pale and unshaven. He buys me a coffee and we talk for while. He doesn’t mention the tour and I don’t ask. He just wants to know how I’m doing.