Stephanie Gilmore exclusive after eighth title win: 'I'm not old at all. I feel incredible'

The Australian history-maker started the season with doubt crowding her mind but, by season's end, had claimed a record-breaking eighth world surfing title and feeling better than ever. What made the difference, asks

By Ash Tulloch and Jo Gunston | Created on 10 September 2022.
Picture by 2022 Getty Images

Stephanie Gilmore’s salty tears blended with the Pacific Ocean as she lay on her surfboard, taking a moment to contemplate a sensational comeback that meant the 34-year-old Australian had become the most successful female surfer in history.

Claiming a record-breaking eighth world surfing title, Gilmore had it all to do when she headed to San Clemente, California last week to compete in the 2022 Rip Curl WSL Finals at Lower Trestles.

Rated fifth in the world going into the event, a new competition format meant Gilmore had to win three consecutive heats to even get a chance of facing reigning world and Olympic champ Carissa Moore for the title. But win them she did before taking on the American in a best-of-three showdown.

Only two passes were required to beat the year’s stand-out performer, and Gilmore now stands alone as the greatest female surfer of all time, with eight world crowns, one better than compatriot and childhood idol, Layne Beachley.

The GOAT moniker bandied about since the win sits uneasily with the unassuming Australian though, as she told in an exclusive interview post competition from California.

“I've always felt uncomfortable with that tagline, just purely because surfing is a unique beast. There's thousands of different types of waves and places to achieve greatness. And I feel like, world titles are one way of getting there, but I just feel like there's always room to improve.”

A pause. A smile. On seconds thoughts... “Don't worry, I like it. I looked at the list this morning and it had all the world champions and it had my name at the top with the eight, like the most. And I was like, actually, that looks pretty good.”

Peer-less Gilmore

Third on that list with five titles is Moore and Gilmore was quick to recognise her competitor’s own stellar year. “You can come from the bottom, come from fifth and win a world title, that’s freaking cool. But Carissa is really the world champ to me this year. She’s had the best season ever. I’m so honoured to surf against her in this final.”

The Hawaiian, who had won the previous two editions, was the first to congratulate the new world champion, paddling over to give the unusually emotional Gilmore a watery hug.

Posting on Instagram alongside a picture of the Aussie celebrating the win, Moore wrote: “The GREATEST of all time! An honor to surf against you always. Congratulations on your 8th title! Wow! 8X!!! Holy moly. Five X 35 min heats in one day with all the pressure and win or die situations… it’s all yours undoubtedly 👏🏼”

The last comment, “inspiration for us all”, will please Gilmore with her legacy become increasingly important as her career progresses, and not just for young girls but her peers, too.

“I had so many of the women on the tour come up to me after this event," the Aussie told us, "and they just all said to me how inspired they were by the fact that I didn't have the best year, but I was still able to pull through with an incredible, incredible performance in the last event to make it happen and be a world champion. And that made all of them realise that, hey, we can do this.

“And that was a really rewarding moment for me because... (maybe) it shouldn't be because they are my fiercest opponents but I just felt so happy that I was able to give them that confidence because they're all such incredible athletes and we're all progressing the sport together. And if I can help push that along, not only in my own actions, but to inspire my peers to do the same thing, then job done.”

Stephanie Gilmore Australia Surfing WSL 2022 04
Picture by 2022 Getty Images

Gilmore’s first world title was at 19, so this recent success served as a lesson, not only to others but also to herself.

“I'm not old at all. I feel incredible. I feel like I'm the strongest I've ever been in my career right now. And that's the beauty of sport, that we get to test ourselves under these situations and see if we can rise to the occasion. I'm a much better competitor at 34 than I am at 19.

“And the fact that I can win in both ages is really special. And it's just showing me, it's making me feel like I have so much more in the tank and I love it. It's a great feeling.”

Stephanie Gilmore Australia Surfing WSL 2022 02
Picture by 2022 Getty Images

Uncertainty earlier in 2022

Yet the season didn’t start that way.

Early competition doubts started to creep in, especially when faced with journalists' questions about her future.

“You are doing interviews with people and they're like, ‘So is this it? Surely you want to have kids now, surely you're done, right? Aren't you bored of this tour?' And I think you can go about it the way you want, but there are little things that creep in, you know, throughout your day-to-day, or whatever you're doing, that you start questioning it yourself.”

A heart-to-heart with her coach brought Gilmore's concerns into the open.

“Before the season started, we had such an emotional chat where I just let out all of my worries and my questions and my inhibitions and all of my doubts. And I just laid it all bare to him, like, ’Am I mad? Am I too old for this?’ I was just so honest with him and like, ‘Can I make this happen still?”

Yet being open – not only with her coach but in the broader sphere – revealing what goes on behind the scenes away from the gloss of victory, helps others realise overcoming struggles is par for the course, in whatever walk of life.

On the day of her record-breaking moment, her coach referenced that conversation, “You laid it all out there and it was so cool to see you so vulnerable and to question everything”.

“I really feel like this year emotionally was one of the toughest years,” agreed Gilmore, “and mentally I had to dig deep on a much gnarlier level than I've ever had to before.”

That strength of character came good when she needed it most, and the Tokyo 2020 Olympian hopes will serve to bolster her foundation of experience on which to move forward, including Paris 2024.

Surfing at the next Olympic Games is taking place in Tahiti, with the location so apt for her sport's culture, says Gilmore.

“I'll definitely try and make the team because it's a pretty phenomenal experience to go to the Olympics. I know Tahiti is completely different than Paris, but that's also the beauty of surfing. Keep it special, keep it different and unique.”

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