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The Unbreakable Icon

An interview with Mark Occhilupo.

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Moments before my interview with 1999 world champion Mark Occhilupo, he smashed his face on the reef at Backdoor. Broken nose. Cuts on his forehead. Stitches in his lips. Sore jaw. Total yard sale. He could barely speak. 

At 53 years old, Occhilupo is still as excited about surfing as ever. One of the sport’s most beloved icons, he now travels around the world interviewing fellow legends for his podcast, “The Occ-Cast.” He surfs all the time. He’s come to Hawaii for the Billabong Pipe Masters to do a new series of interviews, and paddled straight into the lineup at Pipeline. 

Quick history: raised on the competitive beaches of Cronulla, outside Sydney, Occy dropped out of high school to join the world tour full time at age 16. There were more than 20 international event stops at that time, and no iPhones or YouTube channels to explain how to do it. Not even a proper surf nanny. “You got streetwise real quick,” explains Occy. Despite his youth, he rocketed to the top of the ratings, won the Pipe Masters his third year in, and notoriously partied as hard as any of the older crew. In his early 20s, Occy burnt out. He retired from surfing, moved in with his parents, put on 50 pounds, and dropped off the scene for half a decade. In the late 90s, filmmaker Jack McCoy famously whipped Occy back into shape and made a few films, which led to one of the greatest comebacks in surf history. He was 33 when he won his world title, a record at the time. The next eight years on tour were basically a victory lap, and no one begrudged him for it. Win or lose, Occy’s presence elevated pro surfing.  

In some ways, Occy never grew up. Youthful excitement. Raw innocence. You’ll never catch him staring at his phone or humping his social media. He’s Peter Pan singing karaoke. And we love him for that. 

But now, Occy’s rattled. He’s out of here. Flying home to lick his wounds. As an odd sidenote, I’ve just broken my own nose surfing. I show up at the Billabong house, right at the start of the Pipe Masters waiting period, and appeal—one broken nose to another—for an hour of his time. Good old Occ cocks his head sympathetically. “You came all the way here just to talk to me?” he asks.

Nicknamed “Raging Bull,” finesse was actually the secret ingredient to Occy’s power surfing. In Fiji, during his 1999 World Title run. Photograph by Brian Bielmann.

NM How’s “The Occ-Cast” going for you?

MO Really good. Last I heard, we had over 2 million views, and that was a few years ago. I don’t know what it’s at now, but it’s going really good. Everywhere I go, everyone asks me when the next one is coming out. I really appreciate everyone out there that’s enjoying it. I was supposed to do some here, but I’ve hurt myself so I’m going home. But we’ll be doing some at Snapper, when everyone’s in my hometown.

NM What have been the highlights of it?

MO Wow, I’ve got so many. Gerry Lopez was amazing. John John and Kelly, Joel and Mick. Jack Johnson, I’m such a fan of him. Tom Curren was a classic one. I went roller skating with him. And when Christian Fletcher took me on his motorbike, that was so scary. Flying down the freeway. But so many people come up to me saying Christian Fletcher was their favorite one. 

NM What have you learned from doing interviews?

MO Let them talk more, and listen. That’s very important. If you’re just asking the questions and not concentrating on what they’re talking about, you’ll lose the person. I like to just go off the top and see where the interview goes, rather than preparing questions. My producer might pull me up at the end and say, “You missed something.” But I like to just let it flow.

NM What do you remember most about the year you won the title?

MO I won three big events, which were Mundaka, Fiji, and Tahiti. All lefts. Tahiti might have been the first one, and I remember walking through the track there, with the sunlight coming through the trees, and I kind of had a vision that this was my year. By the time I won Mundaka, I had a really big lead and I only needed things to go my way in Brazil so it wouldn’t come down to Hawaii. People behind me lost, I got through a heat, and that’s all I needed. I was really lucky that I didn’t have to compete at Pipe for it. 

NM After you won, were you thinking about winning another? 

MO Nah, I wasn’t. I was just stoked. It was just such a satisfying feeling. I did compete for a few more years, but it was more of just a cruise. Because then it was the dream tour, right? Traveling with Andy, Parko, and Taj. I stayed on until 2007. It was good. I didn’t want to leave. 

NM Is that where the partying got bad? 

MO I mean, Andy’s movie is pretty open about things. And I was definitely part of that. I don’t have any regrets, but I did end up with a bit of a drinking problem after that. I gave up drinking about two years ago. Took me a few years after the tour to stop. 

NM Were you causing problems when you drank? Like, was there a “darkest hour” moment?

MO Not really. I was just drinking to feel okay. And then you feel worse, so you drink more. It’s just like a spiraling circle. So I got out of that and it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done. The older crew used to tell me when I was younger that I’d have to figure it out someday, and now that all makes sense to me. It only took me until I was 50. Some learn slower than others.

NM You’ve spoken recently about being bipolar.

MO It does run in my family. My sister suffers from depression, and not because she’s a partier. She’s a doctor. Mental health is a thing I’m really starting to get involved with. We lose so many good people to suicide. People with depression need to go to a private facility and get real help. Otherwise, they don’t want to face it. For my part, I can take them surfing and maybe just brighten up their day. It’s simple, but it’s something I’d really like to get more into. 

NM Andy’s death must have been really hard on you.

MO I knew something was up there in Puerto Rico. And when he didn’t show up for his heat, I was really worried. When Joel rang me up that morning with the news, I just fell down. I was just sobbing for ages, until after the funeral. I still think about Andy a lot. I miss him.

NM Did Sunny Garcia ever talk to you about his depression? [Editor’s Note: In April 2019, Sunny Garcia attempted suicide. At the time of this interview, he had recently come out of an induced coma.]

MO Not really. We were really good friends and he’d tell me about his problems, but he was always so strong. Super strong. I mean, look at him. But I didn’t know the dark side. He never shared that with me. It’s so sad.

NM You tried to help him win a title one time, right?

MO I did. That’s a funny story now, but it was scary at the time. I’d gotten through the Pipe trials and there was a week of down days. I’d drawn Sunny, and if he won our heat, he’d win the world title. So I was getting all kinds of threats in Hawaii, like, “You can’t beat him.” I’m like, “Don’t worry about threatening me, I don’t want to beat him. It’s all cool. I’m on your side.”

NM Heavy.

MO Ben Aipa was really cool about it. He says, “Occy, you’ve got to try. You can’t just let him win. It’s got to be a real win for Sunny.” So, in the water, I told Sunny, “Just take whatever wave you want. You can have priority.” And he’s like, “Sweet, thanks.” But the heat just never went right for him. He broke a board. Everything bad that could happen, happened to him in that heat. And then a wide one came to me and I had to go, and it turned out really good. It just didn’t go the way I wanted. 

NM What happened after the heat?

MO Sunny came right up to me afterward and gave me a big hug on the beach. I was crying. But I was so stoked that he went on to win a world title a few years later. That was almost like me winning a world title. 

Andy’s movie is pretty open about things. And I was definitely part of that. I don’t have any regrets, but I did end up with a bit of a drinking problem after that.

NM What keeps you going these days?

MO Not drinking. I’ve got four boys, two fresh ones. The other two are older, 16 and 13. Jay is absolutely ripping. He’s loving surfing, and now my younger one is starting to love it, too. I’m just really fit, and surfing heaps. Apart from this injury. And I’ve been going up to my wave pool a lot. 

NM When did you get involved with the Surf Lakes project?

MO This guy, Aaron Trevis, invented it by throwing a stone in the water and watching the ripple effect. Now he’s created exactly that on a huge, huge scale. The machine’s massive. I’ve been involved for about three years now, from when they made the prototype. I went down to Melbourne, looked at it, and just went, “If you can do that in full scale, you’re on gold.” And then he did it. 

NM What’s the setup like?

MO There are four different peaks. You haven’t even seen the other peaks. They’re keeping them under wraps. But it’s not just about the wave. When someone buys the plunger, you can create your pool any shape you want. If you only want two waves and want to make them longer, you can make the peaks longer. But we’ve got four intense peaks on it right now, and we’re doing four-wave sets. It’s such a beautiful area where this one is. And you’re not all cramped up in the corner of some pool, against concrete. You’re in a wide-open space. The thing goes up and down, and everyone gets their waves. You catch so many waves. 

NM You sound excited about it.

MO I really am. I went to Kelly’s pool and that was unreal. I only got a couple waves because people were practicing for the WCT that day, but they were great. And the wave at Waco looks sick. I used to dream of it as a kid. I competed in one in Allentown, Pennsylvania. And it was 1-foot. Tom Carroll won that event. And Derek Hynd got second. All the lightweights. But my wave is quite powerful. We’ve been getting it 4- to 5-foot on the takeoff. It’s gnarly. I’ve been getting drilled into the concrete. We need to pad it.

NM So, are you a superfan of the tour?

MO Total superfan. I watch every single contest, without fail. My missus sometimes busts me watching a one-star in Japan, in Japanese. That’s how much I love it.

NM Who are your favorites?

MO I just want to see the best surfers. I can’t get enough of them. I’ve been watching Italo out here, in person. And Gabriel, John John, and Felipe. I just can’t get enough of seeing those guys surf.

NM What’s the future look like for Occy?

MO Just being happy. I still stay fit. I still have the weirdest urge to compete. I don’t know why. People think I’m crazy, but I’ve got this weird urge. I think I’d do well. I might be dreaming. 

NM So, don’t call it a comeback?

mo Exactly. But Jay is going to start competing on the WQS. So I might just go in those events with him, for fun, to see who can go better between dad and son. Maybe. You never know.

Illustration by Kristian Hammerstad.