Mick Fanning opens up about retirement, his career and what's next

By now you've heard the news; Mick Fanning announced his departure from the world tour. We'll have the pleasure of watching him surf his last heat at Bells Beach, where white lightning first began his competitive career in 2002. 
It's hard to articulate in words the career of Mick Fanning, but it's been nothing short of legendary. A roller coaster ride full of triumph, tragedy, three world title championships and so much more. I'll speak for all surfers everywhere in saying the competitive side of the sport will never be the same without Mick. 
If that point break he discovered last year is any indication of what the future holds, we know it will be full of barrels and good times; a phase of Mick's life we'll be following intently. 
While the surf world may have speculated on Mick's retirement, we never truly knew when it would happen and what was next for Mick. We'll erase all of your assumptions and give you this: a full interview with Mick, on everything from the motivation behind his retirement to his most challenging heats.
You’re still surfing at high level, why is now the time to wrap up an amazing career?

 I feel like my surfing’s still really good, so the main reason for me is I feel like I’ve just lost the drive to compete day in day out now. It’s been something I’ve been doing for 17 years, and even before that through QS and juniors, and because I feel 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 feel that’s there’s other paths for me to take at this stage in my life. That’s the biggest reason, it’s got nothing to do with my surfing ability or anything like that, it’s just personal drive.

 When did you really start to sense that you were getting close to the end of your career?

 I probably started having feelings about it through 2013/14 and definitely had them more in 2015, and always felt like there was times when I could have just walked away and been happy. By the end of 2015 I was just exhausted; I’d been in the title race for three years in a row and obviously had some things that popped up that year that took a toll on the old energy levels, but it wasn’t a knee jerk reaction to that year. Deciding to take six months off was a really scary decision, it took me a lot of time and courage to be ok with doing that. But it really paid off; once I started going and doing these different trips, exploring different parts of what surfing means to me, I found that other side of it much more enjoyable and a lot more fulfilling. Made me really want to go and keep chasing that. But I was then also fighting with thoughts of did I go too early, or have I left it too late, and was talking to Parko a bit at the end of 2016 and he’s like come back, come back and sort of got me fired up again. However, very early on in the piece in 2017 I was like yeah, this wasn’t for me anymore.

 Mick doing what Mick does best (Photo: Corey Wilson)

How did knowing 2017 was going to be your last year affect how you approached the season?

 I’d always been so one track minded with the way that I competed and the way that I applied myself, so 2017 felt like a year that I was there but I had more fun watching other people compete, more fun helping other guys on tour than what I did myself. I’d paddle out in heats and I really didn’t care, it was a bit like if I win, I win and if not then whatever; I just didn’t have that desire to go out there and just absolutely destroy someone. It was just different, and a lot of the time I felt like I was really manufacturing desire and it didn’t feel right to me. I focused more on really taking in what was happening at that time, rebuilding friendships that I’ve had over the years and on spending a lot more time with all those people in all those different places. I really enjoyed that part of it for sure, but at the end of the day I just felt like I was manufacturing desire that just wasn’t there anymore.

You’d made the decision that 2017 was going to be your last full year, but pipeline wasn’t where you were going to announce or surf your last event, what was the thinking behind that decision?

I’ve always had in mind that my last event on tour was going to be Bells. That’s where I started my career pretty much, it was my first ever CT win and I feel really comfortable down there. Obviously home is amazing, but I always feel a lot more pressure there, where I can get away a little bit more at Bells and be a lot clearer down there. Bells is just the place I feel really connected, and being the home of Rip Curl is a big part of it too.

What’s your motivation like for these last two events? You mentioned having to manufacture motivation in 2017, but how motivated are you to finish these last two events like you’d approached world title years?

Being my last two events, I know it’s my last two events, which is the difference for me. I always want to go and do my best, but the biggest goal for me is just to go and surf well, be present in those events and really soak it in, soak in the crowd and the atmosphere, and soak in the feelings of being there for the last time.

Lift off, somewhere very cold.. (Photo: Rip Curl)

Are you getting butterflies or anything about surfing these last two events?

No, not at all really! Going through my whole career there would be those anxious feelings that would come up, but to be truly honest, in 2017, that just didn’t happen. I’d just wake and go surf, and if my board wasn’t 100 per cent, I’d be like whatever, doesn’t matter, it didn’t really freak me out. I went through last year knowing that it was going to be my last year surfing at each of the spots, so feel I’ve been through a lot of those feelings. Being at home it might be different, I don’t know, but I’m just going to concentrate on my surfing and enjoying the moment while I can.

A lot of surfers who have made that decision to retire make the decision they won’t get back out there again, are you going to be that person, or do you think if you were presented the opportunity for a wildcard, you’d be keen to head back?

I have spoken to a couple of people about doing wildcard and stuff like that, and if it did present itself, I think I’d just have to look in the mirror and ask myself if I really wanted to do it. It’s not that I want to give up competing full stop, I just can’t get motivated to do it for a full year anymore. In 2016 where I just did selected events, I felt better so much better because I’d only have to switch on for two weeks, then it was done. So if it came up, then I’d see at the time, but at this stage I just want to go surfing!

What’s the feedback been like from your peers on this decision?

I did run it past a few different people on tour and I got mixed reactions – some were like you’re still surfing so well, why are you doing that, then others could just see it in me and see that I wasn’t there. But the whole decision pretty much just came from me; if you look for outside influences, you’re never going to really get a clear picture. It was cool as well because at heats where I knew it was my last there, I could tell the other person on the quiet. There was some different reactions, which was cool, and there was other ones where they were just like ‘yeah I know’. It was just really cool to be able to share those moments with those people in different areas. 

So many amazing achievements in a career that’s spanned close to 20 years. What’s the one thing you’re most proud of?

 For me, it was all about dedication and just giving it my all. I wanted to make sure I gave it everything, so when I put my head on the pillow at night I had no regrets. World titles and event wins were all incredible, but probably the biggest thing that resonated with me was in 2015 when I came in from a quarter final heat against Kelly and all my best friends and family were there. In surfing I’d already won everything, but in that moment I felt like I’d really won in life, and that was really special.

Not many could make a tube this big look inviting (Photo: Rip Curl)

When you’re younger, comp wins are what really defines you and what you care about most, but as you get older is it more the friendships you’ve made along the way that really are the crucial parts for what you’ve done?

100 per cent. Growing up you’re obnoxious and you’re a little brat and all you want to do is just beat your heroes and beat basically anyone that you come up against – you’re like a dog with a bone, you want to get every last piece of it. But as you go through your career, the goal post changes. The last few years I still really wanted to beat people but it was more about personal performance. I’ve spoken to other people who have left the tour and their thing is they don’t miss the competing side of things, it’s the friendships you have along the way they miss most. I was extremely lucky that I got to start and finish my career with friends that I went to school with; those friendships won’t just die because I’m not on tour anymore. I feel like now that I’m not having worry about this next heat or that next thing, I’m more in the moment and in conversations with people, and give them a lot more time, and that’s been amazing.

What’s the biggest heat you have been part of?

There’s been so many! Ones to win world titles, ones to win events, but I think the pinnacle of them all was the one with John John and Kelly. It was amazing and the waves were absolutely firing, and for me, I was the underdog paddling out. We all ended up getting some really good waves and somehow I ended up on top. To surf against the guy I’d always looked up to and always wanting to beat, to then beat him and also beat the guy who is arguably the best surfer in the world right now, in those conditions, that was a really big goal that I kicked.

In the context of your career, have you ever surfed a harder heat than that?

Learning that my brother had passed away earlier in that morning, all the pressure of what mattered for this heat or that heat just went out the window and it became just about going out surfing. For that day, I just had this confidence over myself where it didn’t matter what was going to happen, it didn’t matter which wave was going to come in, I just had that much confidence in myself and knew that he’d be looking after me, so I just went! On a normal day I would have been pooping in my pants, but on that day I think I was the calmest I’ve ever competed at; I just knew that waves were going to come, I had confidence in my ability to just go and knew that whatever happened, he’d be looking out for me.

There was that one wave you made, where you came up looking over the foam ball. In that moment what was going through your head?

That day was huge. In my first heat against Jamie O’Brian I just felt really heavy at that stage, there was so much emotion running through my body; but I got the wave, threw my head to the sky and it felt like it all just fell off. As I went through the next events, that wave where I came over the foam ball and put my arms up it felt like I had this real connection with Pete at that stage. It was like I was sharing that moment with him on a spiritual level. That was just really, really special; we all talk about being in the moment, and that for me was one of those times.

 Mick, always smiling, always living (Photo: Rip Curl)

Who was your greatest rival?

Coming on tour as a cheeky 19 year old, I was lucky enough to be able to jump on tour with some of my best friends – Joel Parkinson, Dean Morrison and Hedgey. Being a bit cheeky, or being a brat actually, I just wanted to beat everyone! I remember my first time surfing my first heat at Teahupoo against Kelly, I paddled for a wave, missed it, then paddled over one and saw him swinging. Any other day of the week I wouldn’t have gone, but because Kelly was there I was like stuff this, I’m going! It was the scariest three point ride of my life, but for me I just had this thing against Kelly; it wasn’t a personal thing, it was more that I just wanted to test myself against the best. He was always a huge one – early in my career we went back and forth a bit, and then he just went on this streak for a while where he just absolutely destroyed me and I was just scratching my head thinking how can I beat him. Then towards the end of my career, especially last year, I got to surf against him three or four times, and to have that rivalry even though we’re both old as dirt, he was a guy I got really motivated to surf against. Andy Irons was another one, he was a guy I could never beat really. Every time you thought you had him, he’d just come back and absolutely destroy you; his will and desire to win was second to none I thought. But probably my biggest rivalry and the person I put so much emotion and preparation into was Parko. Ever since we were 13 we were competing against each other in junior comps, then state titles and Aussie titles, he was the guy that I always wanted to beat so bad. Still to this day if we’re in a heat together, I still want to beat him so bad!

It’s pretty unique to have a mate from school that you’ve gone through your career with, fought for world junior titles, you’ve fought for a world title. What’s your relationship with Joel like now?

My relationship with Joel now is incredible. We’ve battled with each other through everything from state titles, Aussie titles, world juniors into actual real world titles. We’ve butted heads along the way for sure, but now it’s amazing. I think for me, when Joel won his world title I’ve never been prouder of a friend. To see someone accomplish something that he’d tried so hard for and got close so many times, it was just truly incredible. I think from that moment on, we both let our guards down with each other and we both just went back to how we were as kids. We both went back to being cheeky groms, starting to share a lot more with each other again. We started off like that, then went through a rough period where we were both going for world titles, which sort of got in the way of our friendship, to coming back full circle again where we’re both surfing together and just really there for each other a lot more, which is really cool.

How long do you think Joel’s going to stick around for?

The way he’s going, he’ll probably stay on for another 30 years!

What are you most looking forward to about life away from the tour?

The biggest thing for me, leaving the tour, is re-learning. I had a conversation with John John recently and he said “are you scared?” and I said, yeah, but it’s just one of those things. It’s like when you first go on tour, your world opens up and you get to learn and re-learn everything again. Everything’s new and exciting and I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen; all I know is that I’m going to go surfing and try and find amazing waves. But I’m also going to be learning about myself because instead of having a timeline dictating where I’ve gotta be all year, I have to create one for myself. I’ve gotta create those moments to stay in shape, or be focussed on different things in life, and that to me is truly exciting.

 Mick, enjoying the fruits of his Gold Coast beachfront pad (Photo: Corey Wilson)
What’s the best piece of advice you would you pass on to an aspiring professional surfer, now that you’re into the end of your competitive career?

I had so much advice given to me growing up, I was never one to hold back with questions. If something popped into my head and I didn’t know it, I’d ask someone, and if they didn’t know I would go and research it. Growing up my mum always said, just give it your all and never give up, that was pretty much it. I remember we had a sign on our fridge, it said ‘never give up’ and it was of a frog strangling a pelican as it’s going down it’s throat, and that was our thing, we just never gave up. As I got into the later part of my career, it was just about soaking up all of the moments. Being able to differentiate between when to be one-track minded and when to focus on taking in those moments. One of the biggest times when I actually stopped and looked around the crowd was in 2013 when I paddled out for the first heat against C.J. Hobgood. As I was paddling out, I looked back at the beach at Pipeline, there were so many people and when the heat started they just erupted; I should have been focusing on what was going on in the water but I just stopped and watched. It was just one of those moments where I was just like wow, I’m so lucky to be in this position, to witness not only the people on the beach but the waves as well. There were a couple of other moments like that, but that was one that really sticks out for me.

As a competitor how would you like to be remembered?

As a competitor, how I’d like to be remembered or how I am going to be remembered?! (laughs). I guess I just wanted to give it my all, I never wanted to leave anything unturned. People sit there and they talk about my focus and all that sort of stuff but for me, it was more just preparation. I wasn’t the most talented surfer compared to other people, but I knew what I had to do to get myself to a performance level to compete against the best people in the world. Maybe that’s it, that I’ve always given it my all. If that’s the way that I get remembered, cool, but another thing important to be is I always wanted to be a good sportsman. Sportsmanship was always a big thing for me. I remember as a kid, about 13, I surfed pretty badly and I lost a heat. I was throwing my board, carrying on like a little puppet and my mum just smacked me over the head and she goes, “if you ever carry on like that, ever again, I’m never bringing you to the beach again”. From that moment on, I made a point of shaking hands with my competitors, and just being honest, play by the rules. I just always wanted to show good sportsmanship.

The best surf caddy you could ask for (Photo: TLCI)

Who do you need to thank, obviously it’s a solo journey to a point but there were plenty of people helping you along the way, who are some of those people?

There’s so many people to thank, hopefully I don’t miss any. Probably first and foremost, mum and dad - they supported us even though they didn’t exactly know what surfing was. I remember my dad telling us to go and get a real job, then he saw the opportunities that we had and it just totally shifted his mind. I remember the day he said he was really proud of us for following our own paths, that was really special. Obviously everyone’s seen my mum at events and just how much passion and how much care she throws in, not only to me, but the whole family. She always put herself out to make sure we were close to the beach but also just made sure that we were happy and that was really cool. My brothers and sister, Rachel, Peter, Edward and Sean, without them I wouldn’t have found the beach. Without them I wouldn’t have ever gone surfing. They just always treated me like a bare bum in the shower - to them I’m no one special, I’m just little Mick. It felt like I always had back-up with them, and they taught me so many lessons in life in so many different areas which was really cool as well, so I thank them for that. My mates, they sorta helped me install my will to keep going - Dean Morrison, Joel Parkinson and Damon Harvey. Growing up, we all battled together really hard and I’d always get third or fourth, but that was the thing that made me want to try harder each and every time. Who else? Coach Phil, Phil Macnamara, his motto was if you wanna work to become better, he’d always be there to help you. He’d never push you to do something you didn’t want to do and his patience articulation of everything was incredible. He’s been a great mentor for me, not only in surfing but also in life which has been awesome. A lot of things in life I ran past him, so thanks to him. My friends, everyone that I grew up with helped shape me to be who I am. Coming from Coolie or if it’s from other parts of the world, just people who showed me the fun side of life too.

 It just seems that you, more so than other people, have enjoyed this incredible loyalty with your sponsors as well. It seems that you’ve basically had the same stickers on your board since you were 15 years old if not younger. Is that kind of support a two-way street, because that kind of feels like advice you can pass on to aspiring surfers.

Definitely. The loyalty and the support that I’ve had from my sponsors has just been incredible. Obviously there’s good times and there’s rough times, but at the end of the day, they would just support me in what I wanted to do and what I wanted to achieve. And it’s always great having that support, it’s one less thing you have to worry about. But even though they’re sponsors I’ve created great friendships in those sponsors and those companies. As you said, I’ve got boards here from when I was 16 or 17, that still have the same stickers as today. I’ve added a few more here and there, but that was always something when you’re getting great support and you’re getting someone to help support a dream, it’s hard to not acknowledge them.

 In 2017, your last full year on the championship tour, you drifted out of title contention but obviously had a great seat to watch the title races unfold. What are your thoughts on the current state of professional surfing?

In 2017 I got to have a front row seat and be the best fan in the world. It was incredible. The current state of surfing right now is beyond our beliefs, starting the tour 17 years ago to where it is now, it’s gone through the roof. You’ve got guys like John John Florence, Filipe Toledo and Gabriel Medina that do things that if you said that was going to happen 20 years ago, everybody would have been like ‘get off the drugs bro’. I was lucky enough to be front row seat for Julian Wilson winning Tahiti, and that was a huge highlight for me in 2017. The WSL have done an incredible job in creating a tour that’s extremely professional and one of the best organisations on earth and I’m really excited to see where it’s going to go next - but I probably will never try any of the moves they’re doing because I like my knees and ankles! Even though I’m not going to be on tour, I’m still gonna to watch the heats I wanna watch and watch the surfers I wanna watch and still be a #1 fan.

 Who are your picks for the World Title in 2018?

I think it was definitely going to be a four-horse race coming into 2018. Obviously John John Florence, two-time world champion, I felt like he finally got everything back together after a couple of weird years - and he’s untouchable in so many different areas now. Filipe Toledo’s growing into the tour and his stuff is incredible. And unfortunately Julian Wilson did his shoulder, I felt like he was building really good momentum. Between those four guys, I felt like competitively they were just that one step ahead of everyone else. They have a drive in them you don’t see often. It’s going to be super exciting.

 Pedal to the metal at Kirra (Photo: Swilly)

And on the women’s championship tour, the evolution of their surfing performance and also your picks for frontrunners for the title?

The women’s tour is incredible, it’s so exciting. The girls that are involved in the title race each and every year are so exciting to watch and it always goes down to the wire. I got to spend time with Tyler Wright last year in France, and to see the way she ticks is just incredible. A lot of people don’t get to see it, she’s so smart and so switched on within herself. She’s going to be so hard to beat again. I just feel like the more time she spends at world number one the more comfortable she gets. I feel like Stephanie Gilmore’s going to put a huge year in. I didn’t see it for a couple of years, but you saw she switched back into world title mode again last year and that’s exciting and scary for the other girls. Obviously Carissa Moore is three time world champion, she’s truly incredible. And then Sally Fitzgibbons, I feel like Sally learnt a lot about herself last year and what it does take to win, and feel like she will have another extremely strong year. So they’re probably my four picks, but there’s so many other girls that had stand out years - Courtney Conlogue, Lakey Peterson, I think she’s going to be a big threat and Sage Erickson, she finally clicked into gear and gets better at every event. So many amazing girls out there to watch.

Just finally, we’ve talked a lot about big heats and special moments. But to sum up, what your view of your career has been like? How much fun has it been? Battling for world titles, traveling with your friends, seeing the world and just basically enjoying the hell out of this?

After so many years on tour, it’s been so fun. 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. I didn’t even get on a plane until I was 13 and it was just a charter plane because I was complaining so much that I’d never been on a plane before, now I can’t get off them. So many amazing memories, from so many amazing places, with people that I truly cherish. That’s the thing I’ll take away, it’s just those memories that will last forever. Over a beer or two here and there they’ll always pop up and those stories will always keep a smile on my face.

We could argue Mick retired because his trophy room was full.. (Photo: Corey Wilson)