Surfing star’s biggest goal is equal pay
Aussie star Stephanie Gilmore at vanguard of efforts to close gender pay gap, as Associated Press reports.
If Australia’s Stephanie Gilmore captures the gold medal when surfing makes its Olympic debut two years from now, it might not be her most meaningful win.
Gilmore, who is talked about as possibly the greatest athlete of all time in her sport, takes pride in being on the ground floor in the fight for a prize that could have a longer-lasting impact: equal pay for women on her professional tour.
The World Surf League put itself in rare company earlier this year with its decision to begin paying women the same as men, starting in 2019. While the Grand Slams and a few other tournaments in tennis have committed to paying women and men equal prize money, the WSL is the first US-based global sports league to make that move.
The fight for equal pay begun decades ago by Billie Jean King on the tennis court — and still waged daily in corporations across America — has now found a toehold on the beach.
“Sports are the perfect platform to show equality,” Gilmore said last week, after capturing her record-tying seventh season title. “In most workplaces, what people make is completely private. In ours, the prize money is public knowledge.”
When the 30-year-old champion started surfing on tour, women typically made around $12,000 for a win, while men — led by 11-time champion Kelly Slater — would rake in around $40,000.
“Surfing was not a career path,” Slater recalled of his youth, in the HBO surf documentary Momentum Generation. ‘‘It was just something you enjoyed doing.”
Even next year, when women and men are both expected to make around $100,000 for a victory (men made $100,000 and women $65,000 in 2018), it’s hard for anyone but those at the very top to get rich riding waves.
Competitions are only a piece of the puzzle. Sponsorships, filming and freesurfing (essentially exhibition performances) make up the rest.
Could the Olympics change that? It’s a debate coursing through the sport that is now experiencing some of the same growing pains as other so-called “lifestyle” sports, such as snowboarding. Two decades since their sport’s Olympic debut, snowboarders have accepted the Games and benefited from the platform they provide.
“It’s definitely new territory, and some people are a little unsure about it,” Gilmore said. “They think it’s not authentic surfing. I think it’s kind of cool. I grew up watching (Australian 400-meter sprint champion) Cathy Freeman, thinking, ‘I want to go to the Olympics.’ But I thought that, as a surfer, I’d never get that chance.”
Now she will.
Gilmore grew up only 400 meters from the beach. Her father loved surfing, and Gilmore and her sisters “really had no choice” but to learn how to ride, she said. By the time she was 11, she knew this was what she wanted to do for a living.
The moment that triggered the run to her seventh world title came at the same beach where she learned how to surf.
Gilmore finished a disappointing fifth in this year’s season-opening event in Australia. Three years had passed since her last season title, and she was beginning to wonder if her best days were behind her.
“It sort of killed the confidence and made me think, ‘Do you still want this? Do you still have it?’” Gilmore said. “I got quite overwhelmingly emotional. And that’s when I realized, ‘You obviously still really care about this.’”
Gilmore refocused. She won three events in 2018 and finished second in three more. After the season’s final event in Maui last week, she had captured her seventh title, which ties her with another Australian, Layne Beachley, for the most for a woman. Only Slater, with 11, has more.
Already a household name in surfing, an Olympic gold medal would clearly go a long way toward expanding Gilmore’s profile.
In many ways, though, she has already had an impact beyond her sport.
“Women like Stephanie are competing in the same conditions, on the same waves, showing the same bravery as the men,” said the WSL’s CEO, Sophie Goldschmidt.
“It’s incredibly inspiring. They are positive role models, pushing boundaries and gaining audiences. But it’s not where it should be. There’s still room to grow.”
Australia’s Stephanie Gilmore rides the waves at a competition in Tavarua, Fiji last year. The seven-time world champion has been at the forefront of a successful push to secure equal pay for women on her tour, the World Surf League.
Stephanie Gilmore, Australia’s seven-time world surf champion