During the final minutes of the Round 2 heat between Lakey Peterson and Alana Blanchard at the Beachwaver Maui Pro, World No. 1 Stephanie Gilmore paced back and forth on the cliff overlooking an absolutely firing Honolua Bay. She was nervous–as were we–as this was the heat that would decide if she’d pocket her 7th world title. If Peterson lost, Gilmore would be crowned the 2018 champ. And as the hooter sounded, that’s exactly what happened.

Gilmore was immediately swarmed by friends, cameras and champagne-shaking loved ones. Barton Lynch grabbed her for a post-win interview for the webcast and Gilmore cried as she expressed just how happy she was to take the win. It was her first title win since 2014, and the raw emotion was exactly what fans wanted to see from one of the world’s best surfers.

The victory marked a landmark year for Gilmore. At 30 years old, she’s matched Layne Beachley’s record for most world title wins, she took the top spot in three events this season and served as a leader in a sport that made a decisive move to pay men and women equally in 2019 and beyond.

Shortly after the trophy ceremony ended yesterday, and Gilmore hoisted that huge metal cup filled with beer in front of a cheering crowd, we called the Champ to talk about the win, her rivalry with Peterson and how lifting her 7th trophy feels just as good–if not better–than her first.

So you just bagged your 7th title and the waves have been absolutely pumping the last couple of days. You must be filled with such a strange mix of excitement and exhaustion.
[Laughs] You summed that up pretty well. Definitely exhausted but extremely happy.

Well a huge congrats are in order.
Thank you so much. It's been an incredible couple of days and we've had so many good waves, which makes any of these moments so much better when we are surfing good waves. Honolua Bay is just magical, the perfect place to win.

You were having a hard time choking back tears during your post-title-win interview with Barton Lynch—seemingly more than how I remember you after your 6th world title back in 2014. Was this win more of an emotional one for you?
Yeah, definitely. You know, I was thinking about the crying the other day—I think I cried more on the webcast this year than I have in my whole entire career [laughs]. But yeah, I was thinking about how, at the start of my career, it felt so easy and natural to win that I wasn't really aware of how much I was putting into it and how much I pour my heart and soul into these events. I think because I haven't won for a couple of years, it’s allowed me to really understand how hard it is to make these moments happen. I was overcome with happiness and emotion.

Photo by Miller

So not winning those few years made you really miss winning the title.
Yea and I think in those years, you know not really finding my feet on the tour, it’s easy to lose your confidence over moments like that. When your ranking goes down you kind of think, ‘Oh shoot should I be doing this? Am I meant to be here?’ I never wanted to quit or anything, but when I lost Snapper at the beginning of this year I was so upset and it made me realize how much I really wanted to be here and how much I wanted to win a world title again.

Do you feel like you made any big changes this year that contributed to your win? You seemed so much more competitive and focused during events.
I just found a recipe that worked really well for me. When I was in the crunch time situation or starting to doubt myself, I could snap out of it and find a centered place. I was able to recenter myself at every event, letting go of past results and not think about future potential results. It seemed to work, especially when I was in heats and needing scores.

That seems like an important strategy to live by in many areas of life–to just let go of your shit moments so that it doesn’t affect your present and future.
Exactly. It's true—it's funny how you have to let go to be completely present and to get what you want.

You’ve been working on and off with Jake Paterson. How do you like working with a coach at this point in your career?
I wasn’t really into it at first but I really like it now, and I guess it works [laughs]. Throughout the year I had so much fun working with Jake. He works with Griffin Colapinto and Zeke Lau and it's a really great vibe when all the boys push each other and laugh with each other but are still competitive. I've enjoyed being around that because it pushes me to go out there and want to win and go bigger and better. Plus Jake has won Sunset, Pipe–he knows how to surf a heat really well and I trust his strategies. He knows each spot on tour really well and that's helped me so much because I’ve never really worked with a coach before in that sense, so having that second set of eyes on the beach at every stingle event is great.

Photo by Miller

You mentioned you got excited by the rivalry you had with Lakey Peterson this year—which was pretty cool to hear because it doesn’t really feel like we’ve seen that on the women’s side in a while–and fans love that narrative of a good rivalry.
Yeah, rivalry is the best [laughs]. Being in the title race with Lakey was awesome—I think we really pushed each other to be more fierce and more dramatic and to want it really bad. Without Lakey I don't know if I would've been as hungry until the end as I was. We were trading events the whole year—I'd win an event, then Lakey would win an event, then we'd be in the final together. There were so many of these crucial world title moments throughout the entire year. I loved it—I live for sport too you know? We definitely had a few moments where I was trying to be a little more dramatic and we definitely gave each other space but at the same time I love Lakey, she really is an incredible young woman and is such a great asset to the women's tour. So it was hard to be mean to each other [laughs]. Yesterday after I won, I gave her a big hug and she was like, ‘You know, I was going to send you an invite to my wedding but I was unsure if I should text you…’ We were kind of laughing about that. But yeah, it's good drama for the sport.

Have you heard anything from Layne Beachley yet?
I haven't spoken to her yet, but I need to go through my phone and reach back out to everybody. I'll definitely give her a call and have a long chat. To sit here alongside Layne is truly and honor. She's held that record for a long time and I've always wanted to reach that kind of milestone in my career. I think Layne is claiming she's won 8 world titles now because she won that Masters’ event. She's already throwing flak my way, which is pretty awesome [laughs].

Besides it being your seventh world title, do you think this win feels extra sweet in the context of where women's competitive surfing is at the moment and the WSL’s announcement this year about paying men and women equally?
Yea definitely. And that was something I was trying to manifest because I knew that this year, with that equal pay announcement, was really such a huge step in the forward movement for female athletes. For surfing to be at the forefront for that is just the coolest. I just thought this is an amazing year to win the world title and to be a leader of a sport that is willing to make these changes and to show people what should be normal.

You also said in your post win interview that you hate the question of what's next—if you'll be gunning for 8 world titles or if you want to break Slater's 11—why don't you like that question?
[Laughs] I think it's obnoxious to ask that question after someone literally just got out of the water from winning something, but at the same time it's genuine and I would probably ask that question if I could stand next to Roger Federer. I’d be like, ‘Hey I know you just won the most, but do you want to win more? [Laughs]. But really I'd love to [win more]. It's funny though–winning the title and then coming back to compete the next day, and still be in a competitive mode and want to win again, just reminds me how much I love it. Watching Carissa get totally shacked and get a 10 for doing turns reminded me that I want to keep up with this and stay ahead of it.

Photo by Miller

In the eyes of the surf world you’re very much a “veteran” competitive surfer, which is interesting because you’re only 30 years old, which is still so young–and most 30 year olds on other career paths are still trying to figure their shit out. Do you feel like a veteran or do you still feel like every other 30 year old?
It is weird—a couple yers ago when Silvana [Lima] fell off Tour, I was the oldest on Tour and I feel like it just happened so quickly. I felt like I was the rookie and then 5 minutes later I was the oldest on tour. It kind of freaked me out a little. But when you turn 30, you sort of let go of a lot of inhibitions and you become really comfortable with yourself, with your weird self, no matter what it is. It's kind of a cool feeling. I think you're able to make decisions genuinely and honestly with yourself when you're competing as well. I feel like it’s much more enjoyable to compete now. I know I have to put more into it, but at the same time, I feel like I have a better understanding and a better grasp on the bigger picture of what's happening throughout the year. But yeah, I think Kelly won 5 more world titles after the age of 33 or something crazy like that, so in that sense I really feel like I'm just getting started.