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.”
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