From party animals to professionals: 'Happy' Gilmore defies surfing cliches

Story highlights

  • Australian Stephanie Gilmore is a five-time women's surfing world champion
  • The 25-year-old says surfing today is more about professionalism than partying
  • Gilmore laughs at comparison with famous surfing film of the 1990s, Point Break
  • She says traveling the globe to compete in surfing events is her dream job

Forget Point Break's party animals, modern surfing is more about professionalism.

That's the mantra of reigning women's world champion Stephanie Gilmore, who raises an eyebrow at the mention of the famous film that became a seismic signpost for surfing in the early 1990s.

The 25-year-old Australian says the seaside sphere she inhabits is a world away from the society showcased by Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze, stuffed with wavy-haired folk who all referred to each other as "dudes."

"The biggest misconception about surfers is they all talk the surf lingo," she told CNN's Human to Hero series.

"Not everybody does and I think Hollywood portrays a pretty scary image of how surfers go about their language. Not all of us talk like that.

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"It's probably been 30 years now that it has been a professional sport and it hasn't grown too much. But now it's really turned into this phase where it's about treating the surfers as professional athletes and not just party animals.

"The industry boomed for so long, then it finally plateaued and crashed and right now it's in a phase of rebuilding itself, trying to get back to its core and really find that market again that everybody loves so much -- the surfing brands, the industry."

If the world of professional surfing seems impossibly glamorous and cool, that's probably because the reality matches.

Gilmore has struck upon a career that embraces her passion for boarding, traveling the globe and riding waves in some spectacular locations.

Her emergence into the world of surfing was pretty spectacular too, as she clinched the ASP Women's World Championship title in her rookie year back in 2007.

She went on to defend her crown for the next three years, regaining it in 2012 after missing out in 2011.

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Gilmore is fifth in the 2013 standings after four events, in Australia and New Zealand, with meets in Brazil, France and California still to come.

"This is a dream life," she beams. "I am not going to lie, and most professional surfers will tell you that to imagine being paid to travel the world and do something that you absolutely love every day is better than anything.

"I always say that to someone, they always say, 'Why are you so happy all the time?' Well, if you had my job you'd be pretty happy too."

While her prowess has driven her to the very top of the sport, she's not a fan of the daredevil form of her art, exemplified by the likes of Garret McNamara, who recently surfed a wave reported to be 100 feet in height.

"My biggest fear would have to be giant waves," she revealed. "It's probably not the best fear to have in my work! A giant wave is big like 30-40 foot.

"It's scary but it's something that, hopefully, I'll push myself to get into one day but right now I am just enjoying high-performance surfing in smaller waves."

It hasn't all been plain sailing for the New South Wales native, who cut her surfing teeth on Australia's glorious Gold Coast, where she still lives and trains today.

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Gilmore and her fellow female professionals have had to swim against the tide for long periods in what has traditionally been a male-dominated sporting environment.

But with standards improving and competition at the very top intensifying, she thinks they have a product which can grow the sport internationally and attract even more women into the water, board in hand.

"Growing up a female surfer in a very male-dominated industry I think has been hard," she explained. "Female surfers in the very beginning really struggled to fight for their respect and the positions they deserved.

"I think the last five to 10 years, the women have really blossomed and shown they are not here to compete against the men, they are not here to take anything away from the men.

"We're just here to surf alongside them and show that we're learning as much as they are and we're growing female surfing.

"Every single day I paddle out there's a lot more girls out there and you see that the market is growing. To watch a girl ride a wave is just a beautiful thing.

"Female surfing in a professional sense, all the girls on tour -- they're fresh faced, they speak well, it's a beautiful product -- and I feel like these next few years are going to be about harnessing that product and then showing it to the world in the right way."

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Though they are fiercely competitive on the ocean waves, Gilmore says the current crop of females on the ASP tour have formed a close bond away from the beach.

"On the women's tour there are only 17 of us, so in a sense we're a family traveling the world," she said.

"We're all young girls that love to be girls and we're really good friends but at the same time we have to paddle out and try and be assertive and really focus to beat each other.

"Whatever happens in the water happens in the water and then we bring it back to land and we can celebrate together and enjoy it."