Surfing: 'Occy' prepares to step off his board after the ultimate roller-coaster ride

Mark Occhilupo survived cocaine, alcohol and obesity to take world surfing title. Andy Martin bids farewell
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The Independent Online

I once asked the kids at Sunset Beach Elementary School, on the North Shore of Hawaii, which surfer they most wanted to be like when they grew up. Almost to a child, they chorused, "Occy!" "Occy" is the moniker by which the Australian Mark Occhilupo is almost universally known. Even in a sport where the phrase "living legend" is not exactly unknown, Occy has succeeded in imposing himself on the collective consciousness as one of the all-time greats.

And he has achieved his iconic status not just by being the best from time to time, but also at other times by being the worst. He is an extreme case who has scaled the heights and plumbed the depths. Now, finally, after a career that makes the inevitable roller-coaster analogy look flat, he is calling it a day and has announced, at the grand old age of 38, that this is his last year of full-time competitive surfing.

"I want to leave on a high note," he said while waxing down his boards for the Quiksilver Pro, the opening contest of 2005, at Snapper Rocks on Australia's Gold Coast. "I feel like I could probably keep on going for a few more years but I want to finish my career surfing as good as I can. I don't want to be going at about 50 per cent and just making up the numbers." Occy reckons he has achieved "all the things I wanted to do", but you have to add on quite a few things he never planned on.

Born in 1966, the son of an Italian immigrant, Occy is one of that generation of fearless Australian "grommets" who bunked off school to go surfing and then found sponsors insane enough to fund the fantasy. At the age of 16, Occy joined the ASP pro tour that spins around the globe from one glorious palm-fringed beach to another. To "go on the tour" was the dream of every loose-limbed, wave-loving wannabe. But, in reality, the tour was half-heaven half-hell. Gordon Merchant, the founder of Billabong, who discovered Occy at Cronulla outside Sydney, says: "I tried really hard to talk Occy out of going because he was so young and the tour in those days consisted of 25 events and was extremely gruelling." But Occy took the money and his board and ran.

On his first year on the tour he established himself as a power-surfing goofyfoot with a Desperate Dan chin for whom the verbs "rip", "carve" and "slash" seemed to have been invented. The almost omniscient Matt Warshaw, author of The Encyclopedia of Surfing, says that, although renowned for his strength (acquiring the nickname "Raging Bull"), "finesse was in fact his greatest asset and no surfer has ever had a more natural feel for the vectors and planes of a breaking wave".

He defeated the world champion, Tom Curren, on his home territory at Huntington Beach in California and shot to the top of the rankings. He won the 1985 Pipeline Masters while still a teenager.

He was a lovable rebel who had the reputation of practising some of his moves on the roofs of cars while they were speeding along the highway. And he had an endearing habit of shredding the English language. "I really wanted to win this contest," he once said, "but it deluded me."

Over the next three years he came third, fourth, and third again in surfing's premiership. Total victory was inevitable. Except it wasn't. He went into a cocaine-and-alcohol-fuelled tailspin, with a junk-food habit thrown in for good measure. Occy had a classic surfer's physique, not tall but muscular with massive shoulders and dancer's legs. But his weight ballooned up to 245 pounds and he bombed out of the tour.

Occy was a 20-year-old has-been. From third in the world he sank to a number adjacent to his poundage. He was a drop-out in a profession which was invented for drop-outs. He didn't fall from grace, he dived spectacularly, straight down, into manic depression. He tossed off his contest vest and buried his boards, literally. Incredibly, Billabong kept faith with him.

"He just needed someone to believe in him," says Merchant. Or, to put it another way, surfing has a perverse fondness for out-of-control, self-destructive misfits.

Occy spent years in the wilderness. Then in 1995, Jack McCoy, who has made more surf movies than anyone else in history, started shooting "The Occumentary", and booked him a slot in the inaugural Billabong Challenge, a kind of off-Broadway breakaway event, where eight selected surfers slugged it out in Gnaraloo, on Australia's far-flung north-west shores. Occy could have been crucified there, but it was more like a resurrection.

His close friend and photographer Paul Sargeant trained him up and slimmed him down and took him back to Pipeline in Hawaii for one of the climactic events of the surfing year. Occy worked his way through endless trials and only came second to Kelly Slater in an epic final. After a couple of years on the satellite World Qualifying Series he made it back into the main event, the World Championship Tour. In his first full season he ranked second. In 1999, aged 33, he was finally crowned world champion, the oldest ever to take the title. He had both the most comprehensive physical and psychological wipe-out and the greatest comeback of all time to his credit. In 2000 he was inducted - the ultimate accolade - into the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame. He has featured in over 70 surf films and appeared as himself in the Hollywood feature, North Shore.

Occhilupo really is going to be spending more time with his family - he and his wife, Mae, have a two-year old son, Jay - but will still be appearing as a wildcard at Jeffreys Bay and Mundaka. He may be dropping out of the Tour, but only to go surfing whenever and wherever he likes. Occy is the Peter Pan of surfing who is still living the dream.

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