On Surfing

Stephanie Gilmore

Illustration by Matt Titone

A surfer with unparalleled style, Stephanie Gilmore demonstrates a level of comfort in surfing’s most artful spaces and in its most commercial, lending the sport a gravitas like few have.

Can you describe one of the most challenging aspects of surfing to you?

I always feel challenged by the Ocean. Now more than ever, I’’ve felt my world championships tend to misrepresent how unaccomplished I really am in the ocean. Riding new waves, large waves, heavy waves, different equipment, bodysurfing, doing tricks and aerials… These are all elements that I know make a truly great and entertaining surfer. I spend some serious energy everyday thinking about how I’ve stayed within the limits of my comfort zone, and so I must spend time challenging myself in these areas to find new confidence and improve upon. In the earlier stages of my career, I didn’t really consider all the extras to be as important as the surfing it takes to be a world surfing champion, but almost everyday I’m seeing imagery of unknown watermen and waterwomen who are approaching waves of consequence with no fear or surfing quirky waves with such joy, and I realize that––nowadays––I’m finding it harder to narrow my focus to just heats and trophies when surfing is such a cool creative space to try it all.

What’s one of the most redemptive or rewarding parts of surfing?

The presence it forces you into and awareness of Earth’s elements––both of which I feel connected to and find helpful in my everyday life even without being by the sea. My favorite is when I’m racing the wave, going fast, and I feel the wind on my face––simple but always a pleasure. And of course, the moving water and all of its energy. My favourite quote from Diana Vreeland: “I’m really only envious of one thing, and that is a surfer. I think it’s the most beautiful thing. See I’m mad about water. I think water is God’s tranquilizer. To be in it, to drink it, to look at it, and to be a surfer––oh, between the sky and the water––would be to me, the most wonderful thing.”

Has surfing afforded you anything in life? If so, what?

Skin damaged by the long sun exposure and maybe a few cuts and scrapes. I fractured my knee surfing in Western Australia a week or so before I was due to attend the Met Gala in New York City, and so travelling all that way to wearing high heels up all those red carpeted stairs for the long night was pretty taxing, but not even worth a mention to be honest. I should have worn more sunscreen and not fallen off.

How long can you go without surfing?

Eight days is okay. I can go surprisingly long, as long as it’s by choice and not injury.

Are there things comparable to the feeling you get while surfing?

Listening to a wonderful song or falling in love. 

How and when did you fall in love with surfing?

I was around nine-years-old and my father got my two older sisters and I mad about surfing. I think we saw how much he loved it and figured it must be fun, so we followed him to the beach as much as we could. When we were really young, he would draw a circle in the sand and put us three girls in the sand and tell us to just stay put so he could sneak out for a few wave–– just close to the shore. I’m sure our mum didn’t mind, she finally had some peace and quiet at home. We grew up in Kingscliff, Northern New South Wales, but dad would take us in to surf the perfect right hand point breaks of Coolangatta. Waves called Greenmount Beach and Rainbow Bay which are still to this day, some of my favourites. They are as magical as they sound and easy to become addicted to. Dad would take me out on his board, or I’d practise standing on my bodyboard and spinning around in the shore break trying to impress the surrounding beach goers. Around eleven-years-old, surfing became the last thing I’d think about as I’d close my eyes at night. Then, I’d wake up wondering what the waves were like in the morning (bed full of sand). I’d be antsy to get out of school each day to make it back to the beach for another surf. Completely consumed! My first true love––heartbreak not included.

What’s one of your pre/post-surf rituals you hold dear?

Drink water, zinc up, roll around in the sand to stretch out the kinks, couple of nice breaths, smile and paddle out. Rinse and repeat.

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On Surfing is generously supported by our friends at McTavish

Michael Adno

Michael is a writer and photographer born in Florida as a first-generation American to Austrian and South African parents. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Bitter Southerner, and The Surfer’s Journal among other magazines.

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