This time last year Stephanie Gilmore was on crutches, hobbling her way through Havana, Cuba, with her camera. One month prior she'd suffered a serious leg injury at Margaret River, and she'd miss more than half the season as a result. Steff has netted a string of quarterfinal finishes in her return this season. Not too shabby, but not the kind of winning form that has won her six titles.
But this week in Rio Gilmore advanced directly to the quarterfinals for the first time this year, winning her first Round One heat of the season and backing it up with a Round Three victory over Carissa Moore. During Sunday's lay day, she shared some thoughts on Rio de Janeiro, the joys of surf-less travels, and what it takes to date her (hint: pack your bags).
WSL: What's your experience been like in Rio, from the surfing to being a famous surfer in place with incredible surf fandom?
Stephanie Gilmore: The fans are insanely passionate. It's pretty special that of course, they're extremely patriotic -- they love their Gabriels and Filipes and such -- but you feel the love from all the fans. Rio is one of those events where you feel like a rockstar.
Rio is one of those events where you feel like a rockstar.
Rio is so alive, there's so much going on. It keeps you on your toes -- the energy, the way that Rio has the mountains and landscape is intense, and the traffic is intense, and there are so many people and there's so much going on. Wave-wise, I come here with low expectations. But that's all part of the adventure. I think the world champ has to be able to win all kinds of conditions.
WSL: How are you feeling about your start to this year?
SG: I've had a weird year, lots of quarterfinal finishes. And Brazil is always a funny one, because you can never come into this event knowing, ‘I'm really confident and I know I'm going to make at least the quarters or the semis here.' Because you don't know what the conditions are going to be like. And at this point in the year, you can still turn your year around. You can come here and lose first heat, or you can come in, surprise yourself and win, and set yourself up for a much better rest of the season.
WSL: So it's a bit of a corner to turn?
SG: It's a real test, Brazil. It's a test of your patience, of your focus, it tests your ability to change and be prepared for whatever's thrown your way. And it's a great event for that reason.
WSL: You did a lot of traveling last year while recovering from injury. How was the personal journey?
SG: I've been doing the tour for, this is my tenth year. And I feel like I've always had an open mind about travel, to make sure that I go to places that aren't necessarily surf-inspired. And I think it's important because you can do the tour for many years and go to the same places every single time and not actually experience that place. I never wanted to do that, I always wanted to make sure I really saw a place for what it's known for -- the really touristy things. It can be annoying to jump on the tourist bus, but we have the opportunity, so why not?
You can do the tour for many years and go to the same places every single time and not actually experience that place. I never wanted to do that.
I went to Cuba, which was insane. I really wanted to go there before it opened up to the US. We got in there before Obama and others went, it was insane, like going back in time. You're cruising around in these cars that are straight out of the ‘50s in the US. There's no internet, no phone. You have to communicate with people.
AD: In person?!
SG: In person! (laughs) You have to ask people questions, use paper maps. It was one of the coolest things I've ever experienced. And it's a photographer's wet dream. The cars, the buildings, the colors, the people. You feel like you've walked into a Warner Brothers' movie set.
WSL: What was the biggest surprise about it?
SG: We expected it to be dangerous, and it wasn't. Everyone was friendly. And it was interesting to experience a communist country, to see that there was no extreme poverty. At the same time, when we were speaking to taxi drivers and other people, and some would say that they're qualified as government officers and other professions. But they felt there was no point in trying to work harder because you're not rewarded for the hard work. Everyone's on this level playing field.
Cuba is a photographer's wet dream. The cars, the buildings, the colors, the people. You feel like you've walked into a movie set.
We rented this cool place at the Malecón, which is on the water. They call it "Havana's couch" because pretty much every evening everyone in the town goes and sits on this cement wall that runs along the water, and everyone is so social, and talking to each other. No one was on their phones. It was so cool to see people interacting and hanging out. It's so strange to say that would stand out.
WSL: So you're passionate about photography. Have you ever exhibited your work?
SG: I've talked about it, and would love to do a book one day. I have some good ones, between Cuba, and then spent a few weeks in Italy. We went on a boat down the coast and had a great time. Italy's dangerous because you eat so much and drink so much. It's not good event preparation. But I loved it.
WSL: So it was the "eat" part of your Eat, Pray Love adventure?
SG: Exactly! I think after going there and experiencing the culture there and then seeing Leonardo Fioravanti do so well, I'm proud of him. I think, wow, this kid comes from Italy, and the waves are not world-class there. And I know he's spent a long time in France, but it feels so much more special to see him compete now that I've been to his home country.
WSL: Now that you're back, what impact did that time have on you?
SG: You always walk away from any trip with experiences and stories that help you grow, they rejuvenate you, they inspire you. I always bring back into my life on tour, these moments that I've had around the world, to keep me level-headed or inspired, or whatever it is to keep going. I definitely came back fresh, because I‘ve never in my career had time off like that.
I felt guilty that I wasn't working. But at the same time, I had to keep reminding myself, No, you've never had this break before. It's ok to take this time off.
To travel without surfboards was a treat, for sure. I did not miss dragging those boards around the world. I loved it, but at the same time, I missed the surfing, too.
WSL: How did that feel for you -- was it like, maybe not a hole in your heart, but like an appendage was missing?
SG: Yeah, 100 percent. And I was almost feeling a little guilty, because everyone was competing. I forget where they were - here, or Fiji. But the girls were all competing and I was checking in online, and I felt guilty that I wasn't working. But at the same time, I had to keep reminding myself, ‘No, you've never had this break before. It's ok to take this time off.'
WSL: Is it difficult for you to juggle your public persona and your private life?
SG: No, I don't have the crazy fame of someone like John John, I've never had it and I'm OK with that. It's cool that I can fly under the radar a bit. And yeah, it can be hard to keep whatever you do out of the limelight, but I'm pretty genuine and honest with everyone I talk to, whether it's fans on the beach or my best friend. I think I have the same personality with and level of respect for each person. So, I don't think it's ever been an issue to hide my private life.
WSL: But is it tough to maintain one? To have time for yourself, or relationships?
SG: Traveling so much makes it difficult, for sure. It's hard -- I've always felt like I've had to be pretty selfish in this kind of career to make sure that you can do the best job that you set out to do at an event, or in between events. And yeah, sometimes, I'm like - my family, my friends, there's a lot of focus on me, making sure I'm good, and I'm supported and I'm happy. And I always want to make sure that my friends and family know that I'm thankful for that.
But in terms of relationships, yeah, it's hard work. I mean - if you want to make it work, you will. I like to be pretty independent. Everyone's different, but I love to have that freedom as I travel, and to not feel like I have attachments anywhere in the world. It's the way I operate the best.
WSL: So, your would-be suitors should just be prepared to pack a bag.
SG: Yeah. To pack, and adapt.
WSL: And carry some board bags.
SG: Exactly. And have bikinis and fullsuits in there, too.