Stephanie Gilmore burst onto the ASP World Tour in 2007 and ended up walking away with the title. But where do you go once you’ve reached the top so young?

Focused, mature and fresh out of high school; Stephanie Gilmore burst onto the ASP World Tour in 2007 and ended up walking away with the title. But where do you go once you’ve reached the top so young? Alex Wade tracked down surfing’s most venerated rookie in South West France to find out.

My son Harry, 13, is struggling with the idea of meeting Stephanie Gilmore. Not, you understand, because of a lack of respect for the 2007 Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) Women’s World Champion, but because we’re in Seignosse, France, and he wants to go surfing. The waves aren’t classic, but for a surf grom and wannabe pro, they’re more than good enough.

“Dad, why do we have to meet her? Can’t we just get some boards and go for a surf? Why didn’t you arrange to interview her when it was dark?”

These and other taxing questions come my way early one August afternoon as Harry and I make our way from Hossegor to the site of the Rip Curl Pro Mademoiselle, the fourth event on the 2008 ASP Women’s World Tour. Gilmore won the contest the preceding day, and so should be visibly illustrative of her nickname – Stephanie ‘Happy’ Gilmore. But as we walk along the sand to Les Bourdaines on a typically baking hot day, Harry is decidedly unhappy. He comes up with yet another lament. “Why didn’t we bring our own boards with us? If we had you could talk to Steph while I go surfing. Now, I’ve got to sit around and wait for you to finish.”

Harry is right. He is to be condemned to the role of passive early-teen boy for the best part of two hours, while his father talks to one of the hottest properties in world surfing. We didn’t bring boards because it was too much hassle, but if truth be told I’ve deliberately evaded hiring any, too. The reason? I want Harry to meet Gilmore, to listen to what she has to say and to learn from her. If he wants to make the grade, Gilmore can help point him in the right direction.

But once at Les Bourdaines, a languor sets in. The event site has been all but stripped bare, with what’s left hinting only vaguely at the drama of the past week’s competitive surfing. Like being in a football stadium when everyone has gone home, there’s a mild feeling of melancholy in the air. And it’s hot, //really// hot. Getting in the water would be good. I can see Harry’s point. Maybe there’s time to sort out a board for him?

Just as these ruminations are underway Gilmore appears. She’s carrying a leashless Rip Curl board coming in at around 5”10’. We shake hands and I introduce Harry. I ask if it’s OK for him to sit in and listen. Gilmore says sure, no worries, but then something occurs to her. Her brows furrow, ever so slightly, and her green eyes flash. “Unless you want to go surfing?” she says, directly to Harry. “You can borrow my board if you like. Just be careful – it hasn’t got a leash at the moment.” Before I know it, Harry has grabbed the board and is running down the beach. “Are you sure that it’s OK?” I ask, fearing that he might trash it in the notoriously powerful shorebreak of the Landes coastline. “Yeah, no worries,” says Gilmore, with a smile. She really does look happy, and one thing’s for sure – my son is, too.

***

Stephanie Gilmore was born in Murwillumbah, New South Wales in January 1988. Her father Jeff was a regular in the line-up at the famed right-hand point break of Snapper Rocks, and when his daughter was ten, he took her surfing at nearby Kingscliff. The experience is recalled by photographer Brad Nielson, who, shortly after Gilmore’s world title win, cast his mind back to the first time he had seen the Australian hotshot. It was ten years ago, and Nielson had opted for a surf at Kingscliff. Before he paddled out, he bumped into Gilmore Senior. As he put it: “A few metres behind him followed a young girl around ten years of age, blonde hair and slight of frame. ‘This is my daughter Stephanie, she wants to learn to surf,’ Jeff added. I kinda felt sorry for her. She looked drained of energy as she tried to keep up with her Dad.”

But if Gilmore’s early surfing experiences were no different to those of every newcomer to the sport, she soon started to demonstrate extraordinary talent. Nielson says that by the time she was twelve, she was a regular at Snapper. She “grew stronger… and every time she surfed she got a little better, a tidy bottom turn here, a cutback there.” Gilmore herself credits her father’s role in her surfing education: “I’ve got two older sisters and Dad got them into it. It was only a matter of time before I’d follow on.”

By her mid teens, Gilmore was winning just about every contest she entered. The natural footer notched up state, national and world junior titles, but just as important as the influence of her father was that of her environment: “I grew up surfing a reeling right-hander just about every day. What’s not to love about it? It’s one of the best waves in the world, packed with awesome surfers. You have to learn to be patient, but when you’re out there you learn by watching some of the best surfers around.” Not least, the likes of men’s world title champion Mick Fanning and fellow WCT contender Joel Parkinson. “I love watching those guys surf,” she says, adding that she is also stoked to see any of Tom Curren (“he still surfs as well as ever”), Rob Machado, Lisa Anderson (“powerful and yet feminine”) and Chelsea Hedges in the water.

But whatever their pedigree, no professional surfer has blazed quite so stunning a trail as Gilmore. In 2005 she received a wildcard entry for the Rip Curl Roxy Pro Gold Coast – and won it. She followed suit with another wildcard win in 2006, this time bagging the Havaianas Beachley Classic in Sydney. By the time of the 2007 season Gilmore had no need of wildcards. Then midway through a five-year Rip Curl contract, she embarked upon the Women’s World Tour with the surfing //cognoscenti// predicting that Mick Fanning wouldn’t be the only Australian to win a world title that year. The season had its ups and downs, but Gilmore came good. She won four events on the tour, including the Billabong Pro Maui, which she had to win to take the title. “Winning the title there was the best feeling in the world,” she says. “Honolua Bay will always have a special place in my heart.” And for being the first surfer – male or female – ever to win a world title in her rookie year, Stephanie Gilmore sealed her place in the hearts of surfing devotees from the Gold Coast to Santa Cruz.

***

Harry has vanished into the ocean. The sun continues to beat down upon the sea, edging to the south-west as the afternoon idles on. Thanks to the glare, and the ever-present crowds in France’s summer line-ups, I can’t see where, exactly, my son has gone, but I do know one thing: the sense of lassitude which accompanied our arrival has disappeared. There is something invigorating about Gilmore. Even when she is not surfing – not smoking her rivals with a blend of powerful yet elegant, almost casual surfing – she is alert and focused. She also seems open and forthright, the kind of person who doesn’t shy away from difficult questions. And so, almost at the outset of our conversation, I decide to stray into potentially awkward territory. Surfing is an enriching, wonderful activity, I hear myself saying, but it’s also got its fair share of macho types. What’s Gilmore’s take on sexism in surfing, and to what degree has she experienced it?

The 2007 World Champion, who is also showing strongly on the 2008 tour, is unfazed, greeting the question with a maturity beyond her years. “Surfing has been male-dominated for so long that some guys are having trouble adjusting to the arrival of lots more women in the line-up,” she says. “But the fact that more women are getting into it is a good thing.” Gilmore chuckles as she says that “the line-up could do with a little more oestrogen”, but counts her blessings, too: “Sure, Snapper and my home breaks can be aggressive, but I’ve grown up with a lot of the pro guys. I think they’re stoked to see me doing well.”

At just 20 years of age, Gilmore has already pondered the gender imbalance. “It’s crazy how a female athlete has to make a choice at such a young age – to have kids early and carry on competing, or to put all that on hold and have kids later, once you’ve achieved what you want,” she says. “Guys just don’t have to face the same decision. A lot of them are married and their wives and families are at home. It’s different for girls.” While some of her fellow competitors on the Women’s World Tour have had children, Gilmore isn’t sure of her plans. What she does know is that if she is to try and beat Layne Beachley’s record of seven world titles, she has to be implacably single-minded: “To try and win ten titles is such a selfish thing. To win just one was a selfish thing.”

But if she is aware of the sacrifices entailed in athletic achievement at the highest level, Gilmore is also happy to go with the flow – for now. “When I won the world title, I had this feeling that I wanted to win everything. And I mean everything. I felt like I wanted to take over the world. But the more I travel and meet people, the more I’m exposed to new things, the more I find that my goals are changing. Right now, I’m stoked to have won my first title, but I don’t want people to think it was a fluke so I want to win another. But after that? I don’t know.”

She pauses, and we gaze at the ocean. Is she really happy all the time, I wonder? Or is there simply too much pressure, too much of the time, on one so young? Gilmore smiles broadly. “I got that name because I am happy,” she says. She allows that she does get depressed – “I’m only human” – but mostly only when she loses a heat. And she extols the virtues of the good life: “In my day to day life, I try to live a good, healthy lifestyle. There can be drugs and booze in surfing, but it’s not my scene. More and more surfers, male and female, want to be top athletes, and substance abuse doesn’t go with that. I guess the hardest thing for me is the travel. You’re living out of a suitcase and hauling a quiver of boards around, and it’s not all glitz and glamour. But once I’ve arrived somewhere I get to go for a surf. The ocean is my office, and as offices go, it’s got to be the best. I don’t really have all that much to moan about.”

***

To stay in shape Gilmore doesn’t rely purely on surfing. She puts in time at the gym, and swears by CHEK, or Corrective Holistic Exercise Kinesiology, training. Core strength, posture and balance are integral to CHEK work, and Gilmore is also fascinated by sports psychology. “I think that the mental aspects of competition take up 90 per cent of your performance,” she says. That she has a pronounced competitive streak underneath all the amiability is undeniable, but just as evident is the sense, present in all great surfers, that Gilmore goes with, and never against, the flow.

“If you paddle out feeling angry you’ll have a bad surf,” she says. “Surfing is all about instinct. It’s about being there in the moment, about being relaxed. If you get into the water feeling relaxed and happy, you’ll have a good surf. It’s the same with music.” Gilmore’s allusion to music is not idle. She is an accomplished guitarist who counts Jeff Buckley, John Mayall, Muddy Waters and Jimi Hendrix among her heroes. “I’m pretty old school when it comes to music,” she says, “I like anything with a guitar, whether acoustic or electric.” Would she ever consider performing publicly? Again, the trademark Gilmore smile precedes the answer. “That’d be a fun thing to do,” she replies, “but I don’t know if I’m a musical performer. Music is more of an escape for me. It clears my mind and allows me to forget what’s going on in the world.”

If music is an escape, it also has parallels with surfing. “I started playing the guitar at the same time that I started surfing,” says Gilmore, whose home is at Tweed Heads on Australia’s Gold Coast. “The two things complement each other. They’re both about rhythm and timing. You’ve got to surf in time with the wave, just as you’ve got to be in tune with the sound waves of music. Ocean waves, sound waves, they’re both invisible balls of energy that we tap into.” No surprise, then, that one of Gilmore’s sponsors is Cole Clark Guitars. “I’d be stoked if there was one in every place I compete,” she says.

Music may well be something to which Gilmore turns more fully later in life, but just now something else preoccupies her – big waves. She readily admits that she hasn’t surfed Pipeline, Teahupoo or too many other renowned big wave spots yet – and is just fine with that, too. But as she puts it: “Deep down something is pulling me towards those waves. I know that I need to detach myself from common sense, go out there and just go for it. I need to free myself up and just be in the moment. It’s something I feel I need to do, sometime in my life.”

***

As our conversation draws to a close I see Harry emerge from the sea. “He’ll be stoked to have borrowed your board,” I say, adding that, given his age, there might not be much visual evidence of this. Gilmore laughs her ready, easy laugh. Then she says that her parents insisted – even as she was winning international surfing events, even as she was already sponsored by Rip Curl, and even as it was abundantly clear that her career lay in professional surfing – that she complete her high school certificate. At one stage this meant sitting an exam in the Australian Consulate in Los Angeles at the same time as her school contemporaries back home, the day after she had won the world junior title at Huntington Beach. How on earth did she manage to concentrate? “It was cool,” she says, “I’m glad I did it.”

Just then Harry returns. Gilmore’s board is in one piece. “How’d you get on?” she asks. “Cool,” he says. He’s stoked, and I’m stoked, too, to have met so warm, ingenuous and natural a person as Stephanie Gilmore. We say our farewells, and Harry and I walk off along the sand to Hossegor. I’m planning a fatherly tale of how Gilmore stuck at her exams and also became a world champion, but Harry beats me to it. “She was great,” he says. “That was well cool of her to lend me her board. What’s her background?”