The greatest champions make it look so very easy, but the style that has seen Stephanie Gilmore cement her place in the pantheon of surfing’s immortals is as much the result of relentless hard work and mindset as it is her natural ability – Part 1.

Miles Pitt

1 July, 2024

She is the most successful women’s surfer of all time, with a record eight World Surf League (WSL) World Surfing titles to her name. But challenging the status quo and resetting the level is nothing new for Stephanie ‘Steph’ Gilmore who has been setting records from the very start of her career. Straight out of the box she stunned the surfing world when she became the first surfer, either male or female, to win the world title in her rookie year. Then to put it beyond any shadow of doubt, she followed that achievement with a rapid fire three world titles in 2008, 2009 and 2010. That frenetic pace then slowed ever so slightly to every other year, adding more world titles in 2012 and 2014, before equalling fellow-Australian Layne Beachley’s seven titles in 2018.

In 2022, 15 years after entering the professional surfing ranks, she went one better and took her eighth title, achieving a lifelong dream and writing a whole new chapter for women’s surfing in the process.

There’s no doubting the extraordinary raw talent and a style that has variously been described as  ‘mesmerising’ and ‘fluid’ and ‘beautiful to watch’. The work ethic and preparation too are tireless and on top of it all is a fiercely competitive spirit that belies the smiling face and easy-going manner out of the surf.

It is perhaps that mindset and mental toughness that sets Gilmore apart and she can isolate a particular moment when everything suddenly crystallised for her with the realisation that the sky was truly the limit.

“In 2005 when I was 17, I won my way through a trials competition to gain a spot in a world tour event and surf against my heroes on the Gold Coast,” Gilmore recalls.

“I was probably more excited to get a few days off school to go surfing but I ended up going all the way and winning the whole thing! I think that was a defining moment for my career and my personal belief that anything was possible if I wanted to achieve it.”

That relentless focus, like the countless hours spent in the surf is something Gilmore has worked on.

"The mental game is incredibly important, and it’s an aspect of professional sport that I’ve always enjoyed delving into,” she says.

“I’ve worked with some wonderful people in my career Jan Carton, Nam Baldwin, Ben Crowe who have all helped me to understand and curate my mental state in and around competition so I can make the best possible decisions in high pressure situations.”

“Your thoughts are one of the few things you can actually control in your life so it’s cool to understand this and then use it as a tool to ignite certain emotions or create situations that make you feel excited rather than overwhelmed,” Gilmore says of techniques that have not only propelled her to the top of elite sport but are also applicable to other areas of life. 

“Changing your perception of things to be more positive will help you to see opportunity rather than roadblocks. These skills are definitely transferable in daily life and I’m always trying to be conscious of my internal dialogue in my everyday.”

Of course underpinning it all is a competitive edge that may seem at loggerheads with Gilmore’s relaxed and friendly demeanour that has earned her the nickname on tour of ‘Happy Gilmore’.

“I have to switch into a more fierce character when competing. I definitely wouldn't have had the success I’ve had without a desire to smash my opponents. It’s fun, kind of like acting,” she smiles.

Given the constantly changing environment that is the ocean, there is also a huge element of flexibility and spontaneity required to continuously succeed at the highest level. 

“You can do all the best preparation in the world and sometimes the ocean won’t co-operate and that’s just the way it goes. It’s quite humbling and from my experience this has made me put more emphasis on my spiritual energy going into events because the ocean seems to reflect whatever mood you’re in.”

“If you want to be a pro surfer you have to be relaxed and adaptable because you can never really schedule an event too far in advance.

“Every day you get to event and you may compete, you may not. There is always a chance the plan will change when dealing with Mother Nature, so if you’re into strict routines, a surf event will drive you mad,” she laughs.

But it is the very changing nature of the sea that drives the need to adapt and has contagiously seen Gilmore challenge herself.

“The ocean forever changes so I’m constantly feeling like my surfing can evolve and no matter the amount of trophies there’s always something new whether it be conditions or tricks to learn or to be challenged by.”

When it all comes together though there is nothing quite like it. There is a moment when all of the publicity, the cameras and the white noise just fade into the background and there’s just Gilmore and the wave.

“Surfing perfect waves is what every surfer dreams of. To surf those perfect waves in-front of an audience cheering loudly, is even better if you have a splash of ego like me,” she smiles.

But while that rush of competition is addictive, there is a great deal more to Stephanie Gilmore than just competing and winning. After rewriting the the surfing record books, in 2024 she is taking a year away from competition to recharge and pursue other projects.

“After I won the eighth title, I was ready for a breather. To reach such a milestone in my career I think I just kept running off adrenaline for another year and didn’t quite get the time to stop and assess what it meant and where to from here, so a year off was an easy decision and one I’m thoroughly enjoying.

Of course just because Gilmore is not competing this year doesn’t mean she isn’t driven and it certainly doesn’t mean she’s kicking back on a beach somewhere with her feet up – although the surf is never far away.

Read more about Stephanie Gilmore in Part 2 – The next wave.