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Surfer Stephanie Gilmore’s path to Olympics joined by Cathy Freeman

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Stephanie Gilmore, like many Australians of her generation, points to one iconic sports moment of her childhood — Cathy Freeman winning the 400m at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

“I remember just being so blown away by the pressure [that Freeman felt],” said Gilmore, who was 12 years old at the time, two years before signing her first sponsor deal with Rip Curl. Surfing wasn’t part of the Olympics then, but it got Gilmore thinking about her other sports, like field hockey, soccer and track and field.

“I could go to the Olympics and throw a javelin or a discus,” she thought.

Gilmore stuck to surfing. Wise move.

Seventeen years later, Gilmore met Freeman for the first time. With the sport added to the Olympics, Surfing Australia brought Freeman to speak to more than a dozen Tokyo 2020 hopefuls at a camp in New South Wales last January.

“I was basically in such awe of her,” Gilmore said while visiting New York City last week, fresh off her female record-tying seventh world title. “She was so genuine and just talking about how she would find her sacred place in that moment that every single [set of] eyes all over the world were on her.

“Now I’m an even bigger fan.”

It’s hard to imagine Gilmore’s 2019 or 2020 topping her 2018. She won her first world title in four years and saw the World Surf League announce equal prize money for men and women starting next season. That came after a difficult stretch.

“My motivation and inspiration had sort of waned,” Gilmore said of going two and a half years between WSL wins from 2014 to 2017, including missing most of the 2016 season with hairline fractures around her knee. “Traveling so much can get a little tiring. You lose confidence, too, as you’re going along.”

Gilmore says that in Australia, each little beach has its own surf club. That’s where she began competing against the boys while Freeman was fresh in the minds of the Australian public. By 17, Gilmore was entering top-level international events, even winning her home beach event in 2005, then earned her first of four straight world titles in 2007.

On Dec. 27, 2010, Gilmore was attacked outside her home by a man with a metal bar whom she didn’t know. He hit her in the head and wrist, drawing blood and tearing ligaments before fleeing and later being caught, according to reports at the time.

Gilmore competed in the season’s first contest two months later, won an event four months after that and finished third in the season standings.

Gilmore won the first and last events of the 10-stop season in 2017, placing second overall to countrywoman Tyler Wright and just ahead of another Aussie, Sally Fitzgibbons. It’s likely that no nation will qualify more than two Olympic surfing spots per gender. Gilmore is three years older than Fitzgibbons and six years older than Wright. Time may not be on her side. All three were invited to Surfing Australia’s January camp for Olympic hopefuls.

The 2019 World Surf League standings should determine the two Aussie women who go to Tokyo. Gilmore needs to set herself apart from the best in the world, since they’re also the best from her country.

She did just that in 2018. Gilmore won three of the season’s first six events and clinched the world title on the first day of the 10th and final contest in Maui two weeks ago. She was the lone Australian woman to win any event this year. Wright missed the second half of the season with the flu and chronic fatigue.

Gilmore said the sting of losing the season’s first event — a quarter-mile from her Coolangatta home — and the anticipation of leading the standings going into the last event were proof that the motivation was back.

She couldn’t sleep the night before the Maui contest, unusual for her.

“All the what-ifs and the fear of failure and all these sorts of things in my head,” Gilmore said. “Yeah, it was mine to lose.”

She chilled out upon tackling the first wave of round one. She clinched the title when American Lakey Peterson bowed out in an early round. Only good friend Kelly Slater has more titles than Gilmore’s seven. The 11-time world champion said he believes Gilmore can reach his tally.

The two FaceTimed shortly after Gilmore’s celebration, explaining the intricacies of how waves barrel to WSL owner Dirk Ziff. Gilmore and Slater also talk music. Both play the guitar.

“He’s always been there,” said Gilmore, who is on a Led Zeppelin kick and often buys a guitar while at contests and leaves it there when she departs.

Gilmore believes that over the last decade surfing has gained on swimming and rugby in popularity in a nation where a majority of the population lives within a short drive of the ocean.

“The Olympic swimmers have always been held in the highest regard,” she said. “Ian Thorpe is probably our greatest Olympian. The swimmers have always been the most recognized athletes in our country. We’re such a small population in our country, but I feel like everyone surfs.”

MORE: Will Kelly Slater go for Tokyo 2020?

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Jordan Thompson, U.S. volleyball’s new weapon, took unique route to NCAA history

Jordan Thompson
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It was about this time last year that Jordan Thompson first appeared on the radar of U.S. women’s volleyball coach Karch Kiraly. Since, Thompson emerged as the youngest starter, and arguably a star, for the national team.

She goes into what could be her final weekend of college volleyball as one of the most dominant athletes in any sport. And one of the most unique stories in NCAA history.

Thompson plays not for a Big Ten or Pac-12 powerhouse, but for Cincinnati, a school that, before she arrived, never made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The unranked Bearcats upset second-ranked Pittsburgh in the second round last Saturday. They play Penn State, winner of six of the last 12 NCAA titles, in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

In 33 games this season, Thompson has registered a Division I-leading 768 kills, which is 143 more than the next most prolific attacker. That margin of 143 is the same number that separates No. 2 from No. 31.

Last season, she had 827 kills, which was 240 more than anybody else and a single-season record (by 112 kills) since NCAA match formats shifted from 30-point to 25-point sets in 2008.

She is a contender, if not a favorite, to be AVCA National Player of the Year. All of the previous winners dating to 1985 came from schools that reached at least one Final Four.

On Oct. 4, a UCF player’s face caught the wrong end of a Thompson attack. Cincinnati teammates watching from the bench dropped to the floor in astonishment.

Thompson tallied 50 kills in one match alone on Nov. 3, becoming the first D-I player to do so in 20 years.

That happened on Senior Day. Before that match, Thompson received a plaqued No. 23 jersey and flowers.

She posed for a photo standing with her husband, former Cincinnati offensive lineman Blake Yager, her mother, Mary, whose bribes helped Thompson develop into an attacker, and her father, 1990s Harlem Globetrotter Tyrone Doleman (and brother of Pro Football Hall of Famer Chris Doleman).

Mary has been most instrumental, raising Thompson as a single mom in Minnesota. Thompson, who is 6 feet, 4 inches now, was always tall for her age.

She played youth basketball against older girls and grew frustrated by the physical contact. Kneepads weren’t comfort enough. She decided to give volleyball a try in middle school.

“She was very timid,” Mary said of her daughter, who has since gotten 10 tattoos, including one of a hummingbird. “She would tell me she didn’t want to hurt anyone on the other side of the net. I told her I would give her a dollar for every time she would whack it. And I would give her $10 if she would actually hit someone on the other end of the court.”

It took a while, but Thompson was motivated by her love of horses. The payouts from her mom went toward a saddle and a bridal. A box with horse equipment remains in the family garage back home.

“She was trying to build up her supplies to be able to one day say to me, look, I’ve got a saddle, I’ve got all of my tack, I’ve got stuff to clean the hooves, can we get a horse now?” Mary said. 

After just two years of club volleyball, Thompson received her first Division-I scholarship offer. It came from Syracuse. Thompson was a high school sophomore.

“In the back of my head, I’m thinking, I’m never going to get another offer, so I better take this one,” she said.

Thompson was intent on Syracuse for a year before a coaching change led her to decommit. She wasn’t sure if many schools knew she had reopened her recruiting. A Minnesota club teammate had committed to Cincinnati and suggested Thompson take a visit.

The Bearcats went 3-29 the season before she committed.

“I said, Jordan, you can play D-I at Texas. You can go to Nebraska,” Mary said. “She was like, no, no, I want to play all four years. I actually want to get playing time, mom. She really struggled believing how good she could be.”

The biggest obstacle came junior year. In a preseason training session, Thompson collided with that Minnesota club teammate, Jade Tingelhoff, and tore the UCL in her dominant, right arm. She was in an armpit-to-wrist brace for two months post-Tommy John surgery, including three weeks with her arm locked in place.

She couldn’t brush her hair, had a hard time brushing her teeth and found it difficult showering and getting dressed.

She still went to every Bearcats game and traveled with the team. Cincinnati went from 22-10 her sophomore season to 13-19 that year without her on the court.

“It ended up being OK,” Tingelhoff said. “She came back that next season — I’m not kidding — 10 times as better than she was even the previous year.”

As a redshirt junior, Thompson and her 827 kills helped Cincinnati to a 26-8 record and its first NCAA Tournament win in seven years. She also caught the eye of Kiraly by the end of that 2018 season.

“She was one of the elite players in all of college volleyball,” he said. “Probably the only one who came from a conference other than the ones known for producing the most NCAA champions, like the Big Ten and the Pac-12.”

By last spring break, Thompson had become a favorite of U.S coaches at a camp to help select teams for summer international tournaments.

She had a one-on-one conversation with Kiraly, the only person to own Olympic indoor and beach gold medals. The legend told her she had potential to play at the Pan American Games. Later, he upped the praise to say she was ready for the top-level Nations League, a precursor to Olympic qualifying.

Thompson made her national team debut in May. By August, she came off the bench to help spur a comeback in a crucial Olympic qualifying match. The next day, she was in the starting lineup for the U.S.’ final Olympic qualifier, where the Americans clinched a Tokyo 2020 berth.

“I think a lot people don’t know she is still in college,” two-time U.S. Olympic outside hitter Jordan Larson said then. “She still has one more year left.”

Agents reached out, but Thompson had no intention of giving up her final year of NCAA eligibility. She wanted to make history at Cincinnati. That was secured with the Sweet 16 berth.

With the new year, she will trade the Cincinnati red and black for Team USA colors. She will keep in mind what the U.S. coaching staff told the team during Olympic qualifying and what she called a dream summer.

“My big goal in life was I just wanted to be in the USA gym,” said Thompson, who is working on her master’s in criminal justice. “To hear that we’re all working towards this goal of trying to make this roster, and we are being looked as potential players to make that roster, my jaw dropped. To know that it’s even a remote possibility is mind-blowing.”

VIDEO: Brazil volleyball star faints during courtside interview

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Tahiti chosen for Olympic surfing competition at 2024 Paris Games

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Paris 2024 Olympic organizers want the surfing competition to be held in Tahiti, an island in French Polynesia that is about 9,800 miles from Paris.

It would break the record for the farthest Olympic medal competition to be held outside the host. In 1956, equestrian events were moved out of Melbourne due to quarantine laws and held five months earlier in Stockholm, some 9,700 miles away.

The Paris 2024 executive board approved the site Thursday — specifically, the village of Teahupo’o — and will propose it to the IOC. It beat out other applicants Biarritz, Lacanau, Les Landes and La Torche, all part of mainland France.

“If, ever, we have two alternatives, and where one alternative gives the athletes of a particular sport more closeness to the heart of the Games and allows them to enjoy the magic and the spirit of the Games better, then in the interest of the athletes, we prefer this solution,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in June when asked about Tahiti’s interest in hosting surfing.

Surfing will debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games but is not on the permanent Olympic program. Surfing was among sports added to the Paris 2024 program in June and could be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

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