Revered Australian power surfer from Sydney, Australia; a teenage phenomenon in the mid-1980s who suffered a physical and mental breakdown in the early '90s, then rebounded in spectacular fashion to win the 1999 world championship.
Occhilupo was born (1966) and raised in the industrial Sydney suburb of Kurnell, near Cronulla, the son of an Italian-born civil engineer who'd emigrated to Australia as a young adult. He began surfing in 1974 at age nine, and through his early teenage years was greatly influenced by local pro Jim Banks, as well as Tom Carroll—another stocky goofyfoot from Sydney. When Carroll won the first of his two world titles in 1983, it obscured the fact that 17-year-old Occhilupo, having dropped out of the 10th grade to surf full-time on the world tour, finished his rookie season ranked #16.
The high-voiced, lantern-jawed goofyfooter with the hard-to-pronounce name soon proved himself to be one of the world's most exciting surfers, as well as a shrewd competitor, and in 1984 his rating jumped up to #3. In 1985 he finished fourth, then went back up to third. He won the 1985 Pipeline Masters, and was a two-time winner in the Op Pro (1985, 1986) and the Pro Junior (1984, 1986). While Carroll remained the more complete surfer, and American Tom Curren (world champion in 1985 and 1986) was the sport's ultimate stylist, Occhilupo rode with unmatched vigor and passion, planting his stumpy legs in a wide utility stance and directing his board through deeply chiseled turns, hands and open fingers extending out from his body like balance sensors.
Occhilupo was celebrated for his tremendous raw strength—at 5'9", 175 pounds, he was nicknamed "Raging Bull"—but finesse was in fact his greatest asset, and few surfers have ever had a more natural feel for the vectors and planes of a breaking wave. Less effective in tiny surf, and not particularly interested in waves over 15 feet, Occhilupo rode best in long, fast, broad-based four to eight-foot waves, and turned in some of his best performances while riding backside at Bells Beach in Australia and South Africa's Jeffreys Bay.
From his earliest years as a pro, Occhilupo was one of the sport's most beloved and unique figures: warm, childlike, giggly, easily upset by violent movies, and a routine mangler of words and phrases ("I really wanted to win a contest last year," he once noted, "but it deluded me"). In 1987, however, he began showing signs of instability: he bought a penthouse in Cronulla and sold it a few months later, moved temporarily to the North Shore of Oahu, announced his retirement, made a comeback, then quit again. Alcohol and cocaine were his go-to vices (it was later reported in SURFER that Occhilupo spent $40,000 on coke that winter alone), but he tried almost anything.
In 1990, Occhilupo moved into his parents' house and gained 50 pounds; in 1992 he trimmed down and rejoined the world tour, but suffered an insomnia-related breakdown while in France, and again retreated to Australia, this time taking an apartment in Queensland's Gold Coast, where he quit surfing and put on 80 pounds (topping out at 245), before spending a year in therapy being treated for bipolar disorder. In 1993 he married Beatrice Ballardie, a single mother, and the following year, under her care—along with that of his therapist, as well as surf moviemaker Jack McCoy—he began to lose weight and regain his surfing form.
In 1997 Occhilupo completed his first full year on the world tour since 1987, and finished runner-up to Kelly Slater for the title. The following year he dropped to seventh, then in 1999 he won three of 13 events (in Tahiti, Fiji, and Spain) and at age 33 won the world championship with a few hundred ratings points to spare, culminating what former world champion Wayne Bartholomew justly called "one of the greatest comebacks in the history of sport." At the time, Occhilupo was the oldest world title holder in history.
Occhilupo dropped to 20th in 2000, then bounced back the following year to finish runner-up behind world champion CJ Hobgood; from there he slipped down the rankings, and retired after the 2007 season. He stayed fit, though, and in 2012, a 45-year-old Occhilupo thrilled fans by reaching the semifinals in the Telsa Drug Aware Pro at Margaret River, and the quarterfinals at the Nike Lowers Pro.
One of surfing's most photogenic figures, Occhilupo appeared in nearly 75 surf movies and videos, including Amazing Surf Stories (1986), Pump! (1990), The Green Iguana (1992), Psychedelic Desert Groove (1997), Inspired (2000), and Secret Machine (2006). Occhilupo played himself in Universal's 1987 surf movie North Shore; in 1998 he was featured in the Australian version of 60 Minutes; Jack McCoy's 1999 feature Occy: The Occumentary won Video of the Year in the Surfer Magazine Video Awards.
Occhilupo was inducted into the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame in 2000, and the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame in 2004. He was ranked #6 on Surfer's 2009 compilation of the "50 Greatest Surfers of All Time."
In 2011, Occhilupo made a brief and fairly clumsy appearance on the Australian version of Dancing with the Stars. “You’re not just a goofyfooted surfer, you’re a goofyfooted dancer," one judge told him. "That was the worst routine we’ve had in eleven series."
Occy: A Surfer's Year was published by HarperSports at the end of the 2000 season. Occy: the Rise and Fall and Rise of Mark Occhilupo was published by Random House Australia in 2008.