Based strictly on past performances alone, World No. 4 Stephanie Gilmore should be the favorite to win the upcoming Swatch Pro at Lower Trestles.
Given that the event has only existed on the Women's Championship Tour since 2014 and it's a fairly small sample size, the numbers are impressive nonetheless. She's appeared in the most Finals (2), has the highest Average Heat Score (AHS) at 15.31, the highest win percentage (75 percent) and shares the record for most heat wins (9).
Her victory at the inaugural Swatch Pro in 2014 was something of a clinic. Surfing against Sally Fitzgibbons in classic Lowers conditions -- glassy, overhead, righthand walls -- she produced a legendary performance that included a perfect 10-point ride and a nearly perfect 9.50 backup. After missing out on a chance to defend her title at the 2015 Swatch Pro due to injury, she came back guns blazing in 2016. Her return to Lowers included a heat total of 18.60 (9.50 + 9.10) against Nikki Van Dijk in the Semifinals on her way to reaching the Final, where she faced Tyler Wright.
The 6x World Champion kicked off the 2017 season in fine fashion, winning the Roxy Pro Gold Coast, which was quite a coup considering it's her primary sponsor's event, at her home break. At that point, Gilmore had reason to believe things were turning in her favor. In four out of her five previous victories at Snapper Rocks, Gilmore went on to clinch a World Title. After winning her sixth Roxy Pro back in March, she looked like she was well on her way to keeping that streak alive. Her win marked the end of a two-year winless streak, too. "I feel like at this event I've found some clarity in my decision-making and what it takes to win," Gilmore said at the time. "I'd just love to win an event. That's the name of the game."
A third in Margaret River, followed by a second at Bells, had her exiting the Australian Leg wearing the Jeep Leader yellow jersey. In May, after a fifth in Brazil at the Oi Rio Pro, she still held a share of the points lead alongside Wright, the reigning World Champ. They both wore yellow singlets at the Fiji Pro at the end of May. It was well reported in the surf media that Gilmore's struggle in 2016 was maintaining inner peace, and she'd admittedly taken active steps to regain it. And it all seemed to be working fine until the Tour headed to Tavarua for the Outerknown Fiji Pro. For the first four events of the year she was rolling, but somewhere in Fiji the wheels fell off for Steph. She struggled in Round Four against Tatiana Weston-Webb, earning ninth and relinquished the yellow jersey.
In 2017 she's consistently gotten off to slow starts in heats, something of which she's keenly aware. And yet, she has been unable to find an answer to what ails her.
Her exit from the US Open in July was a bad loss, to wildcard Maud Le Car in Round Two. It was the second time in as many events that she'd failed to break the 10-point mark, a number she's routinely scored in a single ride over the course of her career. Lately, her music and a starring role in Taylor Steele's new film, Proximity (you can watch the trailer here), have battled for equal time with her professional life. But playing the guitar and free surfing are hardly a conflict to be resolved, more likely they're the things that will provide the answers she's searching for to get her out of a competitive rut.
But as the questions about her form and head space linger, those niggling issues with slow starts and incomplete rides are rearing their ugly heads again. Have the demons of 2016 been completely exorcised? Considering the venue for the Swatch Pro, her likely retort would be that the reports of her demise have been greatly exaggerated (after all, she is currently ranked World No. 4 -- hardly a slump for most people). Can she make good on such a fantastic start? Gilmore gets a chance to prove it early at the Swatch Pro. In her Round One, Heat 2 matchup at Lowers, she faces No. 9 Carissa Moore (who, oddly enough, is battling the same Quarterfinal voodoo hex Gilmore struggled with in 2016) and No. 15 Silvana Lima, who both have their own points to prove.
Watch Gilmore and the rest of Top 17 live daily on the WSL when the Swatch Pro kicks off, from Sept. 6 - 17.