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Pro surfer returns to site of his great-white fright

Australian competitor Mick Fanning encounters a great white shark during a World Surf League event last year at Jeffrey’s Bay in South Africa.

World Surf League via New York Times

Australian competitor Mick Fanning encounters a great white shark during a World Surf League event last year at Jeffrey’s Bay in South Africa.

One year after the three-time world surfing champion Mick Fanning was attacked by a shark on live television, the World Surf League is returning to the place where it happened, Jeffrey's Bay in South Africa. And Fanning is in the competition, which started Wednesday.

The event, one of 11 stops on the men's World Championship Tour, will be momentous and emotional for the competitors, the organizers and fans of the sport.

On July 19, as the final heat of the J-Bay Open streamed worldwide, Fanning was attacked by a great white shark. It was like a scene out of a summer blockbuster.

Fanning, an Australian, was waiting for the next barreling wave when a fin emerged behind him, getting stuck in his surfboard's leash. There was thrashing, and a wave came, blocking the view.

The only other competitor in the water was Julian Wilson, who was seen swimming toward Fanning. As a wave blocked Fanning from sight for nine seconds, viewers watched tensely until they saw the surfer swimming safely with limbs intact. Jet Skis arrived within seconds, and Fanning and Wilson, 27, emerged unscathed. The moment went viral.

In the weeks and months that followed, many wondered: Would the tour return to J-Bay?

"The WSL office discussed at length," said Renato Hickel, the deputy commissioner for the Men's Championship Tour.

Hickel was in the commissioner's office when the shark approached Fanning. He was the one to sound the three quick blasts of a horn, signaling a stop to the heat.

"The surfers, the administration all agreed that J-Bay is part of the tour, and the incident wasn't going to prevent us from going back," Hickel said.

One of the surfers pushing strongly for a return to J-Bay was Fanning.

"I said, 'Look, we've got to go back,' " Fanning said. "To turn our back on it would be such a shame."

Fanning is not currently surfing the full tour, instead picking the events he enjoys and surfing without the "pressure to get the world title," he said. J-Bay was an obvious pick.

Fellow surfers and the WSL staff were not surprised by his return.

"A lot of us have long believed he was one of the most, if not the most, psychologically sharp surfer," said Dave Prodan, vice president for communications at the WSL. "I think for him surfing isn't just a career or sport, but it's something of a salvation."

The WSL has increased safety measures. This season, there is one Jet Ski in the water for each competitor at all times. Drones and a prototype of an underwater sonar technology will be employed. But the technology is not foolproof, Hickel stressed.

The J-Bay Open will run, depending on the waves, to July 17. Hickel laughed when he recalled who ended up in the first heat: Fanning.

Fanning went on to win the heat Wednesday, in the waters where he was attacked a year ago.

Pro surfer returns to site of his great-white fright 07/06/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 6, 2016 10:44pm]
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