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

IIn October 2006, Australian surfing great Layne Beachley was on top of the world. He 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 star in the sport and used her platform to promote women’s surfing, going so far as to stage the Havianas Beachley Classic – complete with a bumper purse – on his beach her home in Sydney. .

Beachley reached the final where another competition win seemed inevitable. It was a fairy-tale finale as he approached retirement (he eventually stopped racing two years later). The greatest female surfer in history was about to win her own WSL event, on the beach she grew up shredding.

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 had secured a wild card after winning the trials. It was the present and future of Australian surfing battling it out on the same waves, a passing of the guard. Gilmore was no stranger – she had secured her maiden win at the WSL event, also as a wild card, the previous year. But her dominance in the final, against the all-time leading scorer, made observers sit up. The future had arrived.

It would take nearly two decades, but on Thursday Gilmore finally topped Beachley to win a record eighth WSL title at the surf-off finals in California. After claiming the 2018 world title, Gilmore had spent four years matching her childhood idol with seven titles each. A string of mediocre results and the rise of a new generation suggested the 34-year-old could never again be crowned world champion. But in a frenzied four-match run at Lower Trestles, Gilmore made it clear she remains one of the best on tour.

The journey to all-time greatness that began over the years at Manly is now complete. Gilmour’s eight world titles, spanning three different decades (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2018 and 2022), are eclipsed only by male surfer Kelly Slater’s 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 first season.

Gilmore on her way to the Lower Trestles trophy.
Gilmore on her way to the Lower Trestles trophy. Photo: Pat Nolan/World Surf League/Getty Images

Her victory on Thursday was unexpected. Formerly decided by a cumulative point standings throughout the season, in recent years the WSL has opted to decide the world title through a finals format. After the regular season concludes, the top five surfers compete in a one-day surf-off. The fifth faces the fourth in sudden death, before the winner takes third, and so on. Whichever surfer makes it, eventually competes against the world’s No. 1 in a best-of-three final.

Gilmore entered Thursday’s final seeded fifth, having missed the season opener with Covid-19 and won just one race on the year – in El Salvador. Australia’s male surfers took the season to the fore after a few years – it was them (Jack Robinson in second place and Ethan Ewing in third), not Gilmour, who looked set to win the title. But while the men were knocked out in back-to-back rounds, Gilmore stood tall.

He didn’t have an easy time. Gilmore trailed for most of her opening set against world No. 4 Brisa Hennessy. With less than a minute on the clock, the Australian secured the run she needed to win by less than half a point. She then narrowly beat world No 3 Tatiana Weston-Webb, before overcoming second placed Johanne Defay. After three straight wins, Gilmore faced defending world champion Carissa Moore in the title decider. He won both back-to-back to secure the crown.

“I didn’t like that format to be honest,” Gilmore admitted afterward with characteristic candor. “The world champion should be crowned in all the different waves throughout the year.” But the victory had changed her 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. Photo: Pat Nolan/World Surf League/Getty Images

An all-weather surfer, Gilmore has won races 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 tour in 2007, Gilmore has been a constant – a constant feature of the WSL, and now an elder statesman of surfing.

One day Gilmore’s 2006 Beechley moment will be overshadowed by the next big thing. Her claim to be the empiric all-time leader could be threatened in the coming years by Hawaiian star Moore, four years younger than Gilmour, who already has five titles to her name. But for now Gilmore is alone.

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

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