Exclusive Chat: Mick Fanning on J-Bay Shark Attack
© Trevor Moran/Red Bull Content Pool
Three-time world title holder Mick Fanning talks about the day surfing took over the world.
It's the story that needs no introduction. Twenty-four-hours ago in South Africa, with the final of the J-Bay Open just 4-minutes old, three-time world surfing champion Mick Fanning was pulled from his board by a great white shark. The surfing world watched in horror. Soon, the whole world watched in horror. First came mainstream sportscasters, then mainstream press. Then TMZ, Instagrams, memes, Vines, Tumblrs, reddits and more status updates than you could Poke a Tweet at. Mick Fanning was trending.
Not 100 feet away, Fanning's fellow finalist Julian Wilson watched in disbelief as his mate and mentor went below the surface. Wilson reacted like a warrior and pushed thoughts of his own safety aside to scramble frantically to his friend's aid, fearing the worst.
"Paddling for him, I thought that I wasn't going to get there in time," said Wilson. "I came over a wave ... his board was over here and he was swimming that way, and I thought it was going to grab him and take him under."
Next thing you know Julian Wilson was trending too. As awful as it is an honest truth, sharks — like sex — sell, and the J-Bay Open was trending before directors had even had time to call the contest off completely. In what could have been surfing's darkest hour, its candle has never burned brighter, but all Mick Fanning and Julian Wilson want to do is go surfing again and wash this horrible happenstance away.
The pair spoke briefly on the webcast in the aftermath (see it in the player below), shocked at what they'd just experienced. Since then they've been surrounded by loved ones. As they begin their long journey home to Australia and take their first tentative steps back to the water, we caught up with Fanning in Johannesburg to debrief the craziest day of his life.
Mick, everyone is just so damn glad you're still here. Did you manage any sleep last night?
Thanks so much. It was a wild afternoon. So many emotions running. Lots of hugs and laughs and plenty of tears. A bunch of friends from the tour — competitors and administrators — came by my place to make sure I was really in one piece. We had a few drinks to celebrate and some dinner. There was a lot of love and relief, but it was so strange though … it felt like I was at my own wake, to be honest. I got some sleep but it was a pretty restless night.
Have you watched the footage yet? Will you, or is it something you don’t want to ever think about again?
I've watched it so many times. It's surreal watching it play out. It's like, "Did that really happen to me?" I just can't believe I've come through this completely unscathed physically. Mentally I'm a bloody mess, but I'll come good in time.
Talk to us about the webcast. Is it crazy that the world saw it all go down live? A lot of people feared the worst. How much do you feel for your loved ones having to see that?
Thinking about this playing out on a live broadcast with my family and friends and people who support me all watching is something I'm still processing. That's one of the scariest factors, and what really gets me emotional. From all reports the WSL broadcast team handled the whole situation very well, and constantly ensured everyone I was safe and coping. I'm super thankful to them for that, because it really was a crazy situation to deal with.
What about the interviews afterward, were they a necessary process? You and Julian were incredible on air, holding it together like nobody else could have, but it was tough viewing. Compelling, but gut-wrenching.
When I got on the boats I had the camera on me, and when Pete Mel was interviewing me I was still so buzzed from the adrenaline. I hadn't had a chance to really think things over when I answered Pete's questions. We got to land and walked through the crowd to see the commissioners, Kieren Perrow and Renato Hickel, to determine what was going to happen next.
In that little room a few of my closest friends from the CT came in and I completely lost it. There were about eight grown men in there, and every single one of us was crying. At that moment I realized there was going to be some serious concern from my family and friends around the world, so I asked if I could do an interview so they could hear from me that I was OK. So yeah, it was really necessary for me.
There's no surfer on tour better equipped than you to deal with something like this. You've gone through your share of personal issues and injuries, you were the surfers' rep for a long time and have basically been the spiritual captain of the tour for the last half-dozen years. Do you just say, "Here we go again," and put on your hard hat and try to rebuild?
I really don't know at this point. It's one of those things that throws your perspective completely out of whack. I'm not thinking about contests and titles, my mind is purely on family and friendships right now.
It seemed you went through a huge range of emotions straight afterward, from euphoria on the boat to crashing hard once you hit the beach. You kept repeating that you were tripping. A day later has it started to sink in at all?
I'm still tripping. Ha-ha! One of the coolest things is how much love has been sent my way. I'll probably never get around to replying to everyone and saying thanks, but the messages have been overwhelming and that's what's making me tear up still.
Have you seen any of the memes, and can you laugh about them yet? The Internet is calling you Chuck-Norris-meets-Crocodile-Dundee ...
The boys have been showing me a few. They're gold and definitely giving me some good laughs. Cheers to everyone for putting them together.
Tell us about Jeffreys Bay. You've been a standout there for a dozen years and have won the event three times.
I love the place. Nothing could ever change that. The wave is like no other, the people are pure gold and it's maybe my favorite stop on the schedule. I felt like I was on track for another win, but it was going to be a great fight. I was so excited to be surfing against Julian in that final, and it's a bummer that it didn't happen. Man, I was glad he was out there, though.
I'm not thinking about whether I'll go back at the moment. We'll see how I feel. I'll never surf on July 19 again, though.
The world has watched the clip over 10 million times on YouTube. Is there anything about the incident we're not seeing on the tape that you feel needs to be clarified? Do you think you and the shark got tangled up accidentally, or was he checking you out?
The craziest moment actually unfolded when I got knocked off my board and disappeared behind the set wave. The thing started thrashing around me, you can see the water splashing, and that's when I was hitting it. I don't know what the shark's intentions were. It definitely got stuck in my leg rope, but I'm just thankful it was my leash and not my leg.
Yesterday you said you'd be happy to never compete again. Did you feel the same way when you woke up this morning?
I'm just going to get home and get my head together. Like I said, heats and the world title really aren't something I'm thinking about right now.
Finally, what can you say about Julian? Did you guys have a beer last night and just sit there shaking your heads?
I just want to say thanks to Julian for being such a courageous legend — coming for me and completely disregarding his own safety. The beach announcers and the WSL Water Patrol were also brilliant. The outpouring of messages of love and support from around the world really means a lot too. So ... thanks!
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