In November 2016, Mick Fanning, the three-time world champion surfer from Australia, who had spent the last two decades competing feverishly, was nowhere near Hawaii’s North Shore for the final leg of the world tour season. Instead, he was in Norway, at the tail end of a six-month sabbatical, sleeping in a tent and surfing a freezing, empty point-break under the aurora borealis. “I don’t think I’m well,” he joked to a filmer documenting the trip. “I can go anywhere in the world. But no, I come here.”
Recent signs, in other words, pointed to the 36-year-old's days on the WSL World Championship Tour being numbered. On Wednesday, he made it official. “I feel like I’ve just lost the drive to compete day-in and day-out,” Fanning said in a statement. “I’m just not enjoying it as much as I was in the past.” The second event of the 2018 season—the Rip Curl Pro, held at Bells Beach, Australia, between March 28 and April 8—will be his last.
Fanning burst onto the world stage in 2001, when he won the Bells event as a 19-year-old wildcard. His incredibly fast yet fluid style signaled a new era in pro surfing. Along with peers Joel Parkinson, Andy Irons, and Kelly Slater, Fanning melded classic power surfing with modern above-the-lip finesse, cutting against the conservative lines that had dominated competitive surfing in the 1990s. Not long after his win at Bells, Fanning, with his mop of natural bleach-white hair, was given a nickname by the media: “White Lightning.”
Despite his early dominance, Fanning didn’t achieve his life goal of becoming a world champion until 2007. His win followed a shift in his approach to competition. Fanning went from heavy partier—his other nickname, this one given by friends, was “Eugene,” for the Mick who came out after a few drinks—to fitness freak. He hired a full-time coach and committed to a grueling training regimen. The decision proved both effective and influential. Two more world titles—2009 and 2013—inspired yet another philosophical shift among his peers. Overnight, it seemed, every pro was lugging a coach and a fitness ball around the world.
Fanning’s incandescent career has not been without dark moments. In 1998, Fanning’s brother Sean, who was also an up-and-coming surfer, was killed in a car crash. While celebrating his second world title at a victory party in 2009, Fanning got into a verbal altercation with a surf journalist, reportedly calling him “a fucking Jew.” Fanning came under fire in Australia, where surfing is hugely popular and Fanning a high profile figure, and had to issue a public apology saying “I acknowledge that my decision to use words that were inappropriate...was misjudged and wrong. I don’t have or condone, any form of racist or, more particularly, anti-Semitic view.” In 2015, Fanning split with his wife, and later that year his other brother, Peter, passed away from natural causes.
But no moment in Fanning’s career could eclipse his run-in with a great white shark on live television, while competing in the final of the 2015 J-Bay Open, in South Africa. The encounter, in which Fanning was violently bumped but never bitten, is the first result that comes up on YouTube when searching “surfer shark attack.” It’s been viewed 5.2 million times. Fanning’s Wikipedia page even has a whole section devoted to the incident. For mainstream American television audiences, this was how they first came to know White Lightning.
As early as the end of the 2013 world tour season, Fanning had begun considering retirement, but 2015 proved to be the breaking point. His six-month hiatus from the competitive grind—which included the Norway trip, as well as the discovery of a new wave in an undisclosed location—proved to be just the salve he needed to officially hang up the jersey. “The tour has given me so much,” he wrote on Facebook today, “but I need a fresh challenge.”