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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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Lakey Peterson, with Guinness World Record, Egg McMuffin links, leads U.S. surfing to Olympic debut

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Lakey Peterson‘s mom is a former Guinness World Record holder. Her grandfather created the McDonald’s Egg McMuffin. She is now the best surfer in the U.S. after a breakthrough 2018, with 20 months until the sport’s Olympic debut in Tokyo.

Peterson went into this week’s Maui Pro, the last contest of the World Surf League campaign, in second place in the season-long standings. She trailed only the legendary Australian Stephanie Gilmore, who won six world titles between 2007-14.

Peterson’s minute world title chances vanished on her elimination in the opening rounds Monday at Honolua Bay. Gilmore became the second woman to win seven world titles, joining retired countrywoman Layne Beachley.

“Stephanie’s trying to be the greatest of all time,” said USA Surfing Olympic coach Joey Buran, who guided Peterson a decade ago in her early teens, around when Peterson had a poster of Gilmore on her bedroom wall. “Lakey’s trying to make her move now.”

It’s an opportune time. The bulk of, if not the entire U.S. Olympic surfing team will be decided via next year’s World Surf League standings.

Peterson nearly screamed from the couch on Aug. 3, 2016, when she learned via email that the sport was officially added to the Olympic program.

“Kind of been some talk of it within the industry,” she said before a fan meet-and-greet in her native Southern California this summer. “It wasn’t completely foreign news.” 

On that day in August 2016, many would not have pegged Peterson to make the Olympic team, which could be limited to two Americans per gender.

It had been four years since her one and only World Surf League event win at the 2012 U.S. Open as a 17-year-old. She had missed the first half of the 2016 season with a broken ankle, what she calls her biggest obstacle in surfing. Americans Courtney Conlogue, Carissa Moore and Tatiana Weston-Webb were ranked Nos. 2, 3 and 4 in the world behind Australian Tyler Wright. (Webb, a Hawaiian, announced this past April that she would represent her birthplace of Brazil as an Olympic hopeful.)

Peterson’s mom, Sue, was in another room at the house when the Olympic news broke. She has a unique perspective.

“I’d love for Lakey to have the opportunity to compete in the Olympics because, as an athlete, I know what it feels like to try, and I never experienced that honor,” she said. “But I was a little bit [thinking], oh shoot, that’s a lot of pressure. I know what that pressure is like. They go to the Olympics, and if they don’t win a gold medal, then they’re [labeled] a loser. It’s too bad because they’re all great athletes.”

Sue Hinderaker Peterson held the 50-yard freestyle American record from 1978 to 1980 as an All-American at the University of Southern California. It got her in the 1980 Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest female swimmer at 4.42 miles per hour in a 25-yard pool, standard for NCAA meets. Olympic pools are 50 meters.

But Hinderaker Peterson never made it to the Games. There were no Olympic Trials in 1980 because of the U.S. boycott. Hinderaker Peterson’s best event, the 50m freestyle, also wasn’t on the Olympic program in 1976, 1980 or 1984. It debuted at Seoul 1988.

USA Swimming still held a national championships meet days after the 1980 Moscow Games ended. An Olympic team would still be named, for what it was worth. Hinderaker Peterson, seventh in the 100m free at the 1976 Olympic Trials, skipped it and flew to Hawaii.

“I had already had my chance in 1976, and that was all I needed,” she said in 1982, according to the (Palm Springs, Calif.) Desert Sun. “To tell the truth, I was kind of glad that I didn’t have to try out again.”

She finished competitive swimming at USC the next year. In 1982, she married David Peterson. Turns out, his father invented the Egg McMuffin.

“He started the whole breakfast business, actually,” said Hinderaker Peterson, who is divorced from David. “When he started at McDonald’s, they weren’t open until 11 a.m. He loved eggs Benedict, so he created this kit to take to Ray Kroc to show him in Chicago. Had a blacksmith make a round circle to put the egg in.”

The Petersons still own one of the original egg rings. In the early 2000s, they had the ring in a cupboard with family photos and a copy of the 1980 Guinness Book of World Records.

Peterson’s childhood is a unique story. When Hinderaker Peterson was five months pregnant, she was told her baby (whose birth name would be Laura) may have Down syndrome and that if they wanted to abort, this was the time..

At eight months pregnant, she came out of the water first in a team triathlon.

When Peterson was 5, brother Parker 10 and sister Whitney 13, the family traveled the world for the better part of a year — Biarritz, Switzerland, Bali, New Zealand, Tahiti, Australia.

“Skipped Africa because we didn’t want to give her shots,” Hinderaker Peterson said.

Peterson got her picture with Beachley in Manly, Australia. In their two months in Australia, she attended a daily surfing school.

“They would call her Lakey Surf Legend,” Hinderaker Peterson said. “She would get on her boogie board and just stand up. She wasn’t afraid.”

When they returned to California, Peterson stuck to basketball, flag football with the boys, soccer, tennis and water polo. But her mom always hoped she would revert to surfing.

“In the back of my mind I just thought it would be really nice to have her do a sport where we can go to the beach and it’s a little more casual,” Hinderaker Peterson said. “It’s not an Olympic sport. Not as much pressure.”

After many Southern California oceanside trips, Peterson finally asked if she could go to a local surf contest. There was no girls division, so she beat all the boys.

Soon after that, she was competing at a national-level championships, marveling at a pair of Nikes in a glass case display and wondering what it would take to get sponsored by the Swoosh. At 14, Peterson became first woman to throw an aerial maneuver in a contest. She won and won and wrote and wrote letters to the company, which eventually signed her in 2009, when she turned 15.

Nike included Peterson in an all-female surfing film in 2011 with some of the U.S.’ best, including the world champion Moore. Peterson had yet to make her senior world tour debut.

She proved herself later that summer, winning the junior U.S. Open, getting into the senior U.S. Open as a wild card and advancing all the way to the final, where she took runner-up. Peterson, who had worked one day in the drive-thru at one of her father’s six McDonald’s restaurants, reached the elite senior level of pro surfing.

The next year, Peterson won the U.S. Open, competing for Daisy Merrick, the 8-year-old granddaughter of her board shaper and daughter of her church pastor. Daisy was diagnosed with cancer at age 5. Peterson, who taught a Bible study class to Daisy and her friends, promoted websites during the season to aid the family’s medical expenses. Daisy died the following February.

The next five seasons, Peterson made 13 semifinals on the world tour but had zero victories.

“I was doing fine. I was doing OK,” she said. “I just wasn’t winning.”

She broke through at the 2018 season-opening event in Coolangatta, Australia, in March. Then won again in Bali in June. She traded the overall standings lead with Gilmore, arguably the greatest female surfer in history. Only Kelly Slater has more world titles among men or women.

“I broke down a lot of mental barriers,” Peterson said Monday. “Proved to myself that I can be in this position going for a world title. … There’s lots more to learn.”

Like waves of consequence, meaning the biggest waves the surfers face in contests, such was the case Monday. “Something I think I’ve really improved upon,” she said. “A few years ago, I would have been pretty scared. … I need to continue on that trajectory of learning to read the ocean, reefs and bigger swells.”

Peterson and other surfers prefer the season-long world championship format to the Olympics, given the latter’s one-off format inherently increases variability.

“It just feels more, I guess, fair. Like, the best person will truly win,” she said. Peterson then noted that there are no anthem ceremonies on the World Surf League. “That being said, I don’t know if there’s anything more magical than winning a medal, standing up there and hearing your national anthem play. That just would be the most incredible feeling in the world.”

MORE: Will Kelly Slater go for Tokyo 2020?

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Stephanie Gilmore wins seventh surfing world title, ties record

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Australian Stephanie Gilmore tied the female record with her seventh surfing world title, mathematically clinching at the season-ending Maui Pro on Monday.

“Surfing means everything to me. It’s given me everything,” she said. “I’ll never forget being a young girl, surfing all day long. It’s all I could think about. It’s still my first love.”

Gilmore, 30, joined retired countrywoman Layne Beachley with seven championships. Only Kelly Slater, with 11, has more among men and women.

“She could easily win a dozen IMO and I hope she does,” was posted on Slater’s Instagram Story.

Gilmore clinched when American Lakey Peterson was eliminated on the first day of the Maui contest on Monday. Peterson needed to win Maui and have Gilmore fail to reach the semifinals for a chance at her first world title.

“So much for me to learn still,” the 24-year-old Peterson said. “Congrats to Stephanie. What a beautiful surfer. It’s so cool to have her kind of as inspiration, really. … There’s no one more deserving. It hurts, but it’s been a really fun year.”

Gilmore won four straight championships from 2007-10, then again in 2012 and 2014. She is an early medal favorite for the sport’s Olympic debut in 2020, along with countrywoman Tyler Wright (2016, 2017 World champ) and the two or three Americans who will qualify for Tokyo.

Hawaiian Carissa Moore is the lone U.S. woman to win a world title since Lisa Andersen won four straight from 1994-97. Australians Gilmore, Beachley and Wright combined for 16 of last 20 crowns.

MORE: Will Kelly Slater go for Tokyo 2020?

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