Steph Gilmore is such an outwardly positive, blond ray of light, it's easy to forget that 2011 was a dark year for the four-time ASP World Champ. A vicious assault in her hometown left her in need of physical and emotional healing, and she spent the year questioning where her path would take her.
This coincided with the emergence of Carissa Moore and Tyler Wright's generation on the World Tour. As 2011 unfolded, Steph, just 24, seemed passed her prime. But, like Curren and Slater before her—both of whom took breaks only to comeback and win titles—a respite from being infallible may have been just the right prescription for more trophies.
A reinvigorated, smiling Gilmore showed up at Snapper Rocks and put a beating on the Carissa generation. Game on. It seems what Steph learned last year was that the competitive arena truly is the place for her.
Laura knocked you out of the Roxy Pro in the quarterfinals last year, and you beat her in the final this year. Did that feel like revenge?
It wasn’t really revenge. I’d completely forgotten about last year. It basically felt like a fresh start for me.
You don’t seem like the type who surfs out of a need for revenge.
Oh, you’d be surprised. [Laughs.] There are definitely different emotions that I go through to change my frame of mind when I’m in a heat to help me be more assertive or aggressive. But it definitely wasn’t about revenge against Laura.
How does it feel to be leading the world title race again?
It feels really good, actually. I feel young and fresh and new to the whole thing. Last year went by so quickly, but it gave me time to think about things and do a lot of things outside of competing. So to come back and be in the number one spot again feels like new territory…and that’s a good thing.
You won four consecutive world titles [2007–2010], how hard is it to stay focused for that long?
I didn’t find it that hard, because it passed so quickly and I was having so much fun. To travel the world and be on tour is one of the most wonderful things. I was never thinking about staying inspired or motivated, it was just a matter of, “Wow, how cool is this?” I was surfing new waves, winning all kinds of events, and then going and dancing and celebrating with my friends afterward. The sports psychology of it all never really came into it for me. It’s not until now that I’m really thinking of those sort of things.
What kind of things were you thinking about this past year that hadn’t really occurred to you in the previous four?
The biggest thing was dealing with emotions and traumas, and how you can change your frame of mind when you’re competing and performing. Because our Tour ended pretty early last year, I went seven months without surfing a heat. So my Round One heat at the Roxy Pro was really nerve-wracking and exciting. But I’d had the chance to think about what I wanted to do and how I wanted to achieve things, and I’d realized how much I love being on Tour, competing, and being in that number one spot. I was kind of all over the place before the year started. I did a couple different kinds of trips; I went to Africa and Switzerland. Everyone was saying, “Well that’s not really the best preparation for surfing the Tour.” But it turns out that it was, because it made me appreciate being on tour and how much I love it.
You won at your home break. How much preparation do you really have to do for that?
Snapper is literally 200 meters from my bed. But honestly, I don’t free surf Snapper that much. Last year I spent way more time at D-Bah. I can just get way more waves out there. But I definitely have that local advantage, where I can just roll into it and surf it confidently.
You were saying that last year you came to the realization that you do “love” the Tour. I’m sure any surfer could understand and appreciate that realization. At the beginning of 2011, were you internally questioning your “love” for the Tour life?
Oh yeah, completely. I was at the events last year, but my heart was really elsewhere. I wished I was at home recovering, even though being away from home felt safer to me. It was quite a radical mix of emotions. But overall, last year was probably my best year in the sense that I learned so much about myself, and it helped me put the puzzle together so I could bring my A-game to the first event this year.
It must be great to have a feeling of renewed positivity toward it.
It is. It’s like reinventing yourself. I think that’s how Kelly stays so young and so inspired. He’s always learning and reinventing himself. Kind of like Madonna! [Laughs.] She’s 50, and she still rocks it out at the Super Bowl half time!
Speaking of reinvention, as a reader of surf media and a de facto consumer of marketing campaigns, I feel like I’m watching you go through a transformation. It seems like your artsy side is being highlighted as well as your passion for creativity. Is that a real thing you’re experiencing, or is that just marketing?
It is a transformation of my personality and myself. Probably the reason I joined up with Quiksilver was because they understood me and where I wanted to go and who I wanted to be. Not that anyone really knows who they ultimately want to be, but we connected in that sense of how an athlete wants to be represented and marketed. “Transformation” is a great word for what’s been going on with me. My first four years on tour were the first real chunk of my career, then I got to have a year to dilute everything, figure things out, and clean my bedroom, so to speak. [Laughs.] It’s funny, people down at the contest site were saying, “She’s back.” But I just think it’s a new me.
Is that a hard balance to find?
I don’t think of it as being a hard balance to find, it’s tough when everyone around you is questioning it for you. That’s when you kinda go, “Oh, I guess I should be practicing my heat drills instead of spending my birthday in Paris.”
Is there any negative criticism or commentary that stood out?
Nothing in particular, but you can hear it in the tone of media and in comments online. Last year there were a lot of comments saying, “Oh yeah, Steph has gone onto the alternative surfer path, and she’s not going to win another world title because the young girls coming up are too good.” But for me, that stuff is a source of fire for me.
How does it feel to read that?
At first it’s kind of an attack on self-confidence, but then, each person deals differently with that kind of attack. I’m an awfully competitive person, so if someone says I can’t do it, then I’m going to do everything in my power to achieve it.
Who do you see being the biggest challenge to your winning a fifth world title?
After this first event, I really think that Tyler Wright is probably the one who really showed me the most. But you can’t ever count Carissa out. I know she lost an early heat, but she’s miles ahead of many of the girls on Tour. That’s probably showing a little chink in her armor, but at the end of the day she’s surfing incredibly well.
It seems like great champions, yourself included, get to this place where maybe it’s a little too easy to win these world titles, and a renewed sense of competition might reinvigorate your interest in the competitive side of surfing. Has Carissa provided you with that?
Yes, and 2011 was exactly that. I really felt like I was in the background last year. I was in the shadows of Carissa and Sally [Fitzgibbons], who were in every final together. You know, my heart wasn’t really there. I was at the events, but I kinda felt like I wasn’t completely focused on what I was trying to do. At the end of the day, the spotlight was on those girls, and it definitely hurt. That hurt foam-balled into a drive to get back up there.