Stephanie Gilmore surfing, strumming
The way surfer Stephanie Gilmore described a snapshot of her childhood, it almost sounded like a scene from the popular 1970s TV show "The Partridge Family." Odds are the 25-year-old from Kingscliff, Australia, wouldn't understand the pop-culture reference. Between jamming with her musical family, surfing with friends and playing a handful of other sports, Gilmore certainly didn't spend much time in front of the tube.
"My dad, Jeff, who's had this beautiful vintage Maton acoustic guitar since he was 18, always encouraged us to pick it up and learn a song from one of his books, like something from the Beatles," said Gilmore, the five-time and reigning ASP World Surfing champion. "We also had a piano in the house, which my middle sister, Whitney, played. She got into the saxophone too, and my eldest sister, Bonnie, liked to DJ."
All three Gilmore girls (the 5-foot-10 Stephanie is the youngest) would rock out with Dad at home almost every day after school. Their mom, Tracy, preferred to let the pros handle it. Most weekends, you'd find her blasting her favorite artists like Bonnie Raitt.
"We were exposed to the best music by both parents," said Gilmore, who will be competing at the U.S. Open of Surfing this week in Huntington Beach, Calif.
Taking the show on the road, like the fictional Partridge family, wasn't an option.
"We never sounded very good, but we had a lot of fun," said Gilmore, who got her first instrument, a ukelele, at age 10 and loved to "strum it like crazy."
Getting lessons came up once or twice, but no one pushed it.
"Dad would throw it out there and leave it up to us to decide what our passions were," she said.
But it was no secret he wanted her to master the skill he loved.
"I remember how Dad gave me a dollar every time I played a major scale on every single fret all the way up and all the way back down," she said.
From the ukelele, Gilmore graduated to a small-body guitar at age 12, the same year she got her first custom-made surfboard. Like her surfing trophies, her guitar collection has since grown and spread out.
"I hate traveling with guitars," she said. "So I'll just buy a cheap one that I can leave someplace and come back to later."
At her childhood home, she keeps eight or so, including a custom Cole Clark Angel acoustic guitar made of maple timber, featuring a logo of an angel holding a surfboard under her arm. She also has a few stashed in Hawaii as well as California, where she recently picked up a made-just-for-her Fender Jazzmaster electric guitar inspired by a late '60s model.
"It's going to be my favorite electric, I can already tell," said Gilmore, who isn't partial to a specific genre of music.
"I'm in love with blues and jazz because they are so beautiful, but I also love the simplicity of a Rolling Stones song because it's so easy to play chord-wise, and they're just great. Then I'll change to Jeff Buckley, who plays these complicated songs that I'll learn and mix with other pieces, like a simple chord progression from Sixto Rodriguez," she said, unknowingly geeking out for a moment. "I'll just get lost in it forever."
While Gilmore continued to play guitar throughout her teens -- she was the bass in her school's band -- the rhythmic waves of the ocean eventually lured her away and became her priority. It paid off: By age 17, she claimed her first world championship crown during her rookie year. Today, the 2013 ESPY winner for Best Female Action Sports Athlete has 32 elite World Tour victories along with her five ASP crowns. Winning all of these titles didn't pull her away from music too long. Around age 19, the guitar struck a chord with her again.
"That's when I really fell in love with the guitar and started learning about the different designs and brands," said Gilmore, who attributes her reignited interest to both timing and her knack for being able to play almost any song by ear (she's not a huge fan of sheet music). "Playing the guitar to me is like reading a book for someone else -- it became my escape."
Although she mainly keeps her at-home jam sessions private, she has collaborated with a few fellow surfers who share her passion for music, including 11-time ASP world champion Kelly Slater and three-time world champ-turned-musician Tom Curren.
What attracts so many surfers to music?
"It's cliché, I know," Gilmore said. "But without getting too deep here, I think that when you surf, you have to have a certain level of rhythm, timing and style."