Stephanie Gilmore’s Dance

[All photos courtesy of Andrew Kidman from the book Single. Get your copy here.]

It’s windy, stark and the winters are long. Iceland is pale grey in October, but humanity has thrived in these conditions for centuries. This is where I met the smiley Stephanie Gilmore for the first time last year. A playful energy emanated from her as we traveled for days over icey unpaved roads to surf spots in the vast fjords, bundled in parkas and beanies. 

Layered underneath her charm, however, is her competitive grit. It’s her sturdy ferocity that has shaped her into a six-time world surfing champion since she entered the women’s professional arena in 2007, winning her first as a rookie. Even a brutal attack in 2010 couldn't slow her down for long, she won two more titles afterwards, and she's only 29.

Steph thinks of surfing as a dance, an intimate idle pleasure that is subjective to personal taste. She carries a calm certainty when navigating a wave, and it’s her graceful yet powerful style that makes her stand out from the rest.

Music is Steph’s other outlet. When she’s not in the water, she’s strumming a guitar riff or listening to disco. Whitney, her older sister and manager, is usually nearby reading or planning the next surf trip. The two seem to be an equal partnership based on love, mutual admiration, and strong professional rapport. Together they have stamina, taking on the contemporary frontier of womanhood in surfing.

This interview was conducted over email in late June.

Chelsea Slayter: You surfed in a hood, boots, and gloves last October in Norway and Iceland. Was that your first time surfing cold water? What do you make of it?

Stephanie Gilmore: It was my first time in all of that gear and I absolutely loved it! I felt all connected and warm and just like a comfortable sea animal. It was much warmer than I expected in all the gear and could surf for ages. I can’t wait to do it again!

CS: How old were you when you learned to surf? Were you surfing with a lot of other girls?

SG: I was around 9 years old when my father encouraged my sisters and I to get into surfing. I was standing up on a bodyboard for the first couple of years and then moved onto a fiberglass board when I was about 11. There were a couple of older women in the surf but I didn't see too many young girls until I was around 12, so I just hung out with the boys.

CS: Who were some of the older women? Who did/do you look up to?

SG: I was in absolute awe of Chelsea Georgeson (Hedges) and she moved to the Gold Coast so she was always hanging out with Serena Brooke and the other pros that would come to town, like Sofia Mulanovich. I was always trying to skip school to surf with them. Layne Beachley was always an inspirational woman, too!

CS: When did you start surfing competitively?

SG: I entered into an all girls surf event when I was 11 and lost really quickly. Then I came second to Karina Petroni in an under age 12 grom comp, got my first little trophy and thought it was the best thing ever!

CS: You’ve surfed boards from different ‘schools of thought’; I’m thinking about some of the photos Kidman took of you on a single fin. Did you learn to be open to different types of boards as a child? Are you interested in board design?

SG: Just last week was the first time I'd ever shaped a board, so it was never really a focus or too interesting to me in my career. There's something so joyful about drawing a simple clean line and just going as fast as I can -- and this seems easier to achieve on something that has less fins and more foam. I also enjoy the challenge of just picking up a random old board and seeing if I can work with it straight off the bat. Dad always rides twin fins and wide nose short boards; he just loves something more loose and unpredictable, so naturally I gravitate to boards that are fun. Unless the waves are totally firing, my contest boards aren't so exciting after a while.

CS: What kind of board did you recently shape? Did you learn from someone?

SG: I've been meaning to shape one with DH [Darren Handley] for a while but was never home for more than 5 minutes, so when it finally happened, I made myself make a fun board. 5'4 egg...similar to his twin fin model... it has to be one of my favorite boards I've ever ridden. I really only just cut the tail, shaped the nose, and did the rails, deck, and bottom. Next time I really should start from scratch. Darren Handley was in the bay helping and laughing at me the whole time, but he said I had a nice graceful approach -- haha.

CS: You’re competitive by nature, but how do you handle your goals? Are you macro or micro? How does this affect your approach to surfing?

SG: If I can better myself by 1% everyday, than I feel like I'm on a path that'll get me to where I want to go. I obviously love to have a clear vision of an end goal or trophy but I know that right now that result is out of my control, so I can only focus on executing what I can and that’s the baby steps, heats, gym days, etc., along the way. To be able to broaden and tighten your focus when the time is right, then I feel I can adapt comfortably and be more flexible if the path has a few obstacles along the way. The correct language is very important, as I've always said 'I'd love to win the world title' as opposed to ‘I have to win the world title.’ Little things like that can shift your approach to make the challenge fun instead of stressful.

CS: Is surfing playtime or work time?

SG: Both. I enjoy it as work, I think it's important to be playful in your workspace and so the balance is key. It’s really all playtime to me.

CS: How has your concept of what it means to be a world champion surfer changed over time (and with more World Titles)?

SG: I have come to understand how much less it is about the amount of titles and trophies and more about the character that carried those trophies home. The impact you will have on someone through your genuine happiness, the way you treat people around you, and the passion you have for what you do is truly the legacy I'd like to leave.

CS: I remember you pointing out to me the age differences in women’s and men’s competitive surfing when we were chatting in Iceland. At what age is a professional female surfer in her prime? How has that molded the industry do you think?

SG: I think that’s really up to the individual, and how much care they take of their health and well being. Also, how long you can really keep the hunger and drive to want to win. I read somewhere that a woman’s athletic peak is around early thirties and as I'm turning thirty next year, I do feel like I’m stronger and more knowledgeable when I compete than ever before. Staying inspired is the key and that has no age.

CS: I feel like that can be a scary thing, rising to the top at such a young age. It seems like it’s something many professional athletes have to grapple with. Do you think outside the surf industry in terms of things you might do in life?

SG: I wouldn't really know my life without surfing, it is kinda scary to imagine what I would have ended up doing, but I feel strongly about music and playing guitar so I would imagine it would be along those lines.

CS: Do you ever feel there’s an oversimplification of athletes? I know you play guitar well… but do you wonder about how people perceive you as a ‘musician’ or you as an athlete playing an instrument?

SG: Yeah, I do think there are a ton of incredible world class athletes out there that are multi-talented and nobody knows because that story has never been told properly. I also think that most athletes are very critical of themselves so they just keep their image streamlined and focused on their sport. I definitely get self conscious showing people other things that I like to do because I don't think I'm all that good at it, but now through social media I feel like we're seeing much more intimately what athletes are all about when they're not on the field.

CS: One thing I love about Team Gilmore is how you and your sister Whitney work together so intimately as an athlete/manager duo. What makes you work so well with Whitney?

SG: We're pretty close in age so we're more like good friends than siblings, but the best part is that we can be completely honest with each other in anything, and when it comes to business that's the best way to keep everyone happy and successful. Everyone loves Whitney too, so to have such a wonderful person representing my brand gives me peace of mind.

Interview by Chelsea Slayter. Photos by Andrew Kidman.