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Wednesday, November 28, 2012
Updated: December 4, 7:17 PM ET
Becoming Happy Gilmore ... again

By Alyssa Roenigk
ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Dec. 10 Interview issue. Subscribe today!

After surviving a brutal attack near her home in New South Wales, Australia, in December 2010, Stephanie Gilmore struggled to regain the genial confidence that had defined her surfing. (Her assailant, who has a history of mental illness and drug use, pleaded guilty to assault and wounding charges and is serving a four-year sentence.) In 2011, Gilmore, who had won four straight world championships, lost the title for the first time as a pro. This year, her passion renewed, she has learned to trust her instincts again.

"EVEN FROM A YOUNG AGE, I had this confidence. It wasn't until the end of 2010 that I lost it. I tell myself it was random, that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but as I walked through my apartment building's carport on Dec. 27, I was attacked by a man with an iron bar. I was left with a scar on my head, a broken wrist and horrific memories. I also lost my confidence to make calculated risks and second-guessed every decision. I lost my invincibility.

"I had just gone home to Australia and I had been feeling exceptionally high on life. You couldn't have scripted a better story. I had been on the pro tour for four years, and I'd just won my fourth world title and my third Triple Crown of Surfing. I didn't know what losing was like; I didn't know what it was like not to be the world champion. I felt invincible. There were moments when I thought, At what point does all of this stop?

"At first, I tried to put on a happy face. I've always been such a happy, positive person. My nickname was Happy Gilmore. But I wasn't so bubbly. I didn't want to be by myself, even at home. Walking down the street, running down to the surf in the morning by myself, I'd think about it, especially when it was dark. What if he comes back? What if it happens again? It was strange. I feel like I had been living in this fairyland and this was a reality call. It was like I was making a transition into a young woman, but that transition happened in such a brutal way.

"The media attention was triple the amount I've ever had for winning a world title. Whenever I've talked to the media in the past, it's always been about winning another trophy. But this time I had to open up, show emotion to the world -- and that was hard. I had to allow myself to be emotional and confident enough to cry in front of the cameras, because they were always there.

"The first event of 2011 at Snapper Rocks -- just two months after the attack -- I'd just announced I changed sponsors to Quiksilver, the sponsor of the contest. I felt like there was a lot on the line for me to go out and perform like the four-time world champion. I thought I'd gotten over things, and in my head I was confident. But physically I couldn't do it. I'd lost all my instincts, my ability to be in the right place at the right time when the best wave showed up. The little things that helped me achieve the success I had, they weren't there anymore. The intuitive moves I could always make, I wasn't making anymore. It probably took me eight months to accept that it wasn't there. I felt like the whole year I was behind.

Stephanie Gilmore
In 2011, Gilmore lost her first world title as a pro. Now she's learning to trust herself again.

"At the fifth contest in Brazil -- about five months after the attack -- I had to make the final to still be in the world title race, but I lost in the semis. When I came in to the beach and heard the commentator announce the result, I tried my hardest to keep it together, but I lost it. It was a definitive moment. I was like: Oh my goodness. I'm not going to be the world champion anymore? And someone else is? Right then, I realized how passionate I was about being the best. All of this weight lifted off my shoulders. I felt so light. And sad. But so free of the things that came with being No. 1. It was a fresh start.

"At the ASP World Surfing Awards in February, before the first event of 2012, I had to give the trophy to Carissa Moore, the 2011 champ. In my speech, I said: 'Carissa, look after it. I'll let you borrow it.' I got offstage and could not believe I'd just said that. No one could. The words just came out, and I was like: Well, it's on now. I've got to do something amazing.

"But it wasn't easy. This year, every single heat was hard. I put in the extra effort of studying waves and having a strategy every time I paddled out. I hadn't done that before. I had a couple of bad finishes, and when we got to the final few events the pressure was on. That's what sport is about -- reaching new heights under pressure. I love that thrill of being out there knowing I have 30 seconds to find an eight-point ride and a world title is on the line. [She actually found two nine-point rides to clinch the title in July on the coast of France.]

"When it came down to the dying minutes of the final heat and I had the lead, I looked back at the beach and it was covered in people. When I came in, I felt like everyone, even my peers, were genuinely happy for me. Getting carried onto the beach after winning, I thought, This is just the beginning. I've always had a strange feeling that things fall into place too easily for me. It took a year of being knocked off that pedestal to really appreciate it. The first four years, being carried up the beach, I was thinking, Sick; where's the party? This time around I was thinking, I'm so inspired and invigorated to get better and better and to keep feeling this emotion. I felt like I was able to shake off so many inhibitions I had last year. I'd lost that belief in the power of my own mind. When I won the title, that confidence came back.

"I truly think 2012 was the best season in my career because it was the hardest world championship to win. I love that trophy. I think it looks good in my house. You never know, but I'll do my best to keep it. Rentals are over."

Stephanie Gilmore
"I love the thrill of being out there and knowing I have 30 seconds to find an eight-point ride," Gilmore says.

What I Know Today

"I love competing. I love to win. But really it's about the performance and showing emotion and creativity from inside."

"When you're surfing, one of the keys to style and grace is to be aware of your hands, your limbs, the places on the wave you're touching. It's not about digging your arm into the wave. It's about lightly touching the face of the wave."

"Failure is fearing something that hasn't happened yet. I think I read that somewhere, but I'll totally claim it."

"2011 was a revolution of Stephanie Gilmore, an evolution of Stephanie Gilmore. It was a year that helped me become who I am today."

"This wave has traveled from way out to sea. It's been groomed by winds and different formations on the ocean floor, and you're taking off on it right as it breaks and riding it until it disappears. That's the end of that wave's life, and you shared that moment."

"How many world titles do you have to freaking win to get on the cover of these surfing magazines? Maybe it's six."

Stephanie on ...

Being one of three five-time world champs: "That's very special. Kelly [Slater, who has 11 titles] and Layne [Beachley, who has seven titles] are icons. Layne has done so much for women's surfing. To get even one world title was my dream. That's what I set out to do. I just wanted to be the best, to be world champion. There was no set number. To be in the same category as Layne and Kelly is truly an honor, and I look forward to seeing if I can take it to the next level."

The state of women's surfing: "The product we have is at an all-time high, but also so young and so willing to bloom to whole new heights. Now it's about working with the governing body of surfing to create a better tour. Maybe it's about having a smaller number of events and making them grand slam events and keeping people's interest."

The shift in the ASP: "The surf industry has always been run by the endemic brands who own their events. Now there are millions of people watching those events and the endemic brands can't keep up with it. So in my eyes, it's about letting the child grow up. I know a lot of people say, 'Oh, you're going to kill the spirit of surfing by doing this, by selling it out commercially,' but we're not. It's just a different aspect of surfing."

Alyssa Roenigk interviewed Stephanie Gilmore on Oct. 23, 2012. Follow The Mag on Twitter (@ESPNmag) and like us on Facebook.