Few surfers have ever had a presence quite like that of Australian Stephanie Gilmore. From a world title in her very first season on the Women’s Championship Tour, to breaking gender barriers, stylish innovation and social change, she has carried herself with dignity and shown true leadership.
And 2018 was a landmark year for Gilmore. She was not only at the forefront of the World Surf League’s announcement of equal pay for women surfers but backed it up with her five finals and three event wins to take home her seventh world title, edging out a white-hot Lakey Peterson. ASN had a chance to speak with the champ following her dramatic clinching of the title last week at the Beachwaver Maui Pro. As always, Gilmore had some fantastic insight for us.
Congratulations. What are you feeling right now?
Well it’s just starting to sink in, but thinking back to my first world title, people were always asking me “Will you get there? Will you get all these titles?” And I would be like, “Yeah, would you let me just soak up one?” [Laughs] But at the same time, it's always been a goal of mine to win as much as I can. And if I enjoy it, if I love it, then why not keep going? I'm feeling very inspired to continue on and hopefully get number eight.
This has been a memorable year but can you talk about that defining moment that you will always look back and remember from 2018?
When I think back, there have been times in previous seasons since 2014, which was the last time I won a world title, where it felt like I was surfing well and felt like I was putting it together but now I look back and it was completely half-assed. I wasn't really pouring my everything into it. And there was no excuse for not winning.
This year, I didn't get the result I wanted on the Gold Coast. I lost quite early and I was really upset about it. It's my home break and it's an event that I always tend to do well in.
I was really upset for a couple of days and I thought, “Well, obviously it means a lot to me.” It really reminded me of how much I love it and how much I want to do it. From that moment in March, I realized I really had to do this.
There is this amazing early round photo of you in that massive barrel at Honolua Bay last week. You're wearing the yellow leader jersey and if you look closely, you have this huge smile on your face that kind of says it all. What was that?
That was probably one of the best photos I've had in competition. It just shows the kind of waves we got to surf. It's as good as Honolua Bay gets. We were running the same day that the Jaws Big Wave Tour event was on so we had a huge amount of swell in the water.
I actually didn't make that wave. [Laughs] I knew it was going to barrel and I set up this soul arch. Right as I got to the end of the wave where I should have come out, it felt like a vacuum effect where it sucked air in before it spit out. And it literally sucked my board out from under my feet. I got the shot, which is great but that's how the ocean is.
One of the most notable happenings of this year was the announcement of the WSL to award equal pay to women surfers. Of course surfing is now the first U.S.-based global sport to make that commitment. You have been at the forefront of that at such an important time for women's empowerment globally. Then you back it up with a world title?
That was really the ultimate stamp on this year. Making that announcement back in September was a really emotional moment for the women. I know a lot of the girls on tour were shocked, as well. I didn't think I'd see that happen in my career. But it really showed the world that it can be done. It's a message for all women to not stop fighting for what you deserve. If you push hard, you can get there. I'm so proud that surfing can be a leader in that respect.
We're a young sport. It's really special that we can set that standard for not only sport, but other industries around the world. And to win the world title on top was the ultimate year, really.
How are the men on tour reacting to the move?
A lot of the guys on tour were very supportive. A few of them now have daughters so I think it means more to them now than it probably would have if they didn't have that connection. But it's not acceptable for any man to not be supportive of it. That's the coolest part, to have the support of the men and show the younger generation what's normal in equality from the very beginning. That's how it should be.
You've now won world seven world titles over 11 years. That's like a lifetime in women’s surfing and it has seen the initial changes to the ASP, the turnover to the WSL, the level of women's surfing go through the roof, Kelly's Surf Ranch, and now equal pay for women. Talk about being a part of all of that.
I think that's the cool thing about being a young sport. We don't have these 100-year traditions that we need to cling to. So we can blaze our own path. All of these big changes that the people who have taken over surfing are willing to make are awesome.
Winning world titles was what I was aiming for. But the more world titles you win, the more you start to think about what you can use them for. This year was when I really began to understand how important the voice of an athlete can be and the platform it allows you to have – to create changes in society that are bigger than yourself. Having an impact on the world around you, that is really my next focus.
Years ago you broke down the financial challenges of women’s surfing for me. You discussed how a brand could sell a boardshort to guys by sponsoring Mick Fanning on the idea that Mick was the fastest surfer in the world and guys want to wear what the fastest surfer in the world wears. But as you said then, women want to dress like Kate Moss. Have you seen that change?
I know the surf industry overall is hurting a bit at the moment. The endemic brands aren't performing like they used to. I think that's because there's a lot of disposable fashion now, which is kind of crushing the market and ruining the planet while they're at it.
But the companies are seeing how valuable female athletes are no matter what they dress like. You're speaking to an audience that is much broader than just the surf market. It's kind of this perfect feminine collaboration of character traits that speaks to girls all over the world, no matter what they want to do and no matter what they want to be in their life. You can really tell that story in a positive way and I think the surf brands are really coming to understand that.
What's next for Steph Gilmore? We know you love music. How about surfing? Any other thoughts about social change?
Well I have a few months off so I'm going to be enjoying some holidays and going to some cool places. But the next thing up is the Olympics really. We'll qualify through our WSL rankings. That's my new focus. And it's exciting because it's a whole new territory for us. I have the chance to chase down an Olympic gold medal in 2020 so I'm getting really excited about that.
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