By ED SOUTHORN
IT'S 4am, an hour before sunrise, and Mick Fanning is wide awake, getting a head-start on his rivals.
It is just one of the many sacrifices the 26-year-old Tweed Heads surf star has made this year to put him on the cusp of his first world title.
Every day without fail Fanning does an hour of stretching before daylight to prepare his body for the day ahead.
He has long been regarded as the fittest surfer on the World Championship Tour (WCT), but now he can lay claim to being the strongest mentally.
"He just oozes confidence," said rival and close friend Joel Parkinson.
Nobody knows the level of Fanning's commitment more than Matt Griggs, Rip Curl's WCT representative and Fanning's on-tour confidante.
"No-one has his level of discipline and level of commitment, not even close," said Griggs.
"If there's anything Mick can do to get this world title, Mick will do it, no questions asked."
Surfing Queensland high performance manager Phil McNamara coaches Fanning and several of the Gold Coast and Tweed WCT surfers including Parkinson and Bede Durbidge.
He says Fanning is easily the most committed surfer in the world.
"He is one of the most mentally prepared surfers I've ever seen," said McNamara.
"He will never miss a preparation whereas a few of the others might find it a bit tedious to get that ready.
"He's been enough of a man to look at his weaknesses over the past two years and do something about them. Mick has taken the work ethic to another level."
Since joining the world tour in 2002, Fanning has only missed the top five once, in 2004, due to injury.
On a surfing trip to remote reef breaks in Indonesia a freak wipeout almost brought a premature end to his career.
He completely tore the hamstring and tendons from his bone and was left with a softball-sized lump of muscle below his backside.
He endured an eight-hour boat trip and three-day journey without painkillers, and even had to bribe Indonesian immigration, just to get home.
Surgery and six months out of the water almost sent Fanning insane, but it also allowed him to rebuild his body, develop his technique and% rediscover the love of surfing.
As a child, Fanning dreamt of being a professional soccer player.
Born in Penrith and raised in Ballina, he was the youngest of five children (three brothers and a sister) and was a state level midfielder.
Older brother Sean was the mad-keen surfer.
Sean convinced mum Liz to uproot the family and move to the Tweed 14 years ago, and within a week of arriving both Sean and Mick were signed by Quiksilver.
Mick was soon lured to Rip Curl and at age 17 he was confronted with not only the pressures of competing but the devastation of the death of his idol Sean in a car% accident.
A gifted student with hopes of becoming a doctor or veterinarian, Fanning dropped out with six months left of Year 12 to focus on his world tour dreams.
"He has always regretted leaving school," said Liz.
"But I guess it's proven to be a good thing now."
A teenager travelling the world with a high disposable income could have easily fallen into the traps of drugs and parties, but Fanning steers well clear from both, most of the time.
On one of his first overseas trips he rang his mother, heartbroken at seeing one of his idols smoking dope.
But don't for a minute think Fanning is the tee-totalling surfer. He can party with the best of them.
His alter ego, Eugene Fanning, is one of the wildest party animals on the WCT, although Eugene only ever emerges once Mick is eliminated or wins a contest.
"He loves to party but knows there's a time and a place," said Griggs.
Despite his success he's never forgotten his roots or his friends.
His mum revealed how she'd wash Mick's only T-shirt every day so he could wear something clean to school.
Fanning now earns more than $1 million per year in sponsorships and has collected almost $150,000 in prizemoney this year.
And he has shared his success. Every member of the family has flown overseas and Mick always brings home expensive gifts from his travels. Close mates have also been flown around the world.
With just two events left on the world tour Fanning is expected to win his first world title in either% Brazil or Hawaii.
He leads eight-times world champion Kelly Slater and Aussie Taj Burrow in one of the toughest title fights in recent years, but is in the box seat and could secure the crown if he wins at the Brazil contest starting on October 30.