The rest of the world may hail Mick Fanning as a World Champion but for the Aussie surfer, the reality is still sinking in. “I’ll be hanging with friends or family and I’ll suddenly start thinking to myself, ‘You did it, you won the World Title,’” he says. “It still feels a little surreal.”
Well it may feel like a dream for the 27-year-old but it was a dream come true when he surpassed eight-time World Champ Kelly Slater to take out the ASP World Championship in Brazil at the end of 2007.
As Fanning rides the wave of media attention and accolade that comes with winning the title, he admits the view is different from the crest. “When you’re going for your first world title you’re united with your fellow competitors by a common goal – to overcome Kelly Slater and win the title. If someone can’t win the title, they generally would rather someone other than Kelly wins it. I got a lot of support from the other guys on tour in 2007 as I endeavoured to overcome Slater. Now that I have a world title, I’m in the same class as Kelly. People are probably hoping that if they don’t win, Kelly or I don’t either.”
Fanning admits he’s in new territory when it comes to his strategy for the 2008 tour. In the past, sheer desire for the title drove him on. “I’m more calculated and patient these days,” he says. “When you want something as bad as I wanted the world title the hunger can sometimes blur your focus and distract you from your game plan. Now, when I pull on a comp jersey and paddle out for a heat I have a clearer idea of what it is I’m going out there to achieve.”
The world title has been a long time coming for Fanning, who barrelled onto the world surfing stage as a wild card entry at the Rip Curl Pro in 2001. Many thought 2004 would be his year to take the world title, but a catastrophic freesurfing injury saw him out of action for five months, questioning whether he’d ever surf at competition level again.
“One thing I’m proud about is how I changed the way I live after suffering a really bad hamstring injury,” says Fanning. “There was a chance my career would be over, that I wouldn’t be able to surf as well ever again. But I worked hard to get my body back in shape and I ended up reaching the right level of fitness. It was a real slog so I’m proud of myself for grinding through the pain and bouncing back as well as I did.”
Fanning has most certainly bounced back – these days, before a competition you can find him stretching on his exercise ball and watching the surf, carving out a strategy for the conditions. He spends as much time as possible in the water before a heat, getting a feel for the surf and his board. But having been through the ordeal of his injury, Fanning knows not to be too hard on himself before competing. “Before an event, my day is spent surfing as much as possible without exhausting myself. I’ll do some light training but nothing that takes too much of me. There’s nothing worse than feeling tired at the beginning of a contest,” he says.
He’s also learnt not to be too hard on himself mentally. “Sometimes in surfing you’re at the mercy of the ocean, and when it’s out of your hands there’s not too much you can do about it. Often the next event is just around the corner so I try to take a lesson out of every loss and make sure I don’t make the same mistake twice.”
Halfway through the ASP series, Fanning is ranked a very respectable fifth, behind Slater then three Aussies – Joel Parkinson, Bede Durbidge and Taj Burrows. “As far as the World Title race goes I probably haven’t posted the kind of results I would have liked so far,” he says. “But I felt like I needed to let my hair down a little after such an intense couple of years chasing the title.”
Fanning also married long-time love Karissa Dalton earlier this year and has managed to fit in a European honeymoon and snowboarding trip to Japan. But as we get down to the business end of the ASP title, it’s all eyes on the surf and one very big Kahuna: Kelly Slater.
“He’s not just the greatest surfer ever but he’s also proven himself to be one of the most superior sportsmen of all time,” says Fanning. “To have had the opportunity to surf against him and take a world title from him is what makes it all so special to me.
“I’m all about the World Title race now. Kelly has had an incredible year so far and he’s going to be extremely difficult to beat. However, if there’s even the most remote chance I can catch him, I’ll be focussing all my energy on that.”
At least this time Fanning knows what he’s getting himself into –the taste of victory is still fresh in his mouth.
“Thinking back to the moment in Brazil when I actually became World Champ is really fun. I can remember this overwhelming feeling of satisfaction, the kind you get when you set your mind to what seems like an impossible task and then go and nail it. That is without doubt one of the best moments in my life to date.”