Stephanie Gilmore finally completes her journey to all-time surfing greatness | Surfing

In October 2006, Australian surfer great Layne Beachley was on 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, the Manly local had become a global sporting star and used her platform to advance women’s surfing, going so far as to stage the Havianas Beachley Classic – with a bumper purse – on his home beach in Sydney. .

Beachley advanced to the final, where another competitive win seemed inevitable. It was a fairy tale finale as she neared retirement (she finally quit competition two years later). The best female surfer in history was about to win her own WSL event, on the beach where she grew up surfing.

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 was granted a wildcard after winning the trials. It was the present and the future of Australian surfing battling it out on the same waves, a passing of the guard. Gilmore was no stranger – she had picked up her first WSL event win, also as a wild card, the previous year. But her dominance in the final, against the greatest of all time, had observers sitting up. The future had arrived.

It would take nearly two decades, but on Thursday Gilmore finally overtook Beachley to win a record eighth WSL title, at the California surf-off final. After winning the 2018 world title, Gilmore had spent four years level with his childhood idol on seven titles apiece. A string of lackluster results and the rise of a new generation have hinted the 34-year-old may never be crowned world champion again. But through four frenzied clashes at Lower Trestles, Gilmore has shown emphatically that she remains one of the best on the tour.

The journey to all-time greatness that began all those years ago in Manly is now complete. Gilmore’s eight world titles, spanning three separate 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 any woman, with 33, and is the only surfer to win a world title in her debut season.

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

His victory on Thursday was unexpected. Once decided by a cumulative points ranking throughout the season, the WSL has in recent years opted to decide the world title through a finals format. After the regular season is over, the top five surfers compete in a one-day surf-off. The fifth takes on the fourth in a sudden-death race, before the winner takes the third, and so on. Whichever surfer succeeds, they eventually face the world No. 1, in a best-of-three final.

Gilmore entered Finals day on Thursday ranked fifth, having missed the season opener with Covid-19 and winning just one event during the year – in El Salvador. Australia’s male surfers spent the season in the limelight after a few years fallow – it was them (Jack Robinson in second and Ethan Ewing in third), not Gilmore, who looked set for a title charge. But as the men were knocked out in back-to-back heats, Gilmore remained standing.

She didn’t have it easy. Gilmore trailed for the majority of her opening round, against world No. 4 Brisa Hennessy. With less than a minute on the clock, the Aussie had the drive she needed to win by less than half a point. She then narrowly beat world number 3 Tatiana Weston-Webb, before moving past second-placed Johanne Defay. After winning three straight sets, Gilmore faced defending world champion Carissa Moore in the title decider. She won both rounds in quick succession to secure the crown.

“To be honest, I didn’t like that format,” Gilmore admitted afterwards with characteristic honesty. “The world champion should be crowned in all the different waves over the whole period of the year.” But the victory had made him change his mind. “And now I love it,” she said.

Gilmore lifts the WSL trophy after defeating Carissa Moore in the season finale.
Gilmore lifts the WSL trophy after defeating Carissa Moore in the season finale. Photography: Pat Nolan/World Surf League/Getty Images

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

Someday Gilmore’s 2006 Beachley moment will come, eclipsed by the next big thing. His 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 his name. But for now, Gilmore is alone.

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

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