People, Surf ContestsWSL Withdrawals:  2016 Starts Several Aussies Short 

-Words by Mat Arney, images by World Surf League, Fox, Ted Grambeau/Rip Curl & film by

Bede Durbidge on the beach at Bells last year. It is hoped that he can return to competitive form in time for this year’s ‘CT event there. Photo: Fox

Australians are internationally renowned for being passionate sports fans; sporting prowess is pretty front-and-centre in their national psyche and image, and so is surfing. The Aussie presence in the top levels of professional surfing goes right back to the first international competitions in the mid 20th Century, and since then wherever an Aussie triumphs in a contest you can guarantee that a handful of their compatriots will be waiting at the water’s edge with an Australian flag ready to shoulder carry them triumphantly up the sand. So Australian surf fans will have had a tough few days of it last week, firstly upon hearing the news that their ever resilient former three time World Champ and 2015 runner-up Mick Fanning is taking 2016 as a “personal year” and won’t be competing full time, only to be followed on Friday by the double whammy withdrawals of World number five Owen Wright and World number twelve Bede Durbidge due to injuries. Wright and Durbidge’s announcements will not have come as much of a surprise, however the loss of three of the ten Australians who make up the top twenty of the men’s ‘CT (two of whom were in the top five) means that 2016’s tour will look noticeably different when the starters horn sounds on March 10th.

Surf Simply technical surf coaching resort, Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

Friends first, competitors second: Mick Fanning and Kelly Slater share a hug in Hawaii. Photo: World Surf League

Most of Mick Fanning’s trials and tribulations through 2015 were widely documented; his mid-heat run-in with a shark at J-Bay live on air, his separation from wife Karissa Dalton after eight years of marriage, and the passing of his older brother Peter just hours before he paddled out in Hawaii in a tight title race that didn’t go his way. The WSL’s audience certainly can’t take issue with the three-time World Champ’s desire to take a bit of time for himself after such a traumatic year.

“When I first came to this decision, I rang up Kieren (Perrow) and Paul Speaker and gave them an idea of what I was thinking and seeing if it was okay with them,” Fanning said. “Between those two and the whole WSL being supportive, it’s been really incredible. Even last year, with all the things happening, they were the first people that would reach out to support and make sure everything was okay. I’m really thankful that they’re giving me this opportunity to be selective with events and see where I’m at.”

Fanning has stated that this is no retirement announcement, however, and that he intends to surf enough events to requalify for 2017, starting out with the first two events of the Australian leg of this year’s tour at his home break of Snapper and at Bells over Easter.

Surf Simply technical surf coaching resort, Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

Owen Wright standing tall at Teahupoo. Photo: Ted Grambeau

Owen Wright was hospitalized with a head injury in Hawaii on December 10th following a wipeout during a free surf session at Pipe prior to the contest. News broke last Friday that Wright has withdrawn from the first six events of the year, and that any return to competition depends upon the progress of his ongoing recovery and rehabilition.

“It’s disappointing to have to withdraw from the opening events of the year, but the important thing is to ensure that I am 100% healthy for when I return to that level of competition,”

Further news on the extent of Wright’s injuries following the diagnosis that he had suffered a “traumatic head injury” in December has been scant, with Australian media reporting on worrying rumours that Wright may still have been having trouble speaking in late January, over a month after sustaining his injury.

“Very sad to see someone of Owen’s caliber suffer such serious injury,” Kieren Perrow, WSL Commissioner, said. “The important thing is that he’s on the road to recovery and taking the appropriate time to ensure that he is 100% before returning to competition. While it’s unfortunate news for the sport and its fans, we’re fully supportive of Owen taking the time he needs and wish him a full and speedy recovery.”

Wright will be replaced by injury wildcard Adam Melling in the first six events of 2016.

Surf Simply technical surf coaching resort, Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

Bede Durbidge being transferred to a stretcher by Hawaiian water patrol following the wipeout that shattered his pelvis during the 2015 Pipe Masters. Photo: World Surf League.

The second Australian to come a cropper at Pipe in December was tour veteran Bede Durbidge, who bounced off the reef and shattered his pelvis. Shattered sounds, and is, a whole lot worse than simply “broken”, and Durbidge was confined to his bed for a month following surgery that has left him with a metal rod, plate and screws helping his pelvis to fuse back together. He’s spent the past month undergoing rehabilitation, including a lot of pool therapy to get him walking again, but ten weeks after injuring himself so seriously it isn’t entirely surprising that he hasn’t yet recovered to the point of returning to competition.

“I feel just as stoked getting spat out of barrels as I do about getting up stairs now” Durbidge told the Gold Coast Bulletin just a month ago.

So, Bede’s not going to surf at the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast event, but he will take a turn there as a guest commentator and is hoping to pull a contest jersey on again before too long. You can watch a great short video documenting Bede’s road to recovery over at Stuart Kennedy will surf in his place at the opening event.

It’s a sad and far from ideal start to the year for Australian surfing, and competitive surfing in general, as these three surfers recover from the unfortunate events of last year that have had such a huge effect on their personal lives, let alone their careers. Let’s hope that all three return to form as soon as possible, for their own sakes though, rather than just for our viewing pleasure.