Success comes easily for ‘Happy’ Gilmore
IMAGINE sliding down the face of a wave - the pure joy of not just moving through the water but almost standing on it, feeling the thrill as you gain speed with the spray peppering your ears, the exhilaration at the freedom and the real knowledge that for this moment in time you are truly living in the moment.
It is that feeling that got 10-year-old Stephanie Gilmore hooked on surfing - the quest for the pure rush of adrenaline and surreal weightlessness carrying her through weekend competitions onto the world stage.
It is also the reason why, 17 years and six world titles later, Steph remains on the hunt for the perfect ride, her enthusiasm undiminished by real-world trials, her mouth creasing easily into that trademark smile as she looks ahead to another promising season.
"I have always had a love for surfing. It has always consumed my life," she said.
"From the age of 10, pretty much all the things I have decided to do in my life have been based around surfing. "My life hasn't changed too much in that respect, but since becoming a professional athlete and achieving a lot of my dreams and goals, I feel like I have come into my own. I understand myself a lot more and I know what I like and what I want to achieve."
Steph's rise to the pinnacle of women's surfing reads like a fairytale. For the most part, that is. Signed to Rip Curl by age 12, she was dominating local competitions, her steely determination and easy-flowing style already making waves. Her quest for perfection propelled her to victory in her first adult contest at her Gold Coast beach.
While her friends were dressing for their Year 12 formal, Steph was in Hawaii honing her skills. When they were packing their bags for university, she was packing hers to join the pro world tour.
With little fuss and lots of style, the Coolangatta-based surfer swept to the title in her first year, as the first rookie to do so, and then helped herself to three more in quick succession. Her ever-ready smile and cheerful disposition earned her the nickname "Happy Gilmore", and for a while there the crest of the wave was at her command.
"Things were so perfect, so easy at the start," Steph said. "To finish school and to go on tour and win a world title - there was no struggle to reach the top of the rankings. It was just like: I'd finish school and I wanted to win a world title, so that's what I went and did. Then to have that success over and over again, it was like, 'Does it ever stop? Does it ever come to a point where it plateaus?' Those were the questions I was asking myself before I was attacked."
The attack, in 2011, came at the hands of a homeless man brandishing a metal pipe in the stairwell of her Gold Coast flat. It left her with a fractured wrist and head wound, shattered her confidence and destroyed any hope of a fifth consecutive world title.
"It basically knocked that happiness out of me," she said, opening up about the incident in the recently released documentary Stephanie in the Water.
"When I tried to get back in the water five weeks later to try and make the Roxy Pro, I barely had the strength to stand up. I just sat on the beach, put my board over my head and cried. It was the first real moment of doubt that I'd ever had."
But you don't win multiple world titles without a foundation of courage, and Gilmore harnessed hers, fighting back for a fifth world crown in Biarritz, France.
"It was like a fairytale story for me," she said. "One of the best days of my life. The other titles came naturally. With this one, I turned from a surfer into an athlete. To overcome something and figure out a way to train harder, surf better, and make it work … I treasure this one most."
Thanks to substantial endorsements from Roxy, Sanitarium and Nikon, as well as an increase in prizemoney, Steph, 27, is the highest-paid female surfer around, and the genuine talent and affable nature that has characterised her march to the top has been mentioned as one of the reasons for the rise in female participation in the sport. Research shows close to 35% of surfers the world over are of the fairer sex, with almost 20 professionals on the Women's Tour.
The idea of being a role model sits comfortably with Gilmore, who sees it as a natural extension of her job.
"I have always understood that there is so much more to being a professional athlete and at the top of your sport than just playing your sport," she said.
"It is a job, and it is about how you present yourself and the way you go about events that happen in your life.
"I am not a crazy, rebellious person. I am genuinely myself, so it is easy to do what I do. When you are honest and genuine, work hard and strive to achieve and be the greatest person you can be, then it is easy, I suppose, to be a role model. Surfing has given me so many wonderful opportunities and a chance to see the world, so why should I not want to give back?"
Steph gives her time to a number of charitable causes, including the building of sustainable housing in third-world countries, and as an advisory board member of the Sea Shepherd conservation organisation. Like most surfers, the sea is close to her heart, and it is her work with the Surfrider Foundation that she is most proud of.
"They do some incredible work around the world," she says, "especially on some places in the middle of nowhere that are dependent on surfing tourism. Take west Sumatra for instance - there is so much incredible surfing there. After the tsunami, these guys went in and helped rebuild the villages, which gave the people there some hope. They are also passionate about making sure we look after our oceans, and part of my role ... is to bring attention to it and help educate people about the ocean."
For Steph, who won an incredible sixth world title in Hawaii last year, this season starts with promise and expectation.
She is just one shy of the all-time women's record held by Australian Layne Beachley, but says the work she needs to do makes it feel like a lifetime away.
"I have always questioned why anyone would want to be the best in the world at anything they do.
"My motto has always been to enjoy what you do - if you are not enjoying it, what is the point? I am extremely competitive, but it's really the performance of surfing that I get excited about - nailing an incredible ride in front of thousands of people. I'll take that over a great ride all alone any day. If you are really passionate about something, you find a way to succeed."