The old adage, they don’t make ’em like they used to, can be best applied to the former world champion Mark Occhilupo.
The story hardly needs to be retold, but let’s recap in one sentence: Eighties surf prodigy explodes onto tour, finds drugs, gets fat and goes, briefly, mad, resurrects, wins a title, and becomes surfing’s most beloved icon. A walking paradox of naiveté and complexity.
Occ’s surfing at Bells in 1997 has yet to be bettered.
A few years ago, Mick Fanning told Coastalwatch: “To this day I’ve never seen someone dominate an event like Occy did the Skins. He didn’t have one dud heat. His surfing was so much faster and bigger than anyone else out there and all the top pros were in it, including Kelly. I definitely haven’t seen a backhand as strong at Bells since. Occ’s waves in the Skins would still be getting near-perfect scores in World Tour heats today and it was 17 years ago.”
And when Occ, who is now fifty one years old, married thrice and father to three sons and stepfather to, I think, seven kids, is on he takes the interview to beautiful heights.
In this piece with reporter Hamish McLachlan from Melbourne’s Herald Sun, mostly to push the wave pool company he’s ambassador for, Occ covers his childhood, the fat and crazy phase, how his sisters used to dress him like a doll (“I liked it”), the marriages, the kids, getting into the USA without a passport and a few other fine stories.
You’re the youngest of four, and the only boy. Were you used as a mannequin by your sisters?
MO: Yes. They used to dress me up, put make up on me, put dresses on me, the whole lot. It wasn’t very fair. At the same time though, I kind of liked it. When I was four or five they got me a kilt, so I used to wear that around. I’ve grown out of it now.
HM: You’re not doing any cross-dressing now?
MO: No, no. I’m all good now.
What did the tour look like year by year, month by month as a young single teenager?
MO: Wowee, it was pretty intense back then! It was fun, but it was a grind at the same time. I didn’t realise that at the start because it just looked so good. Back then, it was just going from the hotel room, to the beach, and back again. It wasn’t that safe back then either. While I was over there, I realised that it wasn’t even that organised. I’d be going to California and there’d be raging parties around. Then off to Japan, then Europe, to Brazil, because back then we had twenty odd events in a single year. I was actually in the top 3 in the world for the first few years. I never really dropped out of the top ten, but I was homesick, and I just wanted to go home.
Did you think you would surf professionally again?
MO: I didn’t really think about the future, to be honest. I was way too young to retire, only in my early 20s. I just didn’t think about the long term, and thought at the time that I was homesick. I missed my friends, I missed my mum and dad, my sisters, and I just wanted to be back home, so that’s what I did, and I didn’t really tell anyone. I had to make a phone call when I got home and tell the founder and owner of Billabong, Gordon Merchant. That was a scary phone call! He understood though. He was fantastic. He still paid me the same wage, and a very good one at that.
Another child at 50 is one of the great performances of all time. Forget the World Championship in ‘99!
MO:(laughs) Thank you. It was just so cool. This is my girls sixth child, and my third boy. We’ve got one big happy family. All the kids surf, and it’s really funny because our new child has brought everyone closer. Our youngest are both 10, and they’re in the same class. They’re best mates, and my fourteen-year-old used to go out with her thirteen-year-old. They don’t anymore, but they did before we first met. They’re all in the same school, and they all surf. The funniest thing is that my two boys are dark, because my ex-wife Mae’s parents were Filipino. She’s dark, and my kids are dark. They’ve got her coloured skin. My fiancé’s ex was Tongan, so all her kids are dark as well. We get some funny looks when we’re all in a mall, cruising around with seven dark kids all around us. Now we’ve got little Jasper, and he’s going to feel a bit strange when he grows up because he’s going to go, what happened here? How come I’m light, and everyone else is dark?