While it will go down in history appearing as if there was no winner, it’s safe to say that the final of the J-Bay Open was a victory for everyone involved.
It took a shark attack for surfing to make the front page of ESPN.com, but the video of Mick Fanning that has since gone viral sent a chill through all who watched it. The Internet exploded with acknowledgment of both the terror of the situation and the instinct and bravery of everyone in the water.
For the first time ever, a shark attacked a competitor during a Championship Tour competition. Fanning’s encounter was terrifying to watch, even after the fact when we knew he had escaped unscathed. As he’s first kicking behind him and trying to detach from his leash to then being thrashed close to his face and finally separating from his board into the open ocean, one couldn’t help but put themselves in Fanning’s position and imagine what might be racing through our own minds in those tense moments.
The two competitors in the final, each in prime position to challenge for the world title, immediately thought about the other’s safety. Fanning waved opponent Julian Wilson down the beach, hoping he’d stay far away from danger. Wilson paddled toward Fanning as if he was going after the wave of his life, hoping to reach his friend and do whatever necessary to ward off the predators.
The water safety reached Fanning very quickly, even if it felt like an eternity at the time. It all happened so fast, but Fanning was so vulnerable that it truly was miraculous that he walked away without even a hint of damage. His punch to the shark’s back turned out to be the only bit of violence that occurred and had the whole thing not been visually documented, we’d probably think they were telling a tall tale.
That moment at Jeffreys Bay was a stark reminder of what every surfer seems to know, but also pushes back into the recesses of their psyche – that they are always at the mercy of the ocean’s true inhabitants. Things will get back to normal soon enough but this incident will likely be the most memorable moment of the 2015 season and one of the most talked about finals for many years, despite there being no official outcome.
For Fanning, I assume he’s seen a shark or two in the water during a surf session before, but nothing like what he just encountered. He said it took a little while for the severity of the situation to sink in after his adrenaline had worn off, but he was understandably emotional on the beach. I’m certain it dominates his thoughts. It’s the last thing he thinks about before falling asleep and the first thing he thinks about when waking up.
Yet, here he is in second place for the season, a handful of points behind Adriano de Souza and in great position to capture a fourth world title. He’ll be a sentimental pick to do so, but just getting back out into the lineup should be considered a huge achievement. Every bit of splash that churns behind his board will sound different and more menacing than it did prior to this past weekend. Sitting and waiting for a set to roll through could be more mentally taxing than performing on the wave itself.
Things could have obviously been much worse and everyone seems to have taken this as both a miracle and a reminder. Courage, friendship and good fortune all came together in what could have been an otherwise tragic moment.
Ending the contest with no result is a fitting way to move on because it illustrates that judging a cutback or looking for spray is far less important than everyone heading home safely.