Stephanie Gilmore Finally Completes the Journey to All-Time Surfing Greatness | Surf

lIn October 2006, Australian surfing great Layne Beachley was at the top of the world. She had won a record six world titles and was on track to add a seventh. Since winning her first crown in 1998, local Manly had become a global sports star and used her platform to advance women’s surfing, even going so far as hosting the Havianas Beachley Classic – with a great prize purse – on her own. home beach in Sydney.

Beachley crawled through to the final, where another match victory seemed inevitable. It was a fairytale finale as retirement loomed (she eventually retired two years later). The best female surfer in history would win her own WSL event, on the beach where she grew up shredding.

Only a teenage prodigy hadn’t read the script. In the final, Beachley faced Stephanie Gilmore, a 19-year-old from northern New South Wales who had been awarded a wildcard after winning the trials. It was the present and the future of Australian surfing on the same waves, passing the watch. Gilmore was no stranger—she had secured her first win at the WSL event the year before, also as a wildcard. But her dominance in the final, against the greatest of all time, made the spectators sit up. The future had arrived.

It would take nearly two decades, but on Thursday, Gilmore finally surpassed Beachley by winning a record eighth WSL title, at the final surf-off in California. After taking the 2018 world title, Gilmore had spent four years leveling her childhood idol at seven titles apiece. A string of mediocre results and the emergence of a new generation indicated that the 34-year-old may never be crowned world champion again. But during a frenetic four match-ups in Lower Trestles, Gilmore emphatically showed that she remains one of the best on tour.

The journey to all-time greatness that began in Manly all those years ago is now complete. Gilmore’s eight world titles, spanning three different decades (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2018 and 2022), are eclipsed only by male surfer Kelly Slater, with eleven. She has also won the most WSL events of all women, with 33, and is the only surfer to win a world title in their debut season.

Gilmore on his way to the trophy at Lower Trestles.
Gilmore on his way to the trophy at Lower Trestles. Photo: Pat Nolan/World Surf League/Getty Images

Her win on Thursday was unexpected. Formerly determined by a cumulative points ranking over the season, the WSL has in recent years chosen to decide the world title via a finals format. After the regular season is over, the top five surfers compete in a one-day surf-off. Fifth is fourth in a ‘sudden-death heat’, before the winner takes third, and so on. Whichever surfer makes it through will eventually face the world’s No. 1 in a best-of-three heat final.

Gilmore advanced to finals day fifth on Thursday, having missed the season opener with Covid-19 and winning just one event over the course of the year — in El Salvador. Australia’s male surfers have been in the spotlight for the season after a few fallow years – it was them (Jack Robinson on second and Ethan Ewing on third), not Gilmore, who seemed poised for a title. But while the men were knocked out in consecutive heats, Gilmore stood his ground.

She didn’t have it easy. Gilmore trailed the world No. 4 Brisa Hennessy for most of her opening round. With less than a minute on the clock, the Australian secured the ride she needed to win by less than half a point. She then narrowly defeated world No. 3 Tatiana Weston-Webb before blowing past second-seeded Johanne Defay. After winning three heats in a row, Gilmore faced defending champion Carissa Moore in the title decider. She won both heats in quick succession to secure the crown.

“I didn’t like this format to be honest,” Gilmore admitted afterwards with signature honesty. “The world champion has to be crowned in all the different waves over the whole period of the year.” But the win had changed her mind. “And now I love it,” she said.

Gilmore raises the WSL trophy after beating Carissa Moore in the season finale.
Gilmore raises the WSL trophy after beating Carissa Moore in the season finale. Photo: Pat Nolan/World Surf League/Getty Images

An all-conditions surfer, Gilmore has won events in Hawaii’s heavy barrels, the clean lines of Victoria’s Bells Beach, and Rio’s varying beach breaks. As the sport and women’s competition have evolved rapidly since her first year on tour, in 2007, Gilmore has been the constant – an enduring feature of the WSL, and now an elder stateswoman of surfing.

One day, Gilmore’s own 2006 Beachley moment will come, overshadowed by the next big thing. Her claim to be empirically the greatest of all time could be threatened in the coming years by Hawaiian star Moore, four years younger than Gilmore, who already has five titles to her name. But for now Gilmore is alone.

There are clearly no hard feelings for Beachley. She posted a comment on Instagram: “Fucking legend” followed by eight trophy emojis. The post she was commented on, by the surf magazine Tracks, was equally simple: “The greatest female surfer of all time.” As Gilmore showed in Manly all those years ago, again at Trestles on Thursdays and at so many events in between, she is the undisputed queen of surfing.

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