Raised on Snapper Rocks' cyclonic gems, polished, fluid and elegant, Stephanie Gilmore's brand of surfing is tailor-made for long pointbreaks and wide-open canvases. But in 2018 it was the ever-changing, temperamental beachbreaks of Rio that ignited her sprint to a record-tying seventh World Title.
"I've been trying to get a victory in Brazil for a long time," Gilmore beamed from the podium after winning the 2018 Oi Rio Women's Pro.
Now, clinging to the Jeep Leader jersey by a mere 795 points, looking to defend both her World Title and her Oi Rio Pro title, she's going to have to rekindle some of that same magic to stay at the head of a tightening 2019 race.
Enroute to her Rio win last year, Gilmore was able to edge out rival Lakey Peterson in the Final. She got revenge on Nikki Van Dijk in the Semis, who'd beat her the previous year in the Quarters. And provided Sally Fitzgibbons with an uncharacteristic loss in their Quarterfinal duel. By her own admission, it was a breakthrough victory.
In 2018, when she won her Title, Gilmore had earned a 5th on the Gold Coast, won Bells, won Rio, and got 5th in Bali. It was the last six events of the year where she ran away with the Title: winning a contest, making two Finals and two more Semifinals. Her results this year aren't that different. Holding a 1st and three 5ths in her scoreline, if she can pull a result out of her hat in Brazil, she'll be on a very similar footing to where she was last year around this time.
But the road to a repeat win is fraught with danger. There are three former contest winners in the draw. All of them have been problematic for Gilmore in the past. In 2011, the Rio Pro was added to the women's Tour schedule. Gilmore got 3rd, losing to Fitzgibbons in the Semis, who went on to lose to Carissa Moore in a hard-fought Final.
Fitzgibbons is the winningest woman in the draw, and in prime form at the moment, she may be the most dangerous. She has only failed to make the Quarters or better once in her career, and has appeared in five of the eight Finals since 2011. She won the contest in both 2012 and 2013. Less than 2,000 points behind Gilmore, she has to be looking at Brazil as a prime opportunity to assert herself as a viable World Title threat.
Courtney Conlogue is another former winner in this year's draw that could do damage. Healthy and ripping, the beachbreak conditions in Rio aren't that different than what she surfs everyday at home in Huntington Beach. Her boards will be dialed, and after her command performance at Bells earlier this year, Rio is another Tour stop that could serve her well in her pursuit of her first World Title.
Due to their seeds, Gilmore won't face Moore, Fitzgibbons or Conlogue until later in the contest, but even the opening round could be a handful for Gilmore. She has Coco Ho, who beat her in the Quarters in 2012, as well as a to-be-determined wildcard.
Gilmore missed the Rio Pro in both 2013 and 2015 due to injury. Her worst result came in 2014 when Silvana Lima handed her a 13th-place finish. Lima's will also be in this year's draw.
Can Gilmore go back to back in Rio? Of course she can, she's the seven-time World Champ. But by no means is it going to be a cakewalk.
Watch the Oi Rio Pro live June 20-28 on Worldsurfleague.com, App and Facebook.