Authors: Rio Sports
If winning three world surfing titles wasn’t enough for Mick Fanning, he built his own legend a little more on Sunday when he fought off a shark attack in the middle of a competition in South Africa.
The Australian was a finalist in the J-Bay Open when the shark struck, and the incident was captured on television. As Fanning waited for his first wave of the final, a fin surfaced behind him. Fanning noticed the animal at the last moment and paddled away but was soon dragged off his board. To make the spectacle even more agonising, a wave then hid Fanning as he struggled to escape as the commentators – obviously shocked – tried to explain what was happening. “Holy shit,” one of them whispered.
Fanning would have a lucky escape. Nearby rescue boats were soon on hand and he was helped to shore alongside fellow finalist, Julian Wilson.
Fanning was understandably shaken after the incident. “All of [a] sudden, I just had this instinct that something was behind me,” Fanning told the World Surf League website. “And then all of a sudden, I felt like I started getting pulled under water. Then the [shark] came up, and I was on my board and it was like right there, and I saw the whole thing thrashing around.
“I was getting dragged under by my leg [rope], and then I felt like it kicked me off, but it was still there, and I was still attached to my board. I felt like it was dragging me under water, and then my leg rope broke, and I started swimming and screaming.”Mick Fanning describes his ordeal. Link to video.
Despite the ordeal, Fanning still managed to pull off a quote pretty much pulled from The Big Book of Australiana. “I just can’t believe it. I’m just tripping ... To walk away from that, I’m just so stoked.”
Fanning added that it wasn’t an entirely one-sided battle. “I just saw the fin, I didn’t see the teeth. I was waiting for the teeth to come at me as I was swimming ... I punched it in the back.”
Fanning’s mother later described her terror as she watched the attack unfold on TV in South Africa and the heart-wrenching moments when she feared she had lost another son.
“I was so scared,” Elizabeth Osborne told ABC radio in Australia. “I just thought when that wave came through that he’d gone.”
Her terror turned to overwhelming relief when it became clear he had survived unscathed. She said she was sure her late son, Sean, who died in a car crash about 17 years ago, was looking out for his brother.
Eleven-time world champion surfer Kelly Slater expressed his relief on Instagram that Fanning survived the ordeal. “Glad to know this guy and even happier that he swam/walked away unscathed,” he wrote. “The only mark on him is a tiny scratch (probably from hitting the shark) on his left hand knuckle.”
“The scariest moment was when he turned around to face where the shark would be coming from after swimming 20 meters towards shore. I can’t even imagine the vulnerability he must’ve felt.”
The World Surf League has cancelled the rest of the event, with Wilson and Fanning both agreeing to take second place in the competition. The prize money for first place was also split between the pair. “We are incredibly grateful that no one was seriously injured today,” the WSL said in a statement. “Mick’s composure and quick acting in the face of a terrifying situation was nothing short of heroic and the rapid response of our water safety personnel was commendable – they are truly world class at what they do.
“The safety of our athletes is a priority for the WSL and, after discussions with both Finalists, we have decided to cancel the remainder of competition at the J-Bay Open. We appreciate the ongoing support we have in South Africa and once again want to express our gratitude to the water safety team.”
The World Surf League commissioner, Kieren Perrow, said he believed it was the first time a surfer had been attacked during competition, and said the incident had left its mark. “It’s shaken everyone,” Perrow said. “We’re just happy to see [Fanning] safe and alive. It’s not something you believe would ever happen, and to see it unfold on live [television] is incredibly scary for everyone.”
The Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, was inevitably asked about the incident at a press conference. “It’s just terrifying to think that such a large shark could be so close to a surfing contest and I bet Mick Fanning is one hell of a relieved surfer,” he said. “I think all of us, we go out into the waves and we love to see dolphin fins but if there’s any doubt about what kind of a fin it is, it’s pretty scary.”
Fanning is one of the greats of modern surfing. Only two men, the legendary Kelly Slater (11) and Fanning’s compatriot Mark Richards (four), have won more world titles. Fanning is currently second in the standings for the 2015 title, with six of 11 events completed.
The 34 year old was born to Irish parents in New South Wales, and is known for his modesty and understatement. He has overcome numerous obstacles to reach the peak of his sport: he has come back from serious injury, while his brother was killed in a car accident while Fanning was still a teenager. “A lot of the time I feel like he’s with me when I travel and compete,” wrote Fanning in his autobiography, Surf For Your Life.
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