Late last week a mini firestorm was unleashed in the Australian press, when ex-world champ Damien Hardman weighed in on the subject of new world women’s champ Stephanie Gilmore…and took the name of fellow ex-world champ Layne Beachley in vain in the process.
“She’s got twice the talent of Layne,” Damien declared to his local newspaper’s sports reporter, and went on to reckon that Steph would win way more world titles than Ms Beachley’s seven.
One can imagine how Layne took to this. Actually you don’t have to imagine because Layne has half Australia’s sports journalists on speed-dial. She was kicking down the quotes within minutes. “Hurt, unfair, angry, determined … got the fire back to chase an eighth title”…the media loved it.
But somewhere in there a vital point seemed to go missing: that in Stephanie Gilmore, women’s surfing has an entirely new style of champion. And that, more than any Battle of the Numbers, is likely to have a serious impact on the suddenly fired-up girls’ surfing world.
SURFING recently spent a morning with Steph, wandering the streets of Sydney Australia from TV media appointment to the next, and was struck by this freshly minted champ’s relaxed ease – not just with the cameras and reporters, but with herself.
The girl known as “Fang” to her buddies is tall, athletic, and just a couple weeks’ shy of her 20th birthday, and most of the time she acts that way. Talking about her Myspace fan page, for instance, that she set up on a boring day in Hawaii, prompted by her mate Jessi Miley-Dyer: “I’ve got about 700 friends. It’s a fun teenage way of doing things! ‘Cause I’m totally a teenager for like another month.”
She’s also a natural competitor – though nowhere near as seasoned as Ms Beachley, who’s 15 years her senior. In Hawaii last year, for instance, she lost early in the second last event of the year, putting her opponents within striking range. “I was literally going nuts! I couldn’t sleep ‘cause I was just saying ‘If you don’t win here it’s gonna be the biggest f–kup in the history of the sport!’ Pretty much. Heavy. I was going nuts.
“But that was the time when I was saying to myself, the only way you’re gonna get through this is to laugh, and surf and have fun.”
This take-it-easy act is quite real, and quite a contrast to the intense, unflagging Layne. By itself, it’d mark a change of pace. But the biggest thing about Steph, the thing most surfers notice as soon as they see her stand up on a wave, is what Damien commented on: She’s just an incredibly good surfer, full stop.
According to Damien Hardman, Steph has at least another 6 of these trophies in her future.
Broad-shouldered and slim-hipped, she swings through turns with the speed and sleek style of her Snapper Rocks buddies, Mick Fanning and Joel Parkinson. There hasn’t been a female natural like it since Lisa Andersen.
In a world where superchick groms are suddenly popping up everywhere – from the daughters of old school heroes like Coco Ho (Michael) and Lee Ann Curren (Tom), to seamless talents like Carissa Moore and new girls’ junior world champ Sally Fitzgibbons – Steph as champ just seems to fit.
Not that she’s taking it for granted. “I mean because it’s been so male dominated for ever, to gain respect from the guys is a pretty special thing. Lisa, she was so respected by everyone because of her surfing, and it’s not trying to surf like a guy, but more being graceful and pleasant to watch, and also having that femininity in there as well. Everyone wants respect from their peers and the people around them and I’m stoked that guys want to watch me surf and watch my heats. It brings the biggest smile to my face!”
Find out more about Stephanie Gilmore’s road to her first world title at www.RipCurl.com/HappyGilmore