When we walked into a back conference room at the World Surf League offices in Santa Monica, Stephanie Gilmore had just taken a bite of her salad. The newly-minted seven-time world champion was fresh off a media tour in New York City and no doubt enjoying a brief reprieve from answering questions. Unpredictable as Westside Los Angeles traffic often is, we arrived 30 minutes early for our interview. Steph wasn’t flustered in the slightest. We apologized for interrupting an otherwise peaceful moment of alone time with a truckload of cameras, and she just smiled. “Oh, no worries,” she said. We’d stolen her one moment of privacy in the last 24 hours, and she handled it with aplomb, the same way she’s stared down countless final heats: calm and cool, without a hint of unneeded emotion.
This year has been a monumental one for professional women’s surfing, but not without a few hiccups along the way. Back in June, a photo bounced around the internet showing a female competitor at a junior contest in Ballito, South Africa earning exactly half of the prize money as her male counterpart – each placed first in the 18-and-under division. The World Surf League was contrite in press releases that followed but also doubled down explaining the event as a function of a system called “purse parity.”
To the League’s credit, they later announced they’d institute true equal pay in 2019 (after considerable pressure from the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing and some hand-wringing). The WSL is the first and only U.S.-based sports league to do so.
Then, in November we saw big wave hellwomen huck themselves over enormous ledges at Jaws on a day when the men’s event was later called off. Keala Kennelly, who won, was disappointed she didn’t complete any rides, but her commitment level was off the charts.
It was that same day that Alana Blanchard defeated Lakey Peterson in Round 2 of the Beachwaver Maui Pro, and Stephanie Gilmore was crowned world champion for the seventh time in her career.
That Gilmore would win a world title after such a historic year is fitting. When she first emerged on the scene as a teen, the likes of Rochelle Ballard, Layne Beachley, and other top pros at the time were fighting tooth and nail for respect among brands.
When we met in Santa Monica, that fact wasn’t lost on Steph. “I’m really reaping the benefits of all of their decades of hard work, elevating the sport to what it is now,” she said.
In more ways than one, this is Stephanie Gilmore’s most meaningful world title. And she shows no signs of slowing down.