It was touted as being one of the most important heats of the surfing calendar this year. The two highest ranked Australian surfers in the WSL (World Surf League), a transition heat between Australia’s past and current champion Mick Fanning and the future prospect Julian Wilson, and also Wilson’s third attempt to win a contest final this year. That all became irrelevant in a matter seconds.
The 2015 J-Bay South African Open of Surfing final will be remembered as one of those moments in sports history where people look back and reminisce about where they were when then saw Mick Fanning being attacked by a Great White shark live on air. However there is also a story about how Fanning, a 3-time world champion mentored Wilson, a young up and coming surfer who has struggled with consistency and heat strategy. Julian was taking advice pre and after-heats from Mick and both surfers were posting big scores all the way up until they met each other in the final. Mick and Julian were no longer brought together to compete for a trophy and instead had to take measures to ensure each others survival.
When that moment the grey figure emerged from the deep everyone thought a surfers worst nightmare had come true. For me personally watching the attack online, the images onscreen seemed surreal.
At first glance, it looked like a seal or dolphin and it wasn't until the large dorsal fin was clearly visible that it was obvious something wasn't right. People who train and deal with violence speak about the ‘chemical cocktail’ of hormones that are released through glands and your nervous system when encountering situations with extreme physical threat. This cocktail has a deep physical and mental effect on how you're able to control the physiology of your body in such violent events. When the cocktail hits, your body is thrown into what physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon called 'fight-or-flight' mode, and the critical hurdle to address is to ‘break the freeze’ and be able to respond to the threat instead of thinking of “why is this happening”.
Sports Psychologist Richard Bennett eloquently described Mick’s Mindset - “he's sitting there, completely focused on what his next move is going to be as an athlete, and then the next moment he's realised what's going on, that he's basically facing his mortality…”. Mick, although under immense pressure was able to react as soon as the shark hit his leg rope. He was able to punch the shark in the back and effectively create separation using his board between him and the shark and swim to the safety of the water safety craft.
Julian on the other hand had a far different moral dilemma to deal with. Swim towards Mick and help his mate, putting his own life in mortal danger or paddle to the jet ski and ensure his own safety. Julian, in an act of sheer bravery and mateship chose to paddle to his mate's aid even though he likely would have been too late to help, and has since cited that his only concern was the dread that he “couldn’t get there quick enough”. If Julian had decided not to paddle towards Mick’s screams for help no one could criticise him. Ultimately people in the real world don't always have the time and clarity of mind that heroes in Hollywood blockbusters always seem to portray. People make mistakes; even skilled survival techniques can degrade under the ‘chemical cocktail’.
Self-defence and violence expert Sergeant Rory Miller acknowledges that in his experience “When stakes are higher, people do much, much worse than when the pressure is low”. Julian didn't act in the right or wrong way but knew he wanted to assist one of his mates - “I was like, I've got a board, if I get there I can stab it, whatever, I got a weapon and I don't know”. Because of Julian's bravery under pressure he has been recommended for a Commonwealth bravery award by the Queensland Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk.
Most of us go through our lives only having to deal with mild amounts of comparable stress and thankfully rarely have to encounter severe aggression. Sometimes we fantasise about what we would do if we ever had to face such grave circumstances and never understand the implications of such a reality. Mick and Julian both experienced that reality and because of their presence of mind plus a bit of luck came out unscathed, but both still know full well that there aren't many great white shark attacks where the outcome is merely a broken leg rope.
We’re glad these two guys are still alive and hope they can get back in the water and once again enjoy surfing.