Lost at sea – ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
Andy King’s life changed with one punch. He lost not only his hearing, but his hopes of becoming a pro-surfer. This is how he was lifted up by his surfing mates, including Mick Fanning.
King suffered catastrophic damage to his eardrums and cochlear leaving him almost completely deaf. (Australian Story: Anthony Sines)
Pro-surfer Andy King was riding high in April 2004.
He’d just made history with the highest two-wave score in the world and after eight years of slugging it out with all the other wannabees in the qualifying series, he was finally on track to reach his dream — a spot on the World Tour where his mate Mick Fanning was dominating.
But it all came crashing down when King and his now-wife Nadene were walking home from a night out celebrating in Cronulla with his surfing mates.
It was 2:00am and across the street, a Saturday night drunk hollered out to them.
The couple can’t recall the details of what was said. “It was just a silly comment”, Nadene remembers.
One that should have been easy to ignore.
But for King, a switch flicked in his head and he crossed the street to confront the group of men.
It was a decision that almost ruined his life. For a while, it did.
Taming the temper
“Sometimes, the bigger man is the man that walks away, right?” says three-time world champion Mick Fanning. He looks affectionately at his mate as he talks.
Today, King has a relaxed approach to everything he does, from coaching this year’s world number 2, Julian Wilson, to being a hands-on dad to Sunny, 7, and Florence, 2.
But as a young, up-and-comer on the surfing circuit, King was known as a hot-head and a risk-taker.
“He always had a short wick. We used to tease him about it,” Fanning says.
King got his start as a five-year-old grommet with the Cronulla Sharks Board Riders Club and surfing soon became his refuge, an escape from the menacing presence of his “deadbeat dad”.
Nigel King was an alcoholic with violent tendencies for as long as Andy could remember.
From the age of 12, King slept with a knife under his pillow.
“As soon as I got big enough and strong enough I started attacking him when he would threaten my mum and my sisters,” King says.
The first chance he got, King left home for the World Surf League (WSL) Qualifying Tour.
The love of competitive surfing and the brotherly friendships that went with it became his foundation. For the first time he felt free. But King would still turn to anger and fists in an instant if he or a mate was challenged.
“If you were ever threatened, it was always do a tackle,” King says. “It was born and bred in me.”
A young Andy King competes at a surf comp. Date unknown. King is now coach of pro-surfer Julian Wilson. (Supplied: Nadene King)
Surfers Andy King (second from right) and Mick Fanning (far right) have been mates for years. (Supplied: Nadene King)
Plunged into silence
In April 2004, King, 27, had been on tour for eight years on the qualifying series when he made that fateful decision to take on the heckler on Cronulla’s main street.
A group of men were yelling out comments about King’s now-wife Nadene and for King it was the final straw.
He says he snapped and went into “fight mode”.
“I got kicked, and I went down to the ground, and I got back up. There was a semi circle of his friends around,” King says of the main heckler.
“He jumped over Nadene’s shoulder and hit me when I wasn’t watching. Then I was unconscious.”
The scuffle was brief and ended when King’s head struck the pavement with a sickening crack.
By the time he came to, he was in “a really weird space”.
“I had no perception of height or where my head was. You know those dreams where you’re falling? I felt like I was suspended in space, but my whole head was spinning.”
Nadene remembers the look on her boyfriend’s face as he was placed on a stretcher and loaded into an ambulance. “I could just see from the fear in his eyes that something was wrong,” she says.
King nearly died that night from a brain injury.
Later, a doctor would ask what he did for a living.
“Well you won’t be doing that anymore,” the doctor said when he discovered his patient was a pro-surfer.
King had suffered catastrophic damage to his eardrums and cochlear, leaving him almost completely deaf and without equilibrium. He had to learn to stand and walk again.
He was devastated to learn surfing was out of the question. King tried to swim but without equilibrium swam down instead of up.
For a man whose nickname was “Turtle” because of his affinity with the water and his clumsiness on land, it was devastating. Some doctors said he’d need to go on the pension, get a disability sticker, or even give up his driver’s licence.
King lost much of his speech and was repeatedly embarrassed when he vocalised private thoughts aloud without realising.
“I was stripped of everything,” he says.
Now 42, King confesses he plotted revenge on the man who punched him. He learned he was a musician and King fantasised about paying him back with broken fingers to even the score.
The man who hit him was convicted of grievous bodily harm and given 500 hours of community service.
But it was the “brother bonds” with Fanning and the Cronulla board-riding community that brought King back to what he loved. Every day, friends would help with his rehab, walking him up and down the Cronulla esplanade and over the rocks to improve his balance.
Others eased him back onto a board and onto the waves.
Without hearing and equilibrium, it was a completely new experience.
“It was purely now about vibrations and the feeling in the ocean,” King remembers.
He describes his plunge into silence as a “forced meditation”. “You just go over and rerun so many stories,” he says.
King realised his own quick temper was partly responsible for his injury and that unless he changed course he was destined to keep repeating the patterns and behaviours of his life.
Fanning believes the incident that took his friend’s hearing “woke a lot of people up” in the surfing fraternity.
“It changed a lot of people in our circle [about] not reacting to those sorts of things,” he says. “Sometimes just letting go because you know it’s going to be safer.”
Back to the beach
Six months after his injury, King’s mates and some of the world’s best surfers, including Fanning, Mark Occhilupo and Kelly Slater, helped raise money to pay for a cochlear implant to improve his hearing.
They donated their time and auctioned items such as their old boards, eventually pulling in $105,000. And they dragged King into a sufficiently optimistic headspace to proceed with the operation.
King tried to get his old life back.
He got an injury wildcard and returned to the world qualifying series, but it was tough. He couldn’t wear his implant in the ocean so he couldn’t hear the hooter, or the scores, or the commentators. He found it difficult to read the waves without hearing them.
“I was stinking so bad I sold all my boards,” King says. Defeated, he chucked it all in.
Fanning came to the rescue, connecting King to a job as a mentor for young surfers with the Red Bull circuit.
King spent seven years with Red Bull, five of them on and off in Los Angeles developing training programs for young surfers before taking on the role of national coach for Surfing Australia based at the Hurley High Performance Centre on the Gold Coast.
He worked as a support coach for Fanning.
Long-time mates, pro-surfer Mick Fanning and surf coach Andy King at Duranbah Beach in northern NSW. (Australian Story: Anthony Sines)
Both King and Fanning credit their mateship for helping them through their toughest times. (Australian Story: Anthony Sines)
As King found himself, he was then able to help his mate, Mick Fanning.
In 2009, Fanning had already won one world championship but was floundering under the pressure and weight of his own expectations.
Out on tour, King could see his friend was struggling.
“He was always ahead of himself, always looking for points. He was training like an Olympic athlete, but he wasn’t enjoying himself,” King says of Fanning.
“Surfing shouldn’t be a chore.”
King and some other trusted mates just had to pick the right time to sit Fanning down and remind him of the reason why they surfed. It was a love of nature and the sea.
“When you get successful there are plenty of ‘yes’ men around but that’s not Andy,” Fanning says.
After their sit-down, Fanning went on to win his second world championship.
Today, King works full time as a professional surfing coach on the world championship tour with Julian Wilson, who is one of three surfers battling it out for the world title in December in Hawaii.
Last year he was fitted with a waterproof housing for his cochlear implant. For the first time in 14 years, he took to the ocean and could hear the waves he was riding.
It was life-changing, returning him to feeling at one with the waves.
King has taken years to shake off the anger and aggression of his father to become the man he wants to be.
In many ways, his friend Mick Fanning has been a better role model to him than his own father.
King has always admired Fanning’s ability to come back from adversity, including serious injury, the loss of two brothers and, in 2015, an attack by a great white shark while competing in South Africa.
“The way he lives [has] shaped the way that I act and the things that I do,” King says.
“Without that … I’m not sure where I’d be.”
Reporting: Kristine Taylor
Additional writing: Stephanie Wood
Photography: Anthony Sines, John Veage, St George and Sutherland Shire Leader, BoskoPhoto, supplied