Early to rise

Gilmore, putting a mark on her victory lap wave. Steve Fitzpatrick

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By 8 a.m. ET Monday, in a tight, well-surfed second heat of the Rip Curl Search Quarterfinal against Hawaii's Melanie Bartels, 22-year-old Australian surfer Stephanie Gilmore was crowned World Champion for the fourth consecutive time.

As predicted Sunday, it wasn't any easy heat by any means. The surf at Middles, on the North Shore of Puerto Rico, remained in the chest to head-high range, and while considerably cleaner than yesterday, conditions were the least of Gilmore's problems. It was a rampaging Bartles causing the heartburn, as the scrappy Hawaiian seized the lead and earned a 7.27 with about 10 minutes remaining, leaving Gilmore looking for a 6.27.

Gilmore, who earned her first title in her rookie year on tour in 2007, was up for the task. With less than five minutes to go, she scratched into a shoulder-high wave and set up a sweeping frontside cutback before racing down the line. Event organizers, media, and tour VIPs gathered around the monitors displaying the judges scores as they filtered in. A 6.37. Outside, the crowd erupted. Gilmore had bagged her fourth consecutive title in as many years on tour.

Met on the beach by defending Men's World Champ and fellow Aussie Mick Fanning, Rip Curl's Neil Ridgeway and a horde of shutter-snapping photographers, Gilmore was obviously elated. "This is just so amazing," she smiled. "It's a long year, and you put so much energy, time and work into it, this feeling just never gets old. You'd think I'd be prepared and know what to expect, but every title's been different, and this one is just so special."

At 38, and with seven total and six consecutive world titles (1998-2003 and 2006), Australia's Layne Beachley is the most decorated female surfer in history. She retired from professional surfing in Oct. 2008.

The men are not expected to run Monday and event organizers are watching Hurricane Tomas closely, with the expectation that the end of the event window (which runs through Nov. 10) could see impressive swell. ESPN Surfing will be reporting live. You can also follow us on Twitter.