Chris Searl

Home Sports Sports Features

Making Waves: The Rise of Aussie Surfing Legend Stephanie Gilmore

She's been a household name for almost 15 years, but with an appearance at the Tokyo Olympics in July, it's clear that Stephanie Gilmore's best days are still to come.

Surfing has officially become an Olympic sport, and Australia’s seven-time World Surf League champion Stephanie Gilmore heads to Tokyo to represent us in July this year.

The Gold Coast surfer, who also has a home in Malibu, recalls watching runner Cathy Freeman win Gold at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 when she was just 12-years-old.

“That iconic win had a profound impact on me,” says Gilmore. “It made me realise what was possible for athletes in that realm. Cathy was like a superhero and I knew back then I’d love to be on that grand stage and do just that one day,” she says.

Gilmore was born and raised in Murwillumbah in northern NSW and gained international attention when she won her first world title as a schoolgirl in 2007. She’s one of three children [two sisters Bonnie and Whitney]. Her father Jeff is a keen surfer and according to Steph is “a bit of hippy” while her mother Tracy is a primary school teacher.

“I’ve always been pretty competitive,” says Gilmore.  “It’s only as I’ve gotten older and spoken to other friends about what they were like as kids, they couldn’t really relate to me wanting to be the best as a kid at something. I realised we aren’t all out there to dominate.”

Gilmore is thrilled surfing has been recognised as an Olympic sport – it’s a chance for the 32-year-old to realise her childhood dream.

“It’s a moment to be proud of, for sure,” she says. “I knew when I fell in love with surfing at 12 I wouldn’t have a chance at the Olympics, which kind of crushed me, but it’s finally happening.”

The Olympic Games, which started in 1896, will introduce five new sports to the four-yearly event – with skateboarding, softball, baseball, and sport climbing joining the roster in a bid to woo a younger crowd to the format.

Gilmore is one of four Australian surfers to represent Australia in Tokyo alongside the only other female surfer Sally Fitzgibbon, Owen Wright, and Julian Wilson. And while talk of the coronavirus is dampening the spirit in the lead up to the event, it’s business as usual for Gilmore who is eyeing off Gold.

The selection process for the Olympic Games took place in 2019 – with more pre-selection surfing to come, including comps in El Salvador in May, followed by Indonesia and Tokyo, too.

Photo by Chris Searl

“It’s refreshing to have a new goal and chase something different. To have the Olympics to look forward to is to be in the highest pinnacle of sport,” says Gilmore. “It’s a new adventure for me and I’m so excited.”

Gilmore, who is managed by her sister Whitney, says being a seven-time world title champion does make her think how far she can go, but admits there’s plenty of drive within.

“My last world title win was in 2018, and while I never set a number on how many I wanted to win, naturally I am competitive. I’m equal with Layne Beachley and would love to win an eighth. I am definitely going to strive for that,” she adds.

The Aussie surfers heading to Tokyo have already taken part in a two-day surf camp to encourage camaraderie between the team.

“We all know each other, but surfing is an individual sport, so the idea is to bring us together to get the momentum going,” says Gilmore.

“The camps are all about trying to build a team bond which doesn’t really happen when you’re on the World Surf League Tour,” she says.

“But going to the Olympics is more than just representing yourself, you’re representing your country. As a surfer I feel like a global citizen. It sort of feels strange to be patriotic, but that’s what sport is about and the Olympics has that all over it – it’s like going to war for country,” she adds.

Her surf coach Jake Patterson spent 11 years on the Championship Tour and works closely with the surfing legend. They’re also great friends.

“I would love to see her dominate longer in surfing,” says Jake Patterson. “When Steph won her seventh title she was there to win the world title.

“I’d say last year [2019], she was worn out and flat – and that was because she had to be there – the goal wasn’t there to win and it was all mental,” says Patterson of the fine balance between mental prowess and physical stamina.

“She also had an injury at the start of 2019 that did affect her and her decision to switch from winning to cruising the year out,” he adds. “That’s not to say she was there to lose, but not there to win either.”

While Gilmore is considered one of our best female surfers, her coach Jake Patterson says she’s still hard on herself despite the victories.

“She’s her biggest critic,” says Patterson. “My biggest battle is to convince her that she is the best and to believe in it – instead of trying too hard and making mistakes and trying to impress those watching her from the beach like Kelly Slater,” he smiles.

“She wants to see her level of surfing up there where the men’s is. She pushes herself hard,” he adds.

Photo by Chris Searl

One of her best friends is Australian comedian and TV personality Celeste Barber who lives up the road. “I have a massive crush on Steph,” chimes Barber.

“We grew up in the same area but never really knew each other. I mean, I knew her of course because she’s Steph Gilmore – the greatest surfer in the history of the ocean – but we never really hung out.

“Over the last five years she has become key in my life. She is the person I FaceTime when I’m drunk and want to talk about Fleabag, equality, the arts and what we are going to call our band,” says Barber.

The supergroup is tentatively called The Tits, with Gilmore on lead guitar and vocals, Kram from Spiderbait on drums, and Barber on tambourine.

“Most people know her as an elite athlete, but she’s also a fucking incredible musician,” says Barber. “She’s a passionate feminist and can throw together an excellent dance party playlist, too.”

Photo by Chris Searl

If Gilmore weren’t surfing, she’d be right at home on stage watching the crowd surf instead. She picked up her first guitar at 10, the same age she started surfing – and was taught how to play by her Dad.

“I never got formal lessons, but love it,” she says. “I’ve been on stage with a few bands from Taylor Hawkins’ side project Chevy Metal to Jimmy Buffett and Kelly Slater, to The Alive – a metal band,” she casually names.

In January, she was on stage cranking a cover of Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane” with Bernard Fanning and Kram from Spiderbait in Byron Bay for a NSW firefighters fundraiser – as you do – when you’re a surf legend who can also play a guitar.