Populous Magazine 13: Happy Gilmore

From the archive: Issue 13, 2015

When the world’s greatest female surfer was randomly assaulted, she feared it would end her career. But, after fighting her way back to the top of her sport, Stephanie Gilmore is happy again, as John Lewis finds out.

Stephanie Gilmore was on a roll. It was Christmas 2010 and, just weeks earlier, she had won professional surfing’s world championship.

At 22 years of age, she was the world’s best female surfer for the fourth year in a row. In her pocket was a five-year, US$5million contract with American surf wear giants Quiksilver, making her the highest paid woman in her sport.

Then a random attack changed everything.

“The first time, he hit me in the head. I saw blood everywhere. The second hit snapped my ulna and tore ligaments in my wrist.”

Stephanie Gilmore

After an evening out at the cinema, Stephanie was returning to her apartment in Coolangatta, in the Australian state of Queensland, when she noticed a man lurking near the stairwell of her building. Suddenly he ran at her with a metal bar. “The first time, he hit me in the head,” she says. “I saw blood everywhere. I put up my wrist to protect myself, and the second hit snapped my ulna and tore ligaments in my wrist. I looked down and saw a big lump on my wrist. My body went into survival mode. At the time, I didn’t feel pain.”

Her assailant, a man with a history of paranoid schizophrenia, was captured soon after the attack and, in 2012, was sentenced to four years in prison. Stephanie, meanwhile, had to completely rebuild her life. “I had five stitches in my head, a plaster cast on my arm,” she says. “I knew I would heal, but my concerns were more emotional than physical. For starters, I wasn’t allowed to surf for six weeks. That’s longer than I’ve been out of the water since I was a baby.”

For weeks she shared her two-bedroom apartment with family and friends to protect her.

She’d sleep with the lights on, constantly checking the doors were locked. After five weeks – against her doctor’s advice – she was back in the water, but the trauma and the time away from training had taken its toll. Her limbs were weak, and she couldn’t control the board like she used to.

“I remember sitting on the beach, putting the board over my head and just crying,” she says. “I thought, ‘Wow. I’m just not going to win this year.’ I was rattled. My whole rhythm was off. I had to completely relearn everything from scratch.” She lost her number one ranking and world champion title.

The World Surf League is the professional tour for the world’s best female and male surfers, with athletes competing in a variety of international venues, from the Atlantic coasts of Spain and France to the Pacific coasts of Micronesia; from Brazil to South Africa, Queensland to California. Australians and Americans dominate the sport, with South Africans and Brazilians occasionally making a challenge. In the female side of the sport, Australians have pretty much had a stranglehold since the late 1980s. As well as Stephanie, world champions include Pam Burridge, Wendy Botha, Pauline Menczer, Layne Beachley and Chelsea Georgeson.

 

As the Australian national anthem says, this is a nation “girt by sea”. And, like many from Queensland’s Gold Coast and New South Wales’s Rainbow Bay, Stephanie virtually grew up in the water. Her father, who worked at a nearby wildlife reserve, still surfs every day. Stephanie, who describes herself as “a total tomboy until the age of about 16”, was naturally sporty, excelling in soccer, field hockey and Australian rules football. By the age of 10 she was on a body board every day. “Trying to master one of the most powerful elements on the planet can be daunting,” she remembers. “A lot of Australians have a big respect for the ocean. You learn how to read it.”

By the age of 12 she was winning so many weekend competitions that Australian surf wear brand Rip Curl had offered to sponsor her. In 2006 she turned professional and, a year later, she was world champion.

The World Surf League sees competitors performing a series of stunts on the wave, usually in pairs. Each surfer is rated – like figure skaters, or Olympic divers – by a panel of judges who analyse how competently each manoeuvre is executed using strict criteria. One is “speed, power and flow”; another is “degree of difficulty”; others are “variety” and “combination”. Judges even have to rate whether or not a manoeuvre is “innovative and progressive”.

“I remember sitting on the beach, putting the board over my head and just crying. I was rattled. My whole rhythm was off. I had to completely relearn everything from scratch.”

Stephanie Gilmore

Stephanie admits that the injury from the assault – and her slow recovery – forced her to reevaluate her attitude towards competitive surfing. “I had to reassess why I’m doing this,” she says. “My parents aren’t crazy, driven ex- Olympians. I realised that I went into surfing because I love it. And I had to do everything in my power to get that back.”

In the months after the attack, she started traveling to places like Indonesia and Mexico with friends, not to train, but simply to enjoy surfing. She was still only 23 years old. “Once I realised that I was doing what I loved, I started to work harder,” she says. “I think 2011 was the toughest year of my life, but it was also the most valuable. I realised that no one was expecting anything from me. So I trained longer and longer and put in more hours in the ocean than ever before.”

By 2012, some in the professional surfing community had already written off Stephanie’s career. But throughout the year she started to excel again, eventually regaining her position as world champion. “It was like a fairy tale,” she said. She became world champion again in 2014. This year her ranking has dropped because of a knee injury.

“At the end of the day, I really, truly love what I do. I’ve never taken for granted this life that I get to live. Travelling the world is the best thing that any human can do. If I have any advice, it’s just to make sure you keep learning. Stay open to the world and all the opportunities that arrive, and never underestimate yourself.”

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