Sport: The week’s best plays
From farewelling a legend to breaking records, these are the most exciting, silly and downright crazy plays in the sporting world this week.
When Mick Fanning was attacked by a shark at Jeffreys Bay in July, he immediately said he would be happy to never compete in a surfing meet again.
Four months on from that traumatic day in South Africa, Fanning sits atop this year’s world title points ladder and is one favourable performance at the Pipe Masters away from claiming his fourth world crown – something Fanning says would be his greatest career achievement.
Fanning is fearless personified. There is nothing new about surfers coming into contact with sharks, but Fanning’s incredible brush with death was unprecedented.
Lots of fun: Australia’s Mick Fanning rips through a barrel on the way to winning the final of the Vans World Cup at Sunset Beach in Hawaii. Photo: Laurent Masurel
Footage was beamed live around the world of the Gold Coast icon wrestling a shark, all in its comically macho-Australian man versus animal manner.
What does Fanning remember about that day?
“It’s all actually really clear,” Fanning told Fairfax Media after his Sunset Beach World Cup win in Hawaii on Friday. “I can remember most of the details but it isn’t something I love reflecting on.”
Hawaii triumph: Mick Fanning celebrates his victory at the Vans World Cup of Surfing at Sunset Beach on Oahu on Friday. Photo: Kirstin Scholtz
Despite spotting a shark on his first paddle back, he is now on the verge of completing one of sport’s most remarkable returns.
“It would obviously feel incredible,” said Fanning of winning the Pipe Masters which starts on Tuesday. “In saying that, getting out of that situation with the shark in J-Bay without a scratch felt bloody good too. No matter what happens with the world title, I’d say I’m winning this year. It would be huge to match Mark Richards with four world titles. I could never have dreamed that. To go into the final event with six title contenders is unique also. I guess it would be my greatest achievement.”
Fanning arrives at Pipe ranked No.1 on the leaderboard, but is all too aware it is an event he has never won. Fellow Australian Julian Wilson – the man in the water with Fanning at J-Bay – won there last year.
Put simply, if Fanning finishes ahead of last year’s world champion Gabriel Medina, who is in second place, he will take the crown and etch his name into surfing folklore.
Fanning may not yet fully appreciate the enormity of what he stands to achieve. One person who does is surfing psychologist Richard Bennett. He has worked with Fanning and other surfers on the world tour and has written about the difficulty of overcoming such a traumatic experience in his book The Surfer’s Mind.
Moment of terror: Mick Fanning at Jeffrey’s Bay. Photo: World Surf League
“Mick’s moment at J-Bay was really a moment where a human faces their mortality… it was an incredibly intense human experience,” Bennett said. “It’s pretty remarkable [what he stands to achieve]. Perhaps having that goal and returning his focus to surfing is a way for him in his own time to process that experience he had. That may well be a driving force for him.”
How surfers respond to traumatic experiences differs from person to person as Australian Institute of Sport psychologist Kristine Dun explains. “Some people will become hypervigilant so they’d be more aware of sharks. Some people might take longer to overcome that experience. All of that’s OK, and it’s hard to predict how different people will respond.”
Fanning admits he is now “jumpier” in the water, but is sure the shark attack hasn’t hindered his ability on the board.
“Returning to the water was the best feeling ever,” Fanning said. “It opened my eyes to what’s really important. I love competing but losing a heat or an event isn’t the end of the world. It’s rare to get through a day without having a chat about it but other than some added attention, life is great.”
Asked if he can win Pipeline – known for its ferocious barrels and jaw-dropping rides – Fanning said there was nothing stopping him. “I’ll be looking to compete without letting the pressure of the title race get to me,” Fanning said. “Pipe provides such an amazing atmosphere. I’m confident I can win Pipe these days though. I think you have to be if you’re gonna have a shot.”
Even if Fanning falls at the final hurdle in his quest for another world title, the fact he plans on returning to J-Bay next year would suggest the mythology of Mick Fanning will only increase in the years to come.