Interview with surf champion Mark Occhilupo

Surfer Mark Occhilupo’s life has been as volatile as the massive waves he mastered to become the oldest world champ ever. On retirement, he collaborated with writer Tim Baker to tell, for the first time, the story of his remarkable career.

 

In March 1988, a desperate Australian mother made a call to talkback radio. Her son was in Hawaii self-destructing on drugs, she told the king of Sydney radio, John Laws, and his listeners. She had flown there to rescue him but he’d rejected her help, and she feared for his life.

"I was like a tigress fighting for her cub," Pam Occhilupo tells me, maternal concern still etched on her face 20 years later.

Though Pam didn’t identify herself or her son, ears pricked up, particularly in surfing circles.

"John managed to elicit from me that Mark was a ­professional sportsman," says Pam, "and I suppose people only had to put two and two together to realise what sport it was and who the sportsman was." After just five years on the professional surfing tour, Mark Occhilupo, teen surf sensation of the mid-1980s, was shaping up as a classic shooting star – blessed with rare talent but cursed with a fragile, child-like psyche that was unsuited to sudden fame.

Mark’s family name Occhilupo translates as "Eye of the wolf". In popular Italian usage it is a warning: to watch as keenly as the wolf for danger. In Mark’s case, it proved ominous.

Pam’s phone call set in train a dramatic series of events culminating in her son being searched and interviewed by federal police on his return to Australia. And it would signal the beginning of his ten-year absence from the top of the world rankings, during which he grew obese and pale, gave up surfing, became too paranoid to leave his home, and subsisted on a diet of fried chicken, beer and daytime TV. A short-lived comeback attempt in 1992 ended in a manic breakdown and more lost years – which he now laconically refers to as his "Elvis Period".

"At my lowest point, if you could have found a bookie to give you odds, I would have been a million-to-one to ever win a world title," says Occy now.

"I might have taken the title of Craziest Surfer on Tour, or Fattest Bloke in Palm Beach." He laughs.

That Mark Occhilupo was able to defy the odds and claim a world title in 1999, 16 years after his career began, is one of the great sporting comebacks of all time.

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