Australian surfing legend Mark ‘Occy’ Occhilupo has opened up about his long battle with mental illness and his recent “third time lucky” attempt at getting sober.
These days, the 53-year-old is pretty comfortable delving into his darkest chapters – the bouts of depression that saw him abandon a world tour while at his peak and his destructive stretches of substance abuse in a bid to self-medicate.
But back in the 1980s when the humble 17-year-old made waves in international surfing, blokes didn’t talk about their struggles.
No one really did, Occy, as he’s famously known, told news.com.au.
“I had no idea what was happening to me, absolutely none,” Occy recalled.
“Back then, mental health wasn’t talked about. You kind of felt like whatever you were experiencing was only happening to you. There weren’t really any ways to talk to other people – it’s not like now with social media.
“So, I didn’t talk to anyone about it. Counselling wasn’t a big thing back then.”
Surfing legend Mark Occhilupo has opened up about his battle with the bottle and bouts of depression.
Surfing legend Mark Occhilupo has opened up about his battle with the bottle and bouts of depression.Source:News Limited
Mark ‘Occy’ Occhilupo said it’s important for him to speak openly about his dark chapters. Picture: Getty Images
Mark ‘Occy’ Occhilupo said it’s important for him to speak openly about his dark chapters. Picture: Getty ImagesSource:News Corp Australia
When Occy left school after Year 10, he was already a rising star on the local scene, having won his first amateur schoolboy competition at 13.
He left home and went on tour with the Association of Surfing Professionals, rising to the top of the rankings when he was 17.
“It was a real fast life being on tour,” Occy said. “And it burnt me out.”
The fierce nature of elite competition, coupled with the less healthy elements of being a young man thrust into the limelight, took its toll.
“I thought I was just homesick,” he said of abandoning a world tour when he was 19 and returning to Australia.
“I came home and hibernated. I put on a lot of weight, which gave me a lot of anxiety. I was paranoid about anyone seeing me like that. I stayed inside. It kind of snowballed.
“I was stuck in that zone.
“The depression wasn’t constant. It would come and go. But it was tough. It was kind of weak to be going through something like that. You didn’t talk about it. You tried to keep a handle on it yourself.”
His battle with the bottle, which would be a persistent demon throughout the decades to come, emerged in his early 20s.
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Mark Occhilupo pictured in 1984.
Mark Occhilupo pictured in 1984.Source:News Corp Australia
Mark Occhilupo was at the height of surfing success when he abandoned a world tour at 19. Picture: Bruce Channon
Mark Occhilupo was at the height of surfing success when he abandoned a world tour at 19. Picture: Bruce ChannonSource:News Corp Australia
For several years, he was a shell of his former self and it weighed on him heavily.
“When I abandoned the tour, I was rated pretty highly,” he said. “Then I was kind of nothing – I was 110 kilos and hiding away from the world. I was self-medicating with alcohol – smashing it, waking up with a hangover and going back to the bottle shop.”
The long road back to glory began as something of an accident, when his sponsor Billabong wanted to use Occy in a new series of advertisements.
“That’s why I started to lose the weight at first,” he said.
“Billabong didn’t necessarily want me to come back to compete. They were worried it’d ruin my image. I’d had such a good career before I left.
“They needed to use me in advertising and stuff and so I had to look healthy. That was the initial motivation for getting the weight off. Then I thought, I’m gonna come back.”
Occy said it was a gamble to re-enter the sport he had left as a champion, with the very real possibility that he would crash out and that would become his legacy.
Mark pictured in 1996 after returning to competition after a long absence.
Mark pictured in 1996 after returning to competition after a long absence.Source:News Corp Australia
Mark Occhilupo pictured in 1998 after winning the Bells Beach Rip Curl Pro.
Mark Occhilupo pictured in 1998 after winning the Bells Beach Rip Curl Pro.Source:News Corp Australia
He was fit, healthy and training constantly, but when he requalified, he discovered that surfing “had gotten a lot better and a lot faster”.
In 1998, Occy stunned the sport when he came second to legend Kelly Slater, and again wowed just a year later when he took out the world title.
“It was such a sanctifying feeling to get to come back,” he said. “Everything was great after that, career-wise.”
Occy is a guest on a new web series, After Dark , hosted by Tim Ross, delving into his defining moments and some of the challenges that shaped his later life.
Talking about his down points is something he views as important – a kind of community service, offering hope and inspiration to others who are struggling.
“I’m usually a pretty open person,” he said.
“Different people go through higher highs and lower lows. It’s important for me to share my story … maybe it’s helpful for others. Hopefully it is.”
As he explained, getting back to peak form and winning a world title might’ve put his professional life back on track, his personally, things were still a bit of a shambles.
“I think I’ve got an addictive personality,” Occy admitted.
“I’ve been sober for almost two years now. It was really tough. I’ve tried three times now – third time was the charm. I’m lucky to have people around me who really wanted me to succeed.
“I was feeling physically sick over it. I really wanted to get away from that – I think that was the key for me. It was something that I really wanted to do.
“The first couple of times, I didn’t really want to get sober. I was slinking away and drinking when people thought I wasn’t. It was almost worse than being a drinker. It’s pretty ugly.”
Mark Occhilupo announcing his retirement from professional surfing in 2005. Picture: Richard Webb
Mark Occhilupo announcing his retirement from professional surfing in 2005. Picture: Richard WebbSource:News Limited
Now, Occy channels that addictive, almost obsessive nature into “living life and loving life”.
He’s up before dawn, hitting the waves near his home on the Gold Coast, and then busying himself with being outdoors, spending time with his kids and playing golf.
“With an addictive personality, when you get bored your vices become really relevant in that moment and your mind starts wandering. It’s like, too much time to think.
“I keep super busy all day, go to sleep early and then wake up early and do it all again.”
It’s an approach that has proved successful. Occy said he “doesn’t miss the alcohol at all”.
Mark Occhilupo with his son Jay at 11 months. Picture: Adam Ward
Mark Occhilupo with his son Jay at 11 months. Picture: Adam WardSource:News Limited
Jay Occhilupo now with dad Mark. Picture: Ben Stagg
Jay Occhilupo now with dad Mark. Picture: Ben StaggSource:Gold Coast Bulletin
Keeping busy isn’t too hard, having welcomed a new baby boy into the world two months ago – Java. He’s also got Jasper, who is two-years-old, and two older boys – Jay, 16, and Jonah, 12.
“Everything is fantastic. I’m thoroughly enjoying life,” he said.
He spends a lot of time at the beach with his son Jay, who is following in his footsteps as a surfer “with a really big future”.