Mick Fanning announced his retirement two days ago. “It’s time,” he wrote. The final curtain will come down at Bells.
The news didn’t really shock. It’s been coming for a while. Hell, I called he was going to retire on the beach after winning the world title at Pipeline four years ago. Then he almost retired into the mouth of a great white shark at Jeffrey’s Bay. Then he lost his brother and the world title in consecutive days later that year, and, well, where do you even go from there? How does any heat fizz the blood or create an ache in the chest after all of that? But Mick was so blinkered for so long that it took these unlikely and unfortunate events to jolt him from his rigid obsession with surfing heats and for him to look for meaning beyond colored Lycra.
They were the emotional triggers for Mick to move beyond the Tour. The performance trigger may have come last year at Bells when Mick had John John on toast, only for the Hawaiian to launch and land impossibly into the teeth of an east wind. With just two turns John John rendered Mick’s two decades of Bells dominance obsolete.
Mick Fanning announced his retirement two days ago and unless Kelly steals White Lightning’s thunder and announces today that he’s building a wavepool on the moon it’ll be the biggest surfing news in a while and rightly so. While the Instagram tributes flooded in overnight, The Festival of Mick will continue down to Bells and beyond. His career will be celebrated and analyzed over the coming month, but here’s some immediate thoughts on Mick and his surfing legacy.
I don’t buy too much into the whole blue-collar world title line, to the characterization that Mick won his world titles in the gym, and that world titles post-Mick were the result of hard work more than some kind of divine selection. While he’d rebuilt himself physically after his hamstring injury in 2004, the transformation of Mick Fanning into a world champion was mostly all between the ears. It was more a psychological rebuild than a physical one. The real strength was in the consistency and repeatability of his surfing. Mick delivered. You could count on him. Always.
He’s also had to battle the horrid, hard-partying creature living inside him, Eugene. That took some work. As Mick described it to me recently, “Eugene was a rebellion against myself,” a rebellion against the program, a rebellion against the discipline, and a rebellion against the one-dimensional heat winner he was for a while there. Eugene still escapes from time to time, but his manifestations have to be carefully managed so as not to occur around camera phones, politicians or mainstream sponsors. He’s expected to play the statesman role today whether he likes it or not.
I think I remember the WSL’s Dave Prodan describing him to me in an email as the poster boy for “Australian triumphalism,” and for almost 20 years that’s what he’s been. Mick flew the flag. You can only imagine how many titles Kelly would be on now without Mick there (Kelly and Mick…there’s a story in itself). In time, however, Mick has gone from a Cooly Kid, to a hero to bogan Aussies in white-rimmed speed dealer sunnies, to now, after a few titles and a very public shark attack, transcending borders and belonging to the world. Post-modern Mick. In many ways he’s filled the role of his good friend, Andy Irons. Mick’s the guy who remembers your name. He remembers your kid’s names. He’ll remember the last conversation you had and pick up where you left off the year before. And he’ll do this over and over, year after year, all over the world. No wonder Instagram melted.
In saying that I’m also happy he’s going. Not that I don’t want him around–the Tour will be worse for not having him there–but the time is right. His surfing is still at level where he can challenge and push himself in quality waves, and what’s he got to gain by hanging around the Tour in a slow decline while kids Kerrupt flip over his head? He could keep on winning events for the next five years, but why would he? What would any of it even mean?
The Tour will miss him. He’s the gravity at the core of that stuffy little planet. Last December in Hawaii he spent a morning organizing T-shirts for the impending retirements of Josh Kerr and Bede Durbidge. He’s invested back into the Tour in a different way to Kelly. When Kelly proposed an elite rebel tour, Mick stood up for the backmarkers. It’s his style. He belongs to the people and even in retirement he’s still looking after them. His spot on Tour, when he gives it up after Bells, will go to Kommetjie, South Africa’s Mikey February.
Mick’s got a favorite saying when his mates ask what he’s up to. He replies, “Drinking piss and doing f–k-all.” He owns a brewery, so the first one looks a fair chance, but in retirement he’ll be busier than he’s ever been. In between all that, though, I hope he gets to live and surf on his own terms. Go on surf trips without cameras. Grow his hair out long (picture it for just a second, please). Go and have some snowy-haired little kids. Inhabit a world beyond the World Tour. All of it nothing less than he deserves.