Words: Wade Davis
In the end Mick Fanning didn’t need four good waves to win his third world title, but just two. A nine-five with a minute and forty seconds remaining in his round five heat against CJ Hobgood, and a nine-seven against Yadin Nichol in the last minute and half of quarter final number one. That’s all it took to put him in the semis, and everyone with even a passing interest in competitive surfing knew that if Mick Fanning made the semi final then he’d complete his silverware trilogy. He did this today before his last remaining title rival, Kelly Slater, got his hair(?) wet.
The swell that built throughout the day yesterday seemed to have peaked overnight with surfing fans waking to Instagram posts from Joel Parkinson and Kelly, saying that the swell had “backed off”, and “dropped a lot”, respectively. The more that the light filled in, however, the more it was revealed that the waves, while not as big as yesterday, was still plenty mean. Throughout the day they would clean right up, but in the morning it was ugly. There were 60 freesurfers out this morning, and a couple of handfuls of tubes ridden. Amongst those freesurfers was your now three-time world champion.
I watched Mick come in and say to coach, Phil McNamara, “it’s big” (I think, but my lip reading is far from wonderful). He then stands with his hands on his knees, sucking air measuredly, regaining his breath. Phil tells him some things about the conditions, Mick listens, before walking up the beach, avoiding eye contact with his manifold luck-wishers, and disappears. 20 minutes later, about an hour away from his heat against CJ, Mick returns, carrying two of his own boards and with a backpack on. He then bros down for the briefest of moments, and starts preparing for his heat, the same preparation he’s done since he was a grom. Put the fins in. Wax up. Look at the waves. Then he sits down and he gazes.
Mick’s trainer, Nam, swears by this gaze. He told us that the gaze is the key to clearing your head, to thinking rationally. It lets in all of the visual stimuli which prevents you from focussing on any one thing. Nam says that you gaze, and you focus on your breathing, and you can think clearly, and this is what Mick does. While the beach crowd lose their shit as the warriors eat sand, and while they literally lose their shit to the surges that sneak up the beach and create pandemonium, Mick just sits, and gazes. He isn’t affected by the crowds and their boneheaded ways, he just looks at nothing and everything and thinks about nothing and all of it all at once.
When he runs by the crowd to check-in the vacant gaze runs with him. When he sits on the beach performing his now well-known pre-heat ritual, he isn’t looking at anything in particular. He is focused, but his mind is clear. The work has already been done, by Mick, by Phil and by Nam; there’s no need to do anything but get out there and stay calm, catch plenty of waves and get it done.
Getting it done against CJ was never going to be an easy task. The swell was unsettled, closing out. CJ was on his forehand, and CJ has surfed eight million Pipeline barrels in his life. Mick’s game plan was to catch everything and pull in – the more impossible looking the wave the better the scoring potential. For 28 minutes and 20 seconds of round five, heat one, Mick got absolutely pumped. Dangerously pumped. Then, needing an eight, Mick takes off at second reef, rolls in to first, bottom turns long, does a snap check half way up the face and gets a deep tube. His two hands fly in the air, as do the hands of Mick’s entourage – mum, wife, Rip Curl family – everyone except coach Phil, who is busy manning the handicam, as he’s been doing since Mick was 14. Filming, analysing, perhaps thanking his lucky stars that that wave came at all.
The score was more than enough, and Mick runs back to his little tent, and his supporting harem, and prepares for the next heat against Yadin. By the time quarterfinal one rolls around the surf has cleaned right up. It’s perfect, deceptively playful looking, perhaps a bit long on the lull. Wash throughs force us away from Mick’s camp and further up the beach. As the crowd fills in we lose sight of him. Everywhere we go we are rudely moved on, hissed at, hated, flicked with sand. The fans are hungry for titillation and fiercely protective of their line of sight. We watch the quarterfinal from way down the beach, and see what seems to be the champ’s defeat at the hands of a man on a roll, desperate to stay on tour. Mick, again, seems out of sync. He gets a seven-seven on what was the first Backdoor wave of the day’s competition. Yadin runs rampant and clocks up a nine-three-three, sliding sideways into a first reef thrower, riding behind the foam ball, standing tall on the exit and not wavering when the lip hits him in the head, followed immediately by a smaller, dirtier one for a seven-five-something. Mick needs a nine-five, and waits, and wipes out, and waits, and wipes out, and waits.
Then the wave comes. It’s similar to his buzzer beater in round five, maybe a little smaller. Mick knows what he has to do. He takes off straight and sets it up, bottom turns hard and does a check snap, same as in round five. What is different is that this tube is longer, and Mick rides on the foam ball, and he shoots into the channel. On the beach we wonder if it’s the score, because we don’t have heats on demand and replays to compare it with, and our memories are sullied with age, booze, the sun and the recent rides of the event. The judges take their time, they need to get this one right, and a scrum forms around Mick, pushing him up the beach, a roman army tortoise formation, with GoPros on sticks instead of spears, and flat-brim caps instead of shields. Eventually the score is read, and Mick’s arms break free from the roof of the scrum, two clenched fists of victory. The job is done.
Mick and Phil’s game plan was to get the waves that break on second reef, because they allow for the drawn out bottom-turn-to-tubes that the judges love. Mick and Nam’s plan was to breathe, gaze, and never panic, which allowed Mick to wait for said second reefers. That Mick’s mum and wife were there contributed to his ease of mind, the Rip Curl team make his life easy for him, and the fans fired him up. But the world title, his third world title, was all Mick’s work. It was the product of his work ethic, his determination, his dedication to himself, his sport and the people he loves. Mick only needed two waves to win his world title, but every thing he has done up until this moment made those two waves possible. C’mon Mick.
N.B. There will be debate now as to whether Mick’s wave was enough for the nine-seven it was awarded, usually running along national lines, or instigated by surf fans obsessed with the celebrity of Kelly Slater. The only point of contention is whether Mick’s nine-seven was better than Yadin’s nine-three-three, the rest of the scores in the rest of the heats are irrelevant. That Mick’s wave broke at second reef and Yadin’s on first; that he set it up with a long, drawn-out bottom turn, as opposed to a late sideways drop; that he was in his for a little longer than Yadin was – all of these factors meant that Mick’s wave was worth more than Yadin’s. There is no overscore, there is no conspiracy.