Eleven years ago, Australian surfer Steph Gilmore stood on the cliffs overlooking Honolua Bay and hoisted her first world title trophy in her rookie season. Monday afternoon, Gilmore, 30, watched from those same cliffs as American Lakey Peterson was eliminated in Round 2 of the Maui Pro, securing Gilmore her seventh world championship.
"This place makes me smile, that's for sure," Gilmore told espnW Monday from Maui. "It's gorgeous, there's a giant rainbow every five minutes, you paddle out in perfect waves and you can hear your friends cheering you on from the cliff on every maneuver. From the moment I won my first world title here, I knew I would never forget this place."
With this title, Gilmore ties Australian legend Layne Beachley for the most world championships won by a woman and secures her standing as the greatest competitive surfer of her generation. Only Kelly Slater, who won his 11th world title in 2011, has more. "Layne has been a huge inspiration of mine," Gilmore said. "She has done so much for female surfers around the world. It's a huge honor to sit alongside her."
Throughout one of the most exciting seasons in recent memory, Gilmore and Peterson, 24, combined to win five of the first six contests of the season, frequently swapping the yellow jersey of the tour leader. "That's the ultimate in sports, to have a great rivalry that builds drama," Gilmore said. "It was like a tennis match all year long."
That match opened with Gilmore losing in the quarterfinals of the first contest of the 10-event season at Snapper Rocks on Australia's Gold Coast, an event she's won six times in her career.
"Snapper's my favorite wave, and I was so upset for quite a few days," Gilmore said. "I was like, 'This is a sign of how much you still care about this. So let's do it.'"
Gilmore won the next two contests and regained the No. 1 ranking. In July, she also won the inaugural women's event at Jeffreys Bay in Eastern Cape, South Africa. "I had so many magical moments at J-Bay," Gilmore said. "I fell in love with competing again."
Having last won a world title in 2014, Gilmore set her focus on regaining her crown. Heading into Maui, she sat atop the world rankings, with Peterson in second and needing to win the event to force a surf-off with Gilmore for the world title. Gilmore needed only to make the semifinal in Maui to secure her seventh championship. When Peterson was eliminated in the second round by Hawaiian wildcard Alana Blanchard and Gilmore realized she'd accomplished her goal, she was overcome with emotion.
"Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time, I have a huge grin on my face, so I think people were shocked to see me cry," Gilmore said. "I'm not afraid to show emotion now. When I was younger and won my first few world titles, I was just doing it. I wasn't taking it all in. I really felt it this year. It was nice to be aware and acknowledge how much emotion and heart and soul we pour into these moments as athletes."
Because Gilmore won the title with Peterson's elimination Monday, she had to paddle out to surf her Round 3 heat not long after becoming a world champ.
"For the first half of Round 3, I think I was off with the fairies," Gilmore said. "I missed a few good waves and was losing the heat. Then I snapped out of it real quick and ended up winning my heat."
Gilmore will next face French surfer Johanne Defay in the quarterfinals of the Maui Pro.
"The athletes I've looked up to in my life seem to be the ones who win a lot, but I think they win a lot because they always feel like they can improve," Gilmore said. "Even though they've won the most, they feel like they haven't perfected anything and can continue to evolve. I try to keep that in mind and today, I was open to it all. As I was paddling out to surf, I thought, 'I love this so much and will do it for as long as I can.'"
And with the hopes of winning a record-breaking eighth world tile in mind? "Naturally," Gilmore said. "I'm competitive. There's no winner when there's a tie. Right?"