Surfer Steph Gilmore has conquered the professional surfing world. Again.
In a recent article for the Sydney Morning Herald, prolific scribe Peter FitzSimons was complaining Australia lacked a truly great hero or heroine for the modern era. FitzSimons pined for the days when an entire crowd at the MCG could rally behind Dennis Lillee and chant his name as he charged in to bowl off a long run-up.
FitzSimons probably had a Wednesday deadline because on Thursday after his column ran, surfer Steph Gilmore claimed her seventh world title, equalling Layne Beachley’s record and solidifying her status as the ultimate Australian sporting icon. As Steph celebrated her win from atop the glorious cliffs of Honolua Bay on the Hawaiian island of Maui, the cheers echoed across the Pacific to Australia, where lineups, seaside carparks and surfing households were buzzing with the news of the big win.
Champions in every sporting code have their followers, but seldom are the frontrunners as universally popular as Steph Gilmore. Gilmore is adored by male and female surf fans, loved by even her fiercest rivals, revered by the best male competitors and widely admired by many who have never even entertained the thought of climbing on a surfboard.
So what is it that makes Stephanie Gilmore a surfing great? Not merely excellent, but genuinely exceptional. There are many factors which conspire to make Steph the beguiling
figure who claims the ocean as her stage, but to begin with it’s simply a matter of style. It’s an oft-quoted cliché: ‘It’s not what you do but the way that you do it’. But in Gilmore’s case the line is particularly apt. Sure, the statistics tell their story – seven world titles and 30 career victories in major events – but it’s the type of surfing Steph does that’s the secret to her superstar status. Picture the most elegant, but highly skilled, ice-skater traversing a wall of moving water and you are somewhere close to the aesthetic impact of Steph Gilmore’s surfing.
When the Surfer’s bible, Tracks magazine, published a ‘style Issue’, a few years ago it was Steph who graced the front cover, standing tall as she effortlessly trimmed down the line on a zippering point-break wall. However, while Steph’s grace can be hypnotizing, she still possesses the channelled intensity typical of many of the best sportspeople.
Gilmore can glide, but she can also slash, gouge and carve at the wave with the best of them. However, when Steph turns up the volume on her approach, her movements never become jerky or forced.
“It’s her ability to look at the wave and flow,” suggests two-times mens world champion, Tom Carroll. “She doesn’t look like she’s fighting anything, which is such a lovely thing to watch.”
Steph, now 30, grew up surfing the Gold Coast’s famed right-hand points: Snapper Rocks, Greenmount, Kirra and Burleigh. In the early 2000s, a young Steph watched on as fellow Coolangatta locals Mick Fanning, Dean Morrison and Joel Parkinson spearheaded a golden era in Australian surfing. According to Tom Carroll, witnessing the likes of Mick and Joel evolve into world champions had a profound impact on teenage Steph Gilmore.
“She’s been tutored in one of the most competitive surfing environments, one of the most amazing surfing grounds in the world…she probably tuned into Joel Parkinson the most.
“There’s definitely a little bit of a blueprint of Parko in there.”
While Steph was able to borrow from the best in the heady Coolangatta scene, Tom is quick to point out that it required a particular kind of resilience and determination to thrive in a setting where there are often hundreds, sometimes over a 1000, hungry surfers competing for waves.
“She’s not scared in a pack of boys or men. It was a tough environment that she would have had to deal with growing up at Snapper Rocks and Kirra – particularly as a female it wouldn’t have been easy – those guys are cutthroat. They’re gnarly.”
More to Come
While the battles may have been hard won, Tom suggests they ultimately served Steph well when it came to honing her competitive instincts. “She’s got a bit of competitive animal. I think she was born with that, but I think what that environment she grew up in does is spur that on. You don’t get seven world titles without having that competitive animal in you and that drive to win.”
When in top form Steph is both an inspiring and intimidating sight for any surfer. Asked if some of the best guys might be reluctant to pull on a singlet and compete against her, Tom chuckles loudly and states emphatically, “Absolutely!”
As for further titles, Tom is confident Steph still has plenty more to deliver. “God knows what’s coming along for her. She looks like she is getting her stride on.”
However, while competitive instincts and raw natural ability are critical facets in Steph’s success, winning her seventh world title required her to summon inner strength and re-examine what she wanted from surfing. Steph won her first world title in 2007 and then won three more on the trot; it was a streak that gave her an air of invincibility. The next two titles came in alternate years (2012 and 2014) meaning she only ever spent a year separated from the coveted world title crown.
Steph’s recently claimed seventh title came after a three-year hiatus from the number-one slot. In 2015 she missed almost half the season with injury and then, despite moments of brilliance, struggled with consistency in 2016 and 2017 when Tyler Wright claimed consecutive titles.
After a tough run it would’ve been easy for Steph to abandon her competitive ambitions and simply go surfing in exotic locations for fun. Such is Steph’s appeal that her sponsors would have been willing to endorse such a move. Many surfers still collect a healthy salary for simply riding waves and featuring in film and photo shoots. Within the surf industry the term used for this kind of paid surfing beatnik is a ‘freesurfer’, and Steph with her brilliant smile, infectious enthusiasm and rapturous style would have fit the bill perfectly. However, she chose to answer the competitive call again, embracing the physical and psychological challenge associated with winning a world title.
It’s arguable that greatness in sport is contingent upon the presence of a worthy rival. Ali’s legacy would never be the same without Joe Frazier or George Foreman and Martina Navratilova’s celebrated career was in many ways defined by her rivalry with Chris Evert. Steph’s 2018 world title involved a fierce battle with Lakey Peterson, a dynamic American surfer six years her junior. If Steph boasts the ultimate blend of power and style, Peterson is agile and aggressive, whipping through high-speed turns and occasionally taking flight beyond the lip – wielding her board like a sword and bringing an almost gymnastic element to her performance.
Peterson’s acrobatic approach saw her claim two contest victories and the number one ranking several times as the lead between her and Steph see-sawed throughout the year.
When Steph claimed her third win with a seamless victory on the unbelievably long walls of Jeffrey’s Bay in South Africa, she set up her world title success.
However, as the two surfers lined up for the final event at Honolua Bay in Maui, Peterson was still in contention for the title. If Steph was knocked out early then Peterson could claim the world title if she won the contest (giving her equal overall points to Steph) and then defeated Steph in a surf-off for the title. The odds were against Lakey but given her form and the intensity of her competitive focus it was certainly possible.
As fortune had it Steph was gifted the title from an old friend. Surfing as a wildcard, young mum Alana Blanchard blasted past Lakey Peterson in the second round of the Beachwaver Maui Pro. Peterson’s early omission meant the title belonged to Steph before she even paddled out for her round-three heat.
Audrey Styman and her twin sister, Grace, grew up surfing alongside Steph in Coolangatta. They were so excited about the prospect of seeing their friend and hero win her seventh world title they flew from the Gold Coast to Maui to see it all go down. Audrey explains how she couldn’t supress her excitement when it looked like Steph would win by virtue of Lakey’s failure to progress from round two.
“I have always wanted to watch a title go down and to watch your hero win it, is soooo special! With three minutes to go (in the heat between Lakey and Alana) I ran down to
Steph’s car so stoked, thinking she had won it and everyone was like, “Shhhhh! Too early.” There was no celebrating until the buzzer went and then it was just cheers and tears from there!”
Asked if it’s hard not to envy Steph, Audrey’s sister Grace explains that jealousy is rarely a response to Steph’s success. “She has done so much for women’s surfing. She’s got the best style in the world and the best attitude it’s hard not to admire her, especially all the hard work she puts in and titles she has won!
It’s funny at home when she gets a wave it’s like everyone stops in their tracks and just watches and hoots her wave whether she’s gone past or is coming towards you. I think that says a lot, especially at the most crowded wave in the world where it’s dog eat dog.”
A Deserving Winner
Champion athletes and leaders can sometimes manufacture an air of sincerity but the Styman twins suggest Steph is every bit as genuine as she seems in her interviews.
“She is the most humble and down to earth human! She is always so happy to surf and have a chat,” insists Audrey before the sentiment is reiterated by her sister Grace.
“Our generation are so lucky to have Steph to look up to, not only as an incredible athlete, but an incredible human being!”
So if Australians (and Peter FitzSimons) are seeking a champion who restores faith in our national identity and offers inspiration to people from all spheres of life – men as well as women – it seems Steph Gilmore fits the bill. She perfectly balances competitive savvy with style, and despite her professionalism and commitment to winning she always has time for a smile and a chat. Steph makes it apparent we can strive for excellence in all our pursuits, but still enjoy the process and the company we keep along the way. It’s not so much winners are grinners, but wear the smile and the winning will be all the sweeter.
That’s the Gilmore way.