The Girl in the Crowd
The unique gifts of Stephanie Gilmore
New York, 2011 and the pro surfing world is in a tizz because the most fabulous city in the world is playing host to one of its singlet and siren soirees. In the lead up to the Quiksilver Pro New York, which is being held at Long Beach on the fringes of the Big Apple, Quik organises a series of sideshows closer to town.
On the day of my arrival I find myself standing in a crowd on the edge of the Hudson River, the Manhattan Skyline soaring like an impossible dream behind me, while Tony Hawk and his skate posse put their own spin on gravity-defying physics, while riding a custom-made ramp.
As I marvel at the skating hi-jinx and get a little overwhelmed by the scale of the setting, I feel a tap on the shoulder. Turning to the right I’m met with a warm smile, a sweep of blonde and a friendly ‘hi’ from a girl who is happy to see a familiar face – someone to say ‘Wow, how cool is all this’ with and share in the wonder of the moment. Steph Gilmore was already a four times world champion by then, but for a few minutes she was just the friendly girl next to me in the crowd; eager to chat about her expectations for a city, which seemed to reveal a new mystery at every turn.
Cut to 2018 – the lineup at Snapper Rocks in the lead up to the Quiksilver and Roxy Pros. Jostling for the small ribbons of swell is a heavyweight pack that includes surfers from both the men’s and women’s tours, second-string pros eager to capitalise on the firing line of photogs, the rank and file rippers from the Gold Coast and a flotsam of everyday surfers. Amidst the chaos is a magazine editor (me) who is drifting fast down to Greenmount, eager to get out of the way lest I upset the preparations of the elite cast.
Steph Gilmore paddles up the point as I concede defeat and succumb to the sweep. As we pass she still takes a moment to offer a genuine greeting and flash that famous smile, but it’s all done with well-practised, lineup economy – like a politician who knows how to give just enough attention to each relevant person as they work the room. There is precious little time for small talk today. There is a contest about to start – the first step towards that elusive, seventh world title and more immediately there is a lineup to contend with, one which requires a disdain for unnecessary distractions if you want a wave.
Moments later Steph finds a gap in the lineup, which positions her perfectly for a bending wall that somehow slips through the mosh-pit unclaimed. The friendly face is now wrought with focus and determination as she strokes in hard, slides purposefully to her feet and levers off the bottom so hard that I can’t help but feel a little sorry for the lip she is about to obliterate. All heads in the lineup turn as Steph eviscerates the helpless wave with her finned blade, the ‘thwack’ of the DHD echoing all the way down the line as it repeatedly hits the lip. It’s the second best wave I see ridden all day. The best is the next one Steph gets.
Stephanie Gilmore somehow makes ambition and amiability seem like the most natural of bedfellows. In truth there are many dimensions to Steph’s character and while her seven world titles represent a remarkable achievement, her holistic embrace of life’s many joys and challenges ensures she will never be defined by a number. Instead, by virtue of her success and dynamism, Steph gives us all hope that we can reach for the best in ourselves while still being balanced and empathetic human beings. Here’s to the girl in the crowd.
Steph Gilmore – comfortable and confident in any setting, but happiest at the beach.