I'm not quite sure what to expect when I pull up to Mick Fanning's house. It's been three months to the day since his retirement from competitive surfing and he's been strangely quiet. For months--no, wait, make that years--before Fanning called time on his luminous career, it seemed like no other surfer in the world
even existed. It was all Mick, all the time. The champ went out in a flash of shark teeth, an emotionally-wrought day at Pipeline and, ultimately, the warm admiration of surfers worldwide.
But now? As I walk up the driveway I picture walking in and finding the threetime World Champion sprawled on the couch among pizza boxes, beer cans and trophies in a dark, depressive funk, contemplating his waning starshine, his plunge into the abyss of anonymity, the sports star crash and the inevitable physical decline, 30 pounds overweight, unshaven, wearing stained sweat pants, binge-watching "East Bound and Down," listening to Kenny Powers deliver his famous monologue that twangs the strings of every recently-retired Major League champion.
"It's time Kenny Powers accepts the glory days of his life are now behind him. Just like Neil Armstrong, I went to space and now I'm back and nobody gives a shit. Therefore I will now settle into this new life. From this moment forward Kenny Powers is just like everyone else. Normal. Not special. No hopes or
dreams. Pretending to be happy when he's really super sad. Just an average guy with exceptional hair. Nothing more and nothing less. From this moment forward the People's Champion, the Man With the Golden Dick, that Kenny Powers, is now dead and he will never pick up a baseball ever, fucking, again. Chapter Two: The Next Chapter."
Mick greets me at the door. "Let's surf," he says. He's not in sweats, he's not 30 pounds heavier, but he hasn't shaved in weeks. There is something else different about him, though. It's the way he's walking. His foot's off the gas. He's shuffling about lazily like he's got nowhere in particular to be. It's the chief form of locomotion on the Gold Coast, but it's not him--at least not how we know him. The cowboy-legged hustle is gone. Mick, as it turns out, has nowhere in particular to be.
And the house. The house is quiet. It's just Mick and Harper, his dog. The house is usually fizzing with life--surfers from around the world, friends who've been kicked out by their girlfriends, party guests who've woken up in the cactus garden the following day. Two years ago the street was lined with TV vans and reporters, all camped outside trying to get a word with the world's most-celebrated shark-attack survivor. Today there's not a single car. We drive to Snapper and even Snapper's quiet, and while ol' White Lightning isn't exactly throwing thunderbolts, he takes the sets, connects the dots and hangs five past Little Marley.
Back at Mick's place after surfing he pulls the tab on a beer and slurps. The fridge is well stocked and it should be. He owns the brewery. It's Friday afternoon but that comes as news to Mick. He knows he's got to be in America next week and Africa the week after, but that's as much detail as he's working with. He's not concerning himself with much, actually. He's in perfect limbo. He's moved on from the Tour, but hasn't yet moved on to whatever's next. "Chapter Two: The Next Chapter," is yet to be written, but you can already see the makings of a good story coming together.
Are you bored yet?
Nah, not at all. I've been doing all kinds of different stuff, and even on the down days I'm looking at swell charts all day. Am I going here? Am I going there? It's been so good surfing places with no one around.
You've been conditioned to the rhythms of the Tour for so long, does your body still think it's on Tour? Like, when an event is on do you subliminally find yourself getting edgy?
Not really, but I can definitely feel my body changing.
In what way? Getting fatter?
[Laughs.] I got so fat there for a while. At the start of the year I was so fat, the fattest I've ever been, so I had to strip that weight. Then when I went over for the Founders' Cup I came home and I was fat again. Now that I'm surfing a lot I'm good, but probably the biggest change I've felt is psychological. I just don't walk around with anxiety every day. When you're on Tour, you're always thinking about the next week--you need boards ready, you need flights, you need somewhere to stay. You need to be somewhere. You're always mentally 10 steps ahead of where you are, and it's great not having that anxiety. I wake up in the morning and if I get waves, cool, if I miss waves, cool. I'm happy either way. I'm actually enjoying surfing a lot more. I'm doing things more on feeling than on thought.
I was chatting with Brad Gerlach the other day and he mentioned that if he was coaching Joel he'd have advised him five years ago to grow his hair long and ride a black twin fin. A bit of a reinvention. Are you about to reinvent yourself?
I've got a twin fin, but I can't grow my hair out. It's too thick and I'd go blind. I'd be like one of those sheep that goes missing in the back paddock and doesn't get shorn for two years. But Joel would be messed up with that hair. He'd have the devil's peak at the front and the mullet at the back. It'd be like going back to 2002 when he actually did look like that.
But are you sensing a reinvention in your own surfing and the way you see it?
I think that's always been something I've been into: riding different boards and being able to draw different lines. I find when I ride different equipment and come back to a normal board I enjoy surfing more as a result. But I'm not as scared to take risks anymore. If I'm riding the wrong board, I'm not going, "Oh no, I've blown a whole session." Surfing with Mason is rubbing off on me. I'm happy doing something that looks wild and weird, as long as it feels good.
Can you ride a log?
Yeah, I actually ride one just out the front here a lot when the waves are small. I'm happy to ride whatever. I have this idea for a late '70s single fin, modernizing it a bit and creating it just for tubes. Making it full up front and pinny down back.
It was funny how your contest surfing was often characterized--that it was pragmatic, that you were surfing to the system. It was never painted as artistic, although if you look back to that wave in the Bells final against Kelly in 2012 and imagine it in slow motion, in black and white, without the jersey, then it suddenly belongs in a film. Is that what you're chasing now? Surfing that looks and feels beautiful?
It's funny, I don't look at waves as wholes anymore. I see them as sections and I just want to do the best thing I can on this section. I'm not concerned with what people are thinking about me. I just go surfing for the sake of going surfing. That surf we just had, I did ten hang fives because I felt like it. It goes back to being in the public eye and the lens they see you through. They're thinking I'm being strategic, but my job was to get the most out of a wave, and that's how I won. And people drew the bow and said, "Well, that was Mick." That's who I was. People don't see me paddling out in front on a soft top and flowing with life and I don't think there are many people who show exactly who they are in a contest...except maybe for Mason. Actually one of my favorite people to watch surf is Alex Knost.
It's hard to look away from, huh.
He's got amazing wave instincts and looks like no one else remotely, and the thing about him is that you never see two waves ridden the same. I went on a trip to Mexico, and this was right in the middle of my competitive years, and I was totally infatuated with him. I started wondering whether a forehand layback in the tube would score in a heat.
There's never been a more interesting time in surfing than right now and you're on the sideline for it. Do you feel removed from it? Do you feel you've still got a role to play on the big stage?
I feel like I'm in the best position possible because I'm totally neutral. I just think it's all really, really cool. The wavepool race right now is incredible. People can actually go and ride these things in the middle of nowhere, and the biggest confirmation for me that it will improve surfing is Albee Layer going to Waco and then getting home and doing a 540 alley-oop.
A lot of surfers have had their belief systems challenged by the wavepool. Have you got any ideological issues with it? Are we playing God by creating our own surf?
Not at all. One thing I find is that surfers as a group are scared of change. Extremely scared. They don't like to change the way people surf a wave, but as soon as someone does, it's like, "That's so cool." You have that little group of people saying that it sucks and it's been that way since day dot. My experience going to the river wave in Munich, the Eisbach, was that you get in there and you look at these kids and think there's no way they can surf, but then they jump in the river and rip. And it's a completely different surf culture that's sprung up, miles from the coast. The pool's going to take surfing--especially the guys doing all the tricks--to a whole new level. And if you don't like the way surfing is getting bigger, go disappear into the jungle. There are waves everywhere. Go surf one.
Kelly had some nice words for you when you retired. How would you characterize that relationship over that time?
It was up and down, to be totally honest. Competitively, he totally brought the best out of everyone. He still does. And then I think on a personal level, the time we sit down away from competition, he's really genuine and he does care. I think he's been a superstar for so long, he's had so many "yes" people around him and I think he figured it out early on that with us we just didn't care about that. We were like, "When you compete, compete, but come and have a beer and talk shit with us afterwards." It's been fun getting him on the beers and talking rubbish with him over the years.
What about the story of you guys here, the night you were partying after Wilko won Snapper. First you wouldn't let Kelly in the house, then when you let him in you locked him in the pantry with you guys and conducted an intervention. Did you ask him, "Why are you so weird?"
What happens in the pantry, stays in the pantry. Kelly knows where he stands with me, just not with Eugene, I think. Seriously, if Eugene was a real person I wouldn't go anywhere near him either. I have to wake up and deal with the shit he's caused the night before.
You did an interview the other night with Andrew Johns, one of the best footballer's Australia has ever seen, but a guy famous for writing himself off and having a good time and just owning it. That's been you at certain points. We're always saying we wished we had more real characters in surfing these days. What do you think?
I'd like to see more character in surfing, for sure. There's a time and a place, but that's the thing--at the end of the day we're all human. I think the media scares people. I know I was scared by it. I was at a point when I wouldn't do anything fo fear of it popping up in the press. I dreaded the phone ringing the morning after a big night because I'd be listening to it ring thinking, "What have I done?" [On cue Mick's phone rings.] I think the scrutiny any time someone does something different is too great. They're ready to pounce and they paint it any way they want. But I feel some surfers are fearful of what happens when it's reported, and that was me for a long time. Then you retire and you don't care.
How much freer are you to speak your mind?
I sort of found that in the last couple of years of being on Tour. I always spoke my mind, but I feel I can be more honest now without more backlash.
Joel's just announced his retirement. You've been such a double act ever since you were kids it's hard to think of one of you without the other. How have things changed in your relationship? How do you maintain a childhood friendship through all of that?
Growing up we were like brothers, competing and fighting and that sort of carried through until 2009 [when the two fought out the world title.] I felt the change then, and then when he didn't win that year and I did, there was this background tension. It was fair to say we split. We'd see each other and hang out but it wasn't like it used to be, and it wasn't till he won the title in 2012 that it changed. It was a really tense period, then 2013 felt like back to old times, but something more. In 2013 I was in the mix for the title and he was like this big brother for me. I remember we went to Cloudbreak just before I had to surf against Kelly at Pipe, and Kelly showed up. Joel was losing it, laughing so much that it defused all the tension. I think in the last three years we've spent a lot more time with each other and I guess we've reverted back to being kids again, when we hung shit on each other and just laughed. It's been cool. He talked me into coming back after the shark thing, and since then me and him have been drunk together more than we have since we were young.
One surfer you take life cues from.
There's two. They both helped me a lot on those dark days and the good days. Taylor Knox has been that guy because he was that little bit older--he'd been through a lot of things I'd gone through. He's one of the first people to give you sound advice, drop a truth bomb, and he won't bullshit you. That's the same with Parko too. We're siblings pretty much, we'll annoy the shit out of each other, but when something happens we'll be there, side by side. And he's not scared to play devil's advocate and say, "No." In our world you need that. Plenty of people say "Yes," not many have the balls to say "No," or "Grow up."
Do you watch the shark video at all?
Just in every interview I have to do for TV. I never watch it myself. I know it happened, I know how it ended and I've dealt with it. It took me about six months to go through it all and that was hard because I had media at the front gate here and all I wanted to do was get on with life, go surfing, walk down the street. That was the start of when I was fearful of the media and the whole intrusion into my life. I'd walk the dog on the beach here and the next day open up the paper and there's a paparazzi photo of me. It wasn't a fun time. With the actual shark thing, I watched it, dealt with it, got through it. I had a little bit of PTSD and was hearing splashes around me in the water. A little backwash or anything it'd really freak me out and even now I hear them. On the upside, if I go surfing now I'll see everything around me. Everything. I get to see amazing things now I never used to see. But it's all done. If I'm surfing somewhere sharky and I don't feel right in the water, I'll just go in.
Did you feel through those couple of years, with the shark and then losing your brother on the day you surfed for the world title, that the universe was messing with you?
I just look at life as peaks and valleys, and a friend said to me once that a human can deal with anything--it's just how they choose to. I was dealing with it. I was going to go through all this and my comfortable place was actually competing back then. It wasn't therapy, it was just my comfortable place. I knew what to expect from people and I could control it. But getting to the end of that year, I remember sitting here at home and I had nothing. Christmas rolled around and I'm sitting here with my family and friends and I'm just sitting here with nothing. I was a shell. It took me a while to process it all and get to a place where I was full again. I'd been driving on empty for a long time. That 2015 world title, I seriously just walked away from it and never gave it a second thought. Fuck it, I didn't care. I walked off that beach and I didn't give a fuck. No disrespect to Adriano, but I just didn't care and I think that was also a tell tale sign that it was time to start a new chapter.
Do you believe in a spirit world?
I do. I feel like your energy stays here on earth, and I feel like there's parts of different souls that go to different people.
You're sounding pretty Hindu.
I'm not religious at all, but I feel like I see different things in different people that remind me of someone else who's passed away. My niece often reminds of my brother, Sean. She's in her own world doing her own thing and nothing fazes her. It's so cool and it's so Sean. I see different things in different people. I don't know if maybe whoever's making people keeps recycling bits, but that's what I feel. I feel people's souls live on in different ways, and the reason I believe that is that there are times I feel my brothers are pulling my strings. I'm halfway through doing something and I realize, "That's what Sean would do," or, "That's what Pete would do." When I feel that energy, I try and be as quiet as possible and just go with it. They come with you and they show up when you want them there and when you need them. And that's the other thing: when people lose something or someone and everyone around them is telling them to be strong, I hate that. I hate that so much. I believe the opposite. Feel it, acknowledge it, and know what you're going through. I felt like I suppressed Sean's death for a long, long time. Being a young kid, I guess I was easily influenced and everyone was telling me to be strong. I honestly believed I needed to be Iron Man. Everyone is telling me to be strong, and I'm looking at my brothers getting out of control, blind, drinking their way through it and I knew something wasn't right. It took me a long time, probably 10 years to deal with it and let down those walls and be emotional with it. I hate that "be strong" shit. Feel it, live it, be in it. That person gave you so much--so many emotions--why are you shutting that out?
Photos by Corey Wilson.
[This interview originally appeared in the September Issue. Subscribe to the print or digital versions here.]