For the past three years, Stephanie Gilmore has been flirting with history. With six World Titles to her name, she's just one Championship away from tying Layne Beachley for earning the most World Titles on the women's tour. All along, the question for Gilmore hasn't been if she'll earn a seventh Title, but when.
That, however, may have been the wrong question. Instead, since she won Title No. 6 in 2014, a secondary question -- murmured but never posed, is whether Gilmore wants (or even needs) to meet (or exceed) Beachley's record. The past three years have been less than stellar for the Australian, competitively speaking. In 2015, she opened with a top-shelf start, with back-to-back second-place finishes. But at Margaret River, the third event of the season, she fractured her fibula during a freesurf session, and was effectively sidelined for the rest of the year.
In 2016, Gilmore was back again, recuperated and ostensibly ready to take her place in the canon of surf history. As things stood then -- and now -- she has the second-most number of Titles. After Gilmore is Lisa Andersen, with four, followed by Carissa Moore, with three. And yet, that season number seven was not to be. She opened the season with four straight fifth-place finishes, struggling each time with a proverbial Quarterfinal curse.
The rest of her season continued in the same general direction; more fifths and a few ninths, with a solid runner-up result at Trestles. So when 2017 rolled around, Gilmore (and her fans) unfurled the flags and pom poms once again. Australians, it should be noted, may have suffered from the angst of split allegiance among her, defending Champ Tyler Wright, and three-time runner-up Sally Fitzgibbons. Yet while Gilmore is currently ranked World No. 5 -- hardly a shoo-in with just one event to go -- this is the closest she's come to the silver trophy since 2014.
Things this season were different from the start. She opened the year with a win at Snapper Rocks, smiling her way to the podium in front of a hometown crowd. Gilmore went on to a third-place win at Margaret's, and then a runner-up at Bells, followed by a fifth in Brazil. Not too shabby. But in Fiji, she hit something of a reef-borne roadblock to a stellar second half of the year. There, she left with a ninth, followed by two 13ths and two more fifths. Her early successes have kept her in the game, but when Maui rolls around -- the next and final event of the year -- she'll need some serious mana.
For Gilmore to actually attain her seventh Title this season, she has to win at Honolua Bay, which is something she's done three times before. Not only must she do her part, however, but others must falter for her to ascend. She'll need Wright (World No. 2) and Fitzgibbons (World No. 1) to max out by the Quarterfinals, and she'll need Courtney Conlogue (World No. 3) to not make the Final (find the full Title scenario breakdown here).
Whatever happens at Honolua, 2017 has been a good year for Gilmore, objectively speaking. She's not coming back from a painful injury, nor is she carrying the weight of a presumed World Title on her shoulders. Instead, Gilmore's arguably been working out what a Title winner has to have to get to the top: a clear idea of exactly what she wants. This past year, had some moments of brilliance, in which she returned to the beach beaming with the thrill of the win. But she also had some head-scratcher heats, where even she appeared vexed in post-heat interviews.
But if you believe that everything in surfing, as in life, is a journey, then Gilmore's season has been a valuable building block. Whether it builds toward a historic seventh trophy, this or any other year, is entirely up to her.