"It's a pleasure to be back," said Stephanie Gilmore after her first heat of the 2021 season.
"I had an amazing year off," she continued, referring to the Tour's forced pandemic hiatus in 2022. "But I feel rejuvenated and ready to take on the challenge of competition."
Rejuvenated indeed. After recently becoming the first woman to win a Championship Tour event at Barra De La Cruz, Mexico, by season's end Gilmore was in impeccable form and had carved out a clear path to a record-breaking eighth World Title. Currently tied with Australian icon Layne Beachley with seven Titles apiece, Gilmore did a remarkable job all year long not getting ahead of herself, and as the old pro surfing cliche goes, she took it one heat at a time. But the weight of history is hard to escape.
"We are all just bits of dust particles floating on Earth, so I've never been able to take things too seriously, but at the same time I do know how much it means to me," she surmises.
Fourteen years after the natural footer had won her first World Title in her rookie season, these days Gilmore looks relaxed, focused and comfortably in control of her destiny.
"I would love to win eight. Eight's a great number," Steph told the Olympic Channel last year.
Representing Australia in surfing's Olympic debut, Gilmore was clear that winning a gold medal was what she "wanted to focus on the most." But being the coy, seasoned veteran that she is, she also left room for a Title run.
"I think I've got plenty of juice in the tank and I'd love to be able to keep evolving," she added.
An eighth World Title would make Gilmore the most decorated female surfer in WSL history. Since winning her seventh title in 2018 she has shared that accolade with Beachley. In 2019, she finished as the World No.4, a disappointing result, albeit one sweetened by claiming an Olympic qualification spot.
However, when competition was canceled in 2020 Gilmore was unable to add to her incredible tally. In some sense, at the age of 33, any lost time might make her quest for GOATness even more difficult. Yet she only has to look to a certain Kelly Slater, who claimed his last World Title aged 39, to know that age is only a number.
And like Slater, she too has maintained her competitive intensity and thrived on each generation of talent that has come through the ranks.
"Those young girls are right there, and they don't care how many titles you've got. Maybe they're inspired by you, but they actually want to smash you," she said at last year's Surfing Australia Awards. "So yeah, it's the greatest thing for any athlete to have that competition, that rivalry, that's really when you start achieving things in your career that you surprise yourself with."
In total, Gilmore would have to win three heats to get to the Title Match against No. 1 seed Carissa Moore. If that should happen, surf fans would be treated to an epic clash between the two most dominant women in professional surfing over the last decade. Between the two of them, they have already own 11 World Titles. Both also boast CT victories at Lowers on their respective memories.
Whatever happens at Lowers this September, history is going to be made -- Gilmore just hopes she's the one making it.
Rip Curl WSL Finals runs from September 9-17, 2021 in San Clemente, California. A historic, one-day, winner-take-all race for the 2021 World Title, don't miss a second of the action right here on WorldSurfLeague.com.