On Dec. 26, 2010, Steph Gilmore was invincible. The then-22-year-old Australian known as "Happy Gilmore" had just been crowned ASP world champ for the fourth year in a row and was fresh off her third straight Triple Crown title. She was weeks away from announcing a move to Quiksilver, where she would become teammates with 10-time world champ Kelly Slater and earn the richest contract in women's surf history: $5 million over five years. Her confidence and happiness were at all-time highs. On Dec. 27, her life changed. That day, Gilmore was attacked outside her home in Coolangatta, New South Wales, Australia. For the first time, Gilmore opens up about the attack, surfing again and what it's been like to have her invincibility tested:
"A few days before the attack, a couple friends said to me, 'With everything going so well, you should think about moving to a more secure apartment. You never know what's around the corner.' I was like, 'Oh, OK, maybe.' That night, I was supposed to go to the movies with a friend, but there was a change of plans, so I turned around and went home. I am a firm believer that things happen for a reason. I have to walk through a public car park to get to my apartment, and I noticed a guy I hadn't seen before. I didn't take much notice, but when I saw him a second time, we made eye contact. I got a gut feeling that wasn't cool with him. When I got to the stairs that lead to my apartment, I turned around and saw him sprinting at me with a metal bar in his hand, and he hit me twice. The first time, he hit me in the head. I saw blood all over everything. I put my left wrist up to protect myself, and the second hit snapped my ulna and tore ligaments in my wrist. I looked down and saw a big lump on my wrist. My body went into survival mode, and at the time, I didn't feel pain.
When I got to the stairs that lead to my apartment, I turned around and saw him sprinting at me with a metal bar in his hand.
"My auntie lives next door, and she and some relatives had just come home from dinner. They heard me scream and ran down and chased him. He rode away on a BMX bike. By the time I got to the hospital, half of Coolangatta was out searching for the guy. I am lucky to have the best crew to look out for me. He must have been crazy because he came back to the area and they caught him. The police took it from there. He's been denied bail three times, but the case hasn't gone to trial yet. Knowing he's locked up helps.
"At the hospital, I remember being absolutely horrified to go home. I didn't want to go home ever. Those were the first thoughts -- to go from feeling so independent and comfortable to, 'Oh my god. I don't want to walk to my apartment anymore.' How do you go home? How do you face re-enacting that? I get goose bumps every time I think about it ... sorry. I cry every time I talk about it. I never used to tear up, even in movies. But this has brought the emotion out of me. I've always been a really positive person, and this has been a real test of that. The police officers said the best thing you can do is not let him take your freedom. So I went home the next day. I had a giant sleepover for the next three weeks.
"The hardest part was the news coverage. They would be like, 'World champion bashed! Steph Gilmore bashed in a home invasion!' They said a lot of stuff that wasn't necessarily true. There were people outside my apartment, showing it on the news. 'This is where it happened. This is where she lives. This is the street she lives on.' I was like, 'Wow. If you want to send any more weirdos my way, this is the way to do it.' I guess I will never know if he knew who I was. That is something I don't think even the police will get out of him. I think it's easier to think it was random. But at the same time, it also kills your trust and faith in anyone walking on the street. For three weeks, the phone was nonstop, the emails were nonstop. The majority was well wishes. That blew me away. The support was unbelievable. It helped me heal.
If someone can read an article like this and come out with some sort of life lesson, then I am doing part of my job right.
"I replay it over and over in my mind, all the little details. I felt so vulnerable. Then, I'd think, 'No. I should have chased after him and bashed him over the head. Why wasn't I more aggressive back?' But what happened, happened. I can't change it. Of course at times I'm angry. Why did it happen to me? But it could have happened to anyone. I have family who walks through there, and kids and older ladies walk in that area. They aren't as built as I am and they would have ended up much worse. My auntie is in the building. It could have been her. If he did this to an older lady, she would have been dead.
"I would never blame competition losses on this, but at a point, I had to say to myself, 'It's OK to feel angry or not be happy right now.' I had to stop and breathe for a second. I could be dark for a few moments. At the same time, there were floods in the north region and fires in the south, and that put things into perspective. I still have my house and friends and family. Dwelling on things won't get you far. I like drawing on the positives, and that has been my way of dealing with this, too.
"Around groups of people, I am fine. I feel more comfortable when I'm traveling and out of the country, which is a crazy thought. I just feel more jumpy. Walking to dinner, if I see a man standing in a dark corner, he is just standing in a corner. But that is the first thing you think of, that someone will step out in front of you. Your heart races more than normal. But you have to go back to your everyday routine and start to learn every single person is not going to do that to you.
"I wasn't even thinking of a fifth world title on Dec. 26. I was still absorbing number four and Hawaii and how exciting it was to be home and potentially changing to a new company. It was an explosive week. After this, I was like, 'What do I do? Do I celebrate? Do I mope around?' My biggest worry was that I wasn't going to be able to go for an early morning surf anymore, because I'd be too scared to go by myself.
"When the doctors said I couldn't surf for seven weeks, I didn't know what to think. I had never been forced to not surf for that long. I've never had a major injury. Surfing is quite a healer, as well, and I didn't have that. The Roxy Pro [February] was hard because I was trying to draw from my excitement of the previous year. My confidence in Hawaii, it was at one of its highest points it has ever been, and I was trying to find and draw from that, and I just couldn't. I couldn't find it. I was more hesitant and shy in the surf. I don't think I have ever felt that way. But I am a human being. What? I don't want to be a human being. I want to be a superhero. I was bummed and I was in pain. I was trying to go out there and not think about my wrist and just get back to square one. But what I didn't realize was I wasn't ready to do that. I had to take it easy and work my way around my wrist. I couldn't be as aggressive sitting behind the rock at Snapper because I didn't have the paddling strength to get into the wave as quickly as the other girls. I was struggling to come to terms with not having that complete self-confidence. It lingered for the first four events.
"Now I am learning how to surf a heat again. I don't have to think about my wrist and I can take off on any wave. I lost my rhythm and I have to find that in a heat now. There was definitely a different kind of reception from the crowd. I would come in from a heat, and even if I would lose, they would be cheering. I think everyone understood what happened. Of course, I always wanted to win the world title again. After the first two events, I realized it was going to take more than just natural talent and intuition to win this world title. Then it just got harder and harder. I had to win in Brazil to keep in the world title race. I came in from the final heat, and there were so many emotions. I was angry and sad and frustrated. That was one of the hardest losses to take. There were some tears. It felt good to cry and let it all out. If you lose a heat, you have to do an in-depth interview about why you lost the heat. And I'm like, I hate sitting here doing this, but at the same time, it's very therapeutic. It's great to talk about that. If someone can read an article like this and come out with some sort of life lesson, then I am doing part of my job right.
"People overcome injuries. And yeah, my injury will have a little more emotional scarring to get over, but sweet is never as sweet without some sour. So I imagine any win from here on in will feel so much more rewarding. I think I have a better understanding of who I am as a person and where I want to go and who I want to be surrounded by. What makes me tick, the things I value. The simple things. I get so consumed and lost in my travels that sometimes I don't appreciate everything being shown or given to me. This has made me stop and take the time to do that. "
Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. A version of this story appears in the Best in Sports issue, available on newsstands Friday.