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How Stephanie Gilmore Turned a Traumatic Experience Into Competitive Power

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Stephanie Gilmore fell in love with surfing at a very young age. Even in grade school, it was her first thought when waking up, and her last thought before falling asleep. With any shift in the wind, the young Australian would immediately wonder what it meant for the waves at the legendary surf spots she frequented with her dad and sisters near her home on the Gold Coast.

In a recent conversation with Kelley O’Hara on the Just Women’s Sports podcast, Gilmore calls her early relationship with surfing a “healthy addiction.” This obsession, combined with a zest for putting on a show and a natural ease with competition, resulted in record-breaking success when she eventually started competing. In 2007, at 19 years of age, she won the World Title in her debut season on the World Surfing League tour. (The WSL is the annual pro tour where the top 17 female and 34 male surfers compete against each other in events around the world over the course of 10 months.) No man or woman had ever won the championship their rookie year.

Gilmore went on to add three more consecutive World Titles, making it four in a row for the young superstar. Over the last decade, she has added three more to her trophy case, tying her with legend Layne Beachley for the most women’s World Titles in history.

When asked by O’Hara which championship was the most rewarding of her career, there was no hesitation. It was Gilmore’s fifth title, in 2012, which came just two years after she was physically assaulted by a stranger outside her home during the Christmas holidays.

Up until this traumatic event, competition had always been full of joy and ease for Gilmore. She loved the performance factor. Doing tricks on her boogie board as a kid, she’d be hoping the swimmers and sunbathers around her were riveted by her sweet skills. When journalists routinely asked where her competitive fire came from, she would recall her imagined boogie board glory.

“It’s more of a performance thing that I really love,” she tells O’Hara, “It’s going out there on that stage and having a moment to really shine and impress people.”

She was also unashamedly confident in the vision she had for herself. At 14 years of age, she raced out of school one day to watch her idols compete in a pro event at her home beach, where she felt an overwhelming intuition that she belonged out on the waves.

She tells O’Hara she remembers thinking, “I can win. Just put me in that event right now, I will smash these girls.”

Three years later, qualifying for that same event with a wildcard spot, she did exactly that, winning first place as a 17-year-old amateur.

Once she was a full-time professional surfer, Gilmore never understood why her fellow competitors often set goals to only finish in the top ten or top five. For Gilmore, there was only ever one worthwhile goal: to be number one. She (literally and figuratively) rode this wave of confidence, skill, and competitive joy to those first four World Titles. Then, she was randomly attacked.

The assault occurred on December 27, 2010, just a couple weeks after cementing her fourth World Title. She was walking back to her apartment after plans to see a movie with a friend fell through. As she approached the stairs to her building, a stranger ran up behind her and hit her twice with a metal bar. The first blow was to her head, and she immediately saw blood everywhere. The second broke the wrist of the arm she had raised to shield herself.

Luckily, her relatives who also lived in the complex heard her scream and came running out. The man fled but was caught and arrested later that night. Over the next several weeks, Gilmore tried to process and cope with what happened. With her wrist in a cast, she spent those weeks away from surfing.

“It fully rattled my cage,” she tells O’Hara, “It was the first time in my life that I had such a traumatic experience and such a mountain to climb ahead of me.”

While the wrist injury healed in time for her to get back on tour for the first event of the 2011 season, the emotional damage took longer to heal.

“I was questioning my confidence in the ocean. I was questioning just everything,” she confides to O’Hara. After absolutely dominating the previous four seasons, Gilmore dropped to third place in 2011.

Coming back after the break for the 2012 season, Gilmore knew something needed to shift. She’d been putting in the physical and emotional work to heal her demons, but she could no longer feel her carefree and joyful state in competition the way she once had. Then, in the first event of the 2012 season she discovered a grittier, angrier drive to win.

“I remember it was a new competitor in me,” she tells O’Hara, “It was a beast that I hadn’t ever met yet myself. It was almost like I’d built this competitive creature within me and this was the unveiling.”

After spending the first years of her career known on tour as “Happy Gilmore,” she now began tapping into a much more primal and instinctual approach to competition.

“You have to sort of look at your opponents like they’re a piece of meat and you haven’t eaten for a year,” she laughingly tells O’Hara. This new Gilmore beast-mode worked. She won first place in the event and by the end of the year had reclaimed her place atop the tour, winning her fifth and most hard-fought World Title.

Though no one ever wishes for it, overcoming the kind of hardships Gilmore was forced to endure gave her a new perspective on surfing, leading to the most rewarding victory of her career. For Gilmore, World Title number five was the sweetest one yet.

That could change in the near future as she now chases down what would be a record-breaking eighth World Title, as well as the first ever Olympic gold medal ever awarded in the sport when it makes its debut next summer in Tokyo.

Listen to Stephanie Gilmore’s full conversation with Kelley O’Hara on the Just Women’s Sports podcast here.