They say that adversity breeds excellence, and nowhere is this truer than in the sporting arena.
In fact, one could argue that it is the ability to overcome that endears athletes to us and makes sport into something deeper and more transcendent than simple entertainment—an analogy for life and its challenges, an assurance that even in our lowest moments things can always get better.
There’s a reason people love comeback stories—and I don’t mean the come-from-behind-and-win-despite-an-early-points-deficit type of comeback. The real comeback stories—the ones that see athletes reaching deep inside themselves to thrive despite depression, disaster, injury and sickness—these are the stories that make us believe in the human spirit, and give us hope for the future.
In honour of a certain world champion who is retiring this week, here are five of surfing’s greatest comeback stories.
When Mick tore his hamstring from his pelvis after mis-landing a floater in 2004, doctors said that he may never surf again. Massive operations and reconstruction saw Mick’s backside split open so that surgeons could sew his hamstring back into his pelvis, and put one of Australia’s favorite up-and-coming talents out of water for six months.
But despite the worst predictions of the medical community, Mick did surf again. And when he returned to the water, he was a new man—focused, fit, and obsessed with physical preparation.
While there had been other professional surfers in the past who opted to train rather than trash their bodies, it was Mick and his post-injury results that brought surfing fitness into the mainstream.
His first event back in the jersey, Mick won the 2005 season-opener at Snapper Rocks in front of his home crowd, and started the year in first place on the ratings. Two years later, he won his first world title, with two more coming in 2009 and 2013.
Then, in 2015, Mick was attacked by a shark on live TV during the finals of the J-Bay Open—a harrowingly emotional experience that would crush most people’s spirits. But not Mick. The next year, he orchestrated another of our sport’s best comebacks, winning the 2016 event at J-Bay, sharks be damned.
Mick Fanning is retiring from competition after the conclusion of the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach—the pet event of his longtime sponsor, and one that he has won four times in his career. It will be a fitting exit for one of surfing’s greats, and arguably our greatest comeback kid.
What is it about Coolangatta and comebacks? Owen Wright may not be a Gold Coast local, but when he won the 2017 season-opener at Snapper Rocks, there wasn’t a dry eye on the beach.
Owen had spent the past year recovering from a massive head trauma suffered at Pipeline in late 2015—an injury that not only threatened to end his surfing career, but had many wondering if he would ever be the same again.
When your friends and loved ones have to watch you struggle through a TBI and months of debilitating post-concussive syndrome (to the extent that they won’t even discuss it in public), questions like “will he still be the hardest charging surfer on tour?” lose their meaning very quickly.
But Owen’s victory at Snapper—his first event back in a jersey—not only showed us that he could still compete, but also proved that it is possible to overcome just about anything.
With a new family (Owen’s first child was born during his convalescence), a sixth-place finish on the season, and a world champ for a sister, Owen’s post-injury life wasn’t just back on track—it was sweeter than ever.
Sometimes it isn’t the body that needs to be transcended, but the mind. Throughout the 1980s, Occy was arguably the second-best surfer in the world, overshadowed only by the mythical Tom Curren.
The two athletes’ rivalry was one of the greatest in our sport—American versus Aussie, regular versus goofy, quiet introvert versus outspoken comedian. Occy’s performances at Bells and J-Bay are the stuff of legends, and many consider him to be the best goofy foot to have ever surfed the notoriously regular-friendly right-hand points.
But in the late ’80s, after a brief cameo in Hollywood’s cringe-worthy cult classic North Shore, Occy started a downward spiral that would last nearly a decade. Numerous half-hearted “retirements” from competition, heavy drinking and drug use, massive weight gains (50 and 80 pounds, respectively) and an insomnia-driven mental breakdown saw Occy become a former shadow of himself—a modern-day MP, but without the championship trophies.
But then, in the mid-1990s, he turned things around. With the help of a therapist, and training from surf cinematographer Jack McCoy, a sober, shredded Occy returned to the world tour in 1997 for his first full-time season in over a decade.
He went second in the world that year, and seventh in 1998, then finally won his long-awaited world title in 1999 at the age of 33—at the time, the oldest competitor to have done so. He also finished second in the world again in 2001 before eventually retiring from competition for real in 2007, his comeback complete and his legacy intact.
Arguably the most recognisable surfer in the world, Bethany Hamilton has never been a world champion (or even a full-time competitor on the Championship Tour), but her story has inspired millions of people, both surfers and non-surfers alike.
After being attacked by a tiger shark in 2003, Hamilton lost her left arm at the age of 13. Rather than allowing this to become a disability, Hamilton decided to use it as motivation to overcome. She taught herself to paddle and surf with one arm, and within two years was back in the competitive singlet, winning the NSSA nationals title.
Over the years, she has had numerous top 10 finishes on the QS, and many impressive event results, including second at the World Junior Championships, fifth at the US Open of Surfing, and third at the Fiji Pro world tour event in 2016, where she competed as a wildcard despite having given birth to her first child a few months before. A few months after her Fiji result, she was photographed towing huge Jaws—one-armed, of course.
While she has always been the darling of the surf world, Hamilton became a mainstream celebrity after the release of her autobiography Soul Surfer was made into a Hollywood film. Today, she has two children, continues to be one of the best surfers on the planet, and serves as a source of inspiration to people everywhere.
When Greg Long headed out to Cortez Bank in December 2012, he was already one of big wave surfing’s most decorated athletes—a perennial XXL award nominee, and winner of virtually every important big wave event, including The Eddie, the Maverick’s contest, and the Red Bull Big Wave Africa event at Dungeons.
But it wasn’t until after a near-drowning that day at Cortez Bank—one of the worst non-fatal big wave accidents of the past decade, and one that would force him to reevaluate his motivation and approach for big wave surfing—that Long won his two big wave world titles (in 2013 and 2016), along with yet another XXL award for best performance in 2013, and Ride of the Year in 2014.
Perhaps more impressive than his competitive accolades, however, is the level of maturation Long has reached in dealing with his accident, and his approach to the ocean in general.
As a well-respected public speaker and influencer, Greg speaks thoughtfully and introspectively about his accident and the decision to return to big wave surfing.
He has also used his celebrity to support various environmental campaigns (currently working with Parley for the Oceans and Patagonia), while continuing to chase the biggest and best waves on the planet—showing up without any fanfare and waiting patiently for the set of the day, just as he has been doing for the past 20-years.