Surfing champions Stephanie Gilmore and Sally Fitzgibbons' healthy rivalry

It's a humid morning in Byron Bay, and clothes are strewn across the couch and overflowing out of an open suitcase. As Stephanie Gilmore and Sally Fitzgibbons snack on slices of rockmelon, it is easy to forget these two formidable women, Australia's two best female surfers, have a rivalry that dates nearly two decades. Fitzgibbons is currently ranked fifth in the world, while Gilmore ranks fourth.

The pair first did battle over a break when Fitzgibbons was 11 and Gilmore, 13, at the famed surf spot Snapper Rocks, near Gilmore's hometown of Kingscliff in northern NSW. Fitzgibbons recalls feeling intimidated by the local and quickly discovered their ongoing competition would be as much a mental challenge, as a physical one.

"She's obviously a very decorated champion but I've been in the majority of those title races with her," says the 29-year-old from Gerroa on the NSW south coast. "Some of those times, especially with a younger mindset and as a younger athlete, that sense of immediacy that 'I'm close to it' – to being world champion – that it's one heat away, it's one wave away and then it not happening ... has challenged me to be like 'maybe I'm just not good enough'?"

Time spent reflecting on why she keeps going has helped: "On those days when the pursuit has become quite consuming or exhausting, I still wouldn't want to be anywhere else." Maturity, along with "enough evidence" that she is good enough, has also provided necessary perspective, says Fitzgibbons, who reached number 1 in the world for a time in 2019 when she won the Oi Rio Pro event in Brazil.

Fitzgibbons has come to the conclusion that she can admire her rival but "it doesn't mean they're any greater". "That's a part of the sport, to have that sense of fire that you want to beat each other," SHE says. "It's cool to have a rivalry and a mateship for that long."

You can be such good comrades and then want to kill each other.

Stephanie Gilmore

Gilmore, a seven-time world champion, agrees. "I love that we can go in and out of buddies to 'lets battle'," says the 32-year-old. "It seems rare in individual sports that you can be such good comrades and then want to kill each other."

That they can switch it off out of the water has allowed Gilmore and Fitzgibbons team up in a project to fight for ocean health, which they have watched deteriorate over time. "We're going to places that are supposed to be freezing cold and you show up and it's really warm," says Gilmore, who has been surfing since she was nine years old. "In South Africa last year, in the middle of winter, normally you're in neoprene boots. There was one day we were surfing in boardshorts and I was like 'hang on, this is not right'."

It's not just rising temperatures, but bigger, more frequent storms and stretches of isolated beach where they paddle out through trash or where the shoreline is covered in the kinds of single-use plastic we use daily: pens, lighters, q-tips, toothbrushes, razors.

"Because we're in the water, we're seeing it," says Gilmore who, along with Fitzgibbons and 11-time world champion Kelly Slater, forms a "Surfer Squad" as an ambassador for Swiss luxury watch brand Breitling. "The Breitling "squads" each have a different purpose," explains Gilmore, with Oscar-winner Brad Pitt heading a Cinema Squad and environmentalist David de Rothschild fronting an Explorer Squad. "They all stand for something bigger and have an impact on the world beyond just representing a brand, so it was a no-brainer for me to be involved," she says. "It's opened my eyes to the fact that this is something I can use my platform for ... being world champion is awesome but what can I use it for, for good?"

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Fitzgibbons says, in the 25 years she has been in the water, the changes she has witnessed are "pretty significant". "In a sense, it's our home out there," says Fitzgibbons, who often picks up the debris she finds and puts it in her wetsuit. "You think you know its heartbeat, you know its winds, you know its storms... and then you watch it change and you start paddling out and plastic bags are hitting you in the face and there's rubbish on the beach."

Both women say the confronting reality of what they have seen has made them alter their behaviour and what they buy, including switching to bamboo toothbrushes, reusable or compostable bags, carrying their water bottles and minimising plastic and general waste. It has also made them want to educate others.

"No one is perfect," says Gilmore, who also drives an electric car and has her eye on the development of packaging and surfboards made with foam from mushrooms, bark and woodchips. "My carbon footprint is huge – I travel around the world, but it's about trying to make those conscious choices every day and I really think we can make a difference."

As individuals the change we can make is small, but together we can have a significant impact, as seen in the changes they have impacted on the World Surf League (WSL) tour. In September 2018, the WSL announced it would give equal prize money to male and female athletes in all of its events. They also now have locker rooms, which they didn't have when they first joined the tour, as well as priority in the waves. "At every event, there's a call made in the morning, based on the conditions about who gets to surf," Gilmore explains. "For many years, it was 'oh the waves are good, let's put the men out' or 'oh the waves are not so good, let's put the women out'. We've had a big shift in the last three years, they really want to watch the women excel."

She adds: "To be celebrated on the world stage right next to the men ... that speaks a thousand powerful words to a young girl."

The recognition of the women in the sport coincides with the recognition of the sport as a whole. As the issue went to proess, the surfing is preparing make its debut appearance at the Tokyo Olympics in July. Gilmore and Fitzgibbons are  set to be among the 20 women and 20 men competing at Tsurigasaki beach in Chiba, about an hour and a half southeast of Tokyo. "The Olympics is that recognition as a sport. It's validation," Fitzgibbons says. "I think we've become a leader in our space rather than just a side-car to an elite sport. We're a leader for other female action sports."

For Gilmore, the Olympics means extending the equality message of the sport. "I've always watched the Olympics and there's been equal storytelling of the men and the women," she says. "It's also a great opportunity for us to get that respect as professional athletes that surfers have never had because it's always been 'oh we're just hippie cruisers'."

While Gilmore plans to "pour [her] heart and soul" into trying to win the Olympics, she believes the WSL world title will remain the "most coveted prize" because it is decided over multiple locations and events. Fitzgibbons, on the other hand, believes the Olympic and WSL titles will be equally celebrated. "All the top surfers want to be there at the Olympics," she says.

Who will win on the day depends on a combination of factors including luck, their proficiency in the conditions doled out by their "third opponent" the waves, how well they play the ocean "chess game" and can out-manoeuvre and out-psych their competitor as well as their mental preparation. "I think that's the magic of surfing – there's so much unknown and you have to be able to adapt to the variables," Gilmore says.

Both Fitzgibbons and Gilmore agree that any one of the women competing is capable of winning gold, earmarking each other as well as the "fiery" American teenager, Caroline Marks, and current world champion, Carissa Moore, as the main competition. "But I'm going to back the Aussies," Fitzgibbons says. "I hope for both Steph and I that we're on the podium."

Styling Monique Moynihan