Last week, Australian surfer Stephanie Gilmore won her eighth world title, breaking her tie with Layne Beachley for most world titles won by a female surfer.
Gilmore’s eighth world title looked very different than her first seven. Last year, the World Surf League (WSL) introduced a new championship format: a one-day surf-off featuring the top five surfers on the Championship Tour (CT). Gilmore — who won her previous seven titles under the old season-long points system — entered this year’s WSL Finals in San Clemente, California, as the fifth-ranked woman. That meant the 34-year-old had to compete in (and win) every round of the bracket in order to have a chance at the world title. Gilmore did just that, going on to defeat five-time world champ and 2021 Olympic gold medalist Carissa Moore 2-0 in the best-of-three final.
After the competition, On Her Turf caught up with Gilmore about what this eighth world title means to her, whether she plans to continue competing through the 2024 Paris Olympics, and the future of women’s surfing. This Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
On Her Turf: I’d love to start with your expectations entering the WSL Finals. As the fifth-ranked woman, you obviously had the longest ladder to climb in order to win the world title. What were your expectations and goals heading into the day?
Stephanie Gilmore: You know, it seemed impossible to imagine you could surf from fifth — beat all of the seeds ahead of you, all of the women that performed better than me throughout the whole season — and go all the way to the final. And then, to have to beat Carissa (Moore) twice in conditions that really favor all of us… Like, four-foot right-handers are really what Carissa excels at, and myself as well.
So I just wanted to keep believing. As cheesy as that sounds, it was just like, ‘Hey, this is a long shot, but a chances is a chance.’
I had this weird feeling if I could get through Brisa (Hennessy) and Tatiana (Weston-Webb), I could get enough momentum to keep rolling. I felt like, at that point, I could probably start getting into Johanne (Defay) and Carissa’s head. They’d see me catching some momentum and (it would) freak them out a bit.
And then, as the day went on, I was just like, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is actually happening. This is insane.’
I was just running off of adrenaline and excitement. Physically, I was ok. I was still able to surf. I just had to conserve my energy in different ways and try not to catch too many waves in a heat.
So yeah. My thoughts were just like, ‘Hey, this seems impossible.’ But if you just do the simple math, it’s not too bad. You can do it (win the world title) in five heats. That’s 10 counting waves. That’s just a three-and-a-half hour surf and you’re done.
On Her Turf: With the new WSL Finals format, what’s the balance of coming in as the fifth seed and getting all of those extra reps and momentum vs. the physical toll of competing in so many consecutive heats? What are the pros and cons?
Gilmore: Yeah, I was thinking about being in Carissa’s position and how I wouldn’t like to (wait around). I feel like it’s much harder to sit there and watch, to try to just visualize and adapt to the conditions without being able to physically go out there and feel the ocean and test the waves and test your equipment. Yes, we’ve already done all that in our practicing and our warm ups, but surfing is unique in that our field changes every 5, 10 minutes. The wind comes up, the tide changes, it’s just constantly moving… Surfing is very much a sport where you have to be in tune with Mother Nature, you have to be in tune with the elements.
I felt like I had such an advantage by the time I got to those later heats because I’d been in the ocean. Yes, each heat I went through was physically draining. But I just kind of kept finding the momentum where, because I’d been in the ocean, I knew what it was doing. I was in rhythm with the waves. And I was able to kind of use that to my advantage, whereas I could see that Joanne and Carissa, towards the back end, were a bit overwhelmed because they’d been sitting there watching it all day. They didn’t get the chance to go out there and feel it.
On Her Turf: Right after you won, you and Carissa embraced out in the water. Can you share what you told her in that moment?
Gilmore: I saw Carissa and I just gave her a big hug. And I said to her that I believed that she was the true world champion this year. Having won all of my world titles in that fashion, where I’d accumulated the most points over the entire season… It seemed hard to imagine that Carissa wasn’t going to be the world champion this year. Like, she had such a great year… And I just said, ‘I admire you so much. And I’m so honored to be able to share the water with with you in the final here.’
In saying that, now that I’ve had some time to really process what happened and how I had to just dig deep to be able to go through all of those incredible female athletes, and then to get through Carissa twice, at the very end of the season. It’s finally sunk in to me that that is truly what it takes to be a world champion… With this new format, it was almost like I was out to prove all that’s wrong with it, but all that’s right with it as well…
And I actually really appreciate this new format, because it does bring out the best in athletes. I would say this was my greatest performance in my entire career. And I wouldn’t have had that chance without this new format.
On Her Turf: Wow. That’s a big statement, especially given that it’s your eighth world title. That actually leads to something I wanted to ask you about: I was curious if you have specific memories of all eight world titles? Or have they started to blend together, especially given that you won the first six in such quick succession?
Gilmore: I would say the first one (2007) is very memorable because it was the first and it was my rookie year on tour. And I was just so hungry to get out there and be world champion, that was my dream. So that one was incredibly memorable.
And then I’d say world titles two, three and four (2008, 2009, 2010) kind of blend together. Like I’m probably actually a bit shady on what the last events were and who (I had to win) against.
I had an assault after my fourth world title and I was out for a few months with physical injury. It was just kind of a traumatic moment in my life. And so thinking about the fifth world title (2012), it was my most rewarding title for a long time because I had to overcome a traumatic experience and I had to really re-find that confidence that I used to have in the beginning of my career. That’s when questions of doubt started coming, like, ‘Can you do it?’ That was also the start of when Carissa came on tour and started blazing through everyone. So when I was able to really fight back and win the fifth world title, that one was like, ‘Okay, this is a pinnacle moment.’
The sixth (2014) was great, but yeah, it kind of blends in. And then the seventh (2018) to align with Layne Beachley for the record was a huge goal of mine.
But winning my eighth kind of blows them all out of the water.
On Her Turf: It always strikes me as really hard for athletes when they have sustained success when they are really young… And then when they aren’t as successful, it seems like some people struggle to separate that downturn in their sport with their own self worth. I’m curious if that’s a feeling you experienced and how you dealt with it?
Gilmore: Totally. That’s a great question because it’s like, from a young age, I was able to detach from my wins really easily. It was kind of like, ‘Great, I’m winning a lot. And this is awesome.’ But I always felt like there was more to do, there was more to achieve, that I needed to surf better.
You have to be cautious of not becoming these world title trophies. Because surfing is just something that you do, it’s not who you are. Yes, I live and breath surfing. But, I think as a competitive athlete, you kind of have to be able to detach from wins and losses the same. You have to restart and refresh and move onto the next challenge, the next event, the next year with a fresh mind and see how you can evolve in all the different areas.
It’s like, I just won my eighth title. But I’m already thinking about the performances that I had this year that I was really disappointed in… To not have a great performance in Hawaii, to not get a great result in Tahiti, like, I would love to win those events. And that’s already giving me so much inspiration to just keep going. That’s the cool thing about surfing: we have such different playing fields, and to be able to perform at peak level in all the different waves, that’s really cool.
So that’s kind of where my head is at.
On Her Turf: I’m glad you brought up Tahiti! That was obviously a historic event just for women to be back at Teahupo’o and competing again. What were your main takeaways? And looking ahead, what are you hoping to accomplish there?
Gilmore: Tahiti was really special. All of us women on tour, we just bonded a lot at that event. We knew we had to unify and support each other because we could feel that all of us were intimidated.
We were at this scary wave and we wanted to put on a great show, but all of us were like, ‘Oh, this is new territory, we’re not sure how we’re gonna perform.’ We didn’t want to embarrass ourselves and we wanted the sport to grow. So it was cool. Yes, we were competing against each other. But there was something about the camaraderie that was really special. Even though the waves, you know, in the end weren’t so great at the finish.
Also, to see the young girls, local girls from Tahiti that were so confident, like Vahine Fierro. I thought she was going to win the whole contest. I watched her in the pre-surfs and I just thought, ‘This is what is so cool about women’s surfing.’ We’re only just starting to see these young women who have been surfing in these remote locations. And they’re starting to become world class surfers and they’re leading the charge for us as well, you know?
But yeah, I didn’t get a great result there so I know I’ve got a lot of work to do. I think that’s also the general feeling from all the women. It was great and we all pushed each other. But we all know we’ve got a lot of work to do and room to improve in these conditions. I mean, a lot of us were already talking about planning a trip back there to learn the wave more.
On Her Turf: Are you hoping to compete there during the 2024 Paris Olympics? I guess “Paris” should maybe be in quotes given how far away the surfing venue in Tahiti is from the Olympic host city.
Gilmore: Yeah, that’d be really cool. It’d be strange, for sure, not being in Paris with the Opening Ceremony and all that other stuff. Having been to Tokyo for the Olympics, I know that that was the highlight for me: going to the Opening Ceremony and meeting all the other athletes. So Tahiti will be kind of different. But in saying that, I’m sure winning a medal, getting spat out of really big beautiful barrels in Tahiti, that would feel really good, too.
On Her Turf: In terms of the growth of women’s surfing. I always say how thankful I am that I get to cover a variety of women’s sports because it is so interesting to compare and contrast between what different women’s leagues and sports are trying. And surfing is clearly doing a lot right in terms of gender equality, from the equal prize money to the side-by-side WSL Championship Tours this year. But gender equality is also the type of thing where the work might never be done. I’m curious what you think is the next step in that evolution?
Gilmore: Yeah, it isn’t ever done, progression is an ongoing thing.
I’m just so proud of the women in surfing. These positive changes that have happened, that is from the hard work and perseverance of the women before us, which started in the 70s, 80s, the 90s… That was a tough period for women in surfing.
It’s so incredible to see the young women now. The WSL does a ‘Rising Tides’ event. And pretty much in every country we’ve been to… In El Salvador, we had 40 young women that came down and they were great surfers. In Brazil there were like 50 young girls. And then here in California, we had 30 young girls who all surfed incredibly well.
It just restored my faith in the fact that, even though we may not specifically be on this mission to progress the sport of women’s surfing, we’re doing it through our actions, through our own personal goals, and our own personal missions. So the progression is happening and it’s really cool.
On Her Turf: Related to that… I was curious if there were any up-and-coming surfers you really enjoyed getting to know this year? Athletes who maybe didn’t have a huge breakthrough or win, but that you just enjoyed watching surf?
Gilmore: Yeah, I really enjoyed watching Bettylou Sakura Johnson. She’s from Hawaii and she’s sponsored by Roxy, too. So we spent a bit of time together and she’s a phenomenal young surfer.
Also Gabriela Bryan. She had the best year of all the rookies, made the cut, and had some awesome performances throughout the year.
I really liked Luana Silva, too. She and Bettylou were best friends on tour. I loved watching them learn. Like, they didn’t make the cut and it was a really emotional moment for them. It was kind of like watching their dreams crash. But at the same time, I just wanted to say them, ‘Hey, it’s a long, long career ahead of you. And these are the moments that that make you stronger.’ So it was cool to kind of be able to step in and be a big sister in that in that moment. But it’s hard because I also can’t give them too much information because they’ll be out here smashing all of us pretty soon (laughs).
On Her Turf: Final question, and this might be silly but, how did you decide on jersey #88? And do you switch to #99 as you now pursue your ninth surfing world title?
Gilmore: I was born in 1988. So that’s a pretty easy one. And I just liked the number eight. It looks beautiful, it’s infinite. Yeah, it’s a it’s a really nice number and so I just kind of stuck with it. And I’m sure I’ll stick with it for a while. Lucky 88.
On Her Turf: There you go! No. 88 has her eighth world title!
Gilmore: On the eighth of September, too!
Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC