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Back in 2006 Layne claimed her seventh world title and probably sensed that Steph Gilmore was fuelled by the same kind of ambition and competitive drive. Photo: Joli

Layne Beachley On Her Unique Relationship With Steph Gilmore and Pro Surfing

An excerpt from 'Down Memory Layne' in Issue 593.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In our latest mag the former GOAT of women’s surfing opened up about her rocky relationship with surf media and how it felt to be dethroned in 2022. Issue 593 is on stands now, available to purchase online or click here to read the full feature by subscribing to Tracks premium! Below is an excerpt from the ‘Down Memory Lane’ feature, in which the seven-time world champ details her unique relationship with Steph Gilmore and professional surfing.

***

Layne once described Steph in the kindest possible way to me as a “freak” for her unbelievable raw talent. “Who else can win a title in their first year on tour?” she had said.

“The difference between me and Steph is that she is naturally talented,” Layne now laughs.

“I remember standing on the front deck of the athlete area at the Roxy Pro in 2007 and I had just come back after winning a seventh World Title. I remember she declared to me at that moment, ‘I want to win 10 World Titles’. She always had me in her sights.”

Layne contrasts Steph’s innate carving prowess of a long-limbed Snapper local, to her own ‘crab-like’ style, which she admits she had to un-learn at the ripe old age of 24. She had spent a few frustrating early years on tour and came oh-so-close to winning. It was only after 1993 World Champion, Pauline Menczer, introduced Layne to a surf coach whose feedback was “you surf like a crab” that she found the new level required to be a World Champion.

The young girl from Manly who would go on to conquer the surfing world. Photo: Tullemans

“I had this three-step process that really sabotaged my ability to perform in waves that were of consequence or hollow,” Layne says. “It was 1995, I was number two in the world, and I had all the dreams and ambitions and desires to become a World Champion – but my inability to get to my feet was holding me back. “When you’re number two in the world and you want to become number one, and you’ve just been told that everything you know and everything you have been doing is holding you back – not projecting you forward. Are you willing to let that go? That’s what I had to do.”

“When you’re number two in the world and you want to become number one, and you’ve just been told that everything you know and everything you have been doing is holding you back – not projecting you forward. Are you willing to let that go? That’s what I had to do.”

Touring in the late 90s and early 2000s, when women were earning about $8,000 for winning events, was challenging to say the least. While men were earning three times as much for the same event, Layne was couch surfing and sleeping in her board bag at event sites to simply have a shot at a World Title. As highlighted in the 2021 documentary Girls Can’t Surf, the best conditions were reserved for the men’s events, and women were forced to paddle out in the windy, onshore, messy swells that were deemed otherwise unsurfable.

Layne likens the situation to a frog sitting in water, with the temperature increasing slowly until it overheats without realising. The disparity was uncomfortable, but the women gritted their teeth and bore it. But new frogs thrown into already scalding water will immediately leap out. As new generations of surfers – including Steph – began paddling through the ranks, the women began to stir into action.

“It was the status quo [the inequality],” Layne says. “But over time I just became so dissatisfied with how we were treated.

“The lack of opportunity, the disrespect, the misogyny, the sexism, it was unacceptable. And we all set the standard – if we want something to change, we need to change. And that’s when I became known as a loose cannon because I was like, I’m not standing for this. I am not tolerating that behaviour. I will not paddle out in those conditions. And I will not tolerate that we’re paid half and just suck it up because I’m a female.”

Layne dips into a perfectly weighted bottom turn and waits for Cloudbreak to do its thing. Photos: Winer

In 2006, Layne took matters into her own hands. She applied to the ASP (Association of Surfing Professionals, the former equivalent to the WSL) for an event license and staged the richest women’s surfing event in the world – the Beachley Classic at Manly in Sydney, which ran for 15 years.

“I doubled the prize money, I got women surfing away from men and put them in a really challenging wave like Dee Why point,” she says. But she adds there was one major flaw in her plan. “

The biggest mistake that I made, in year one when I hosted the first event, was I invited Stephanie Gilmore. She won – beat me in the final of my own event. I handed her 20 grand and said, ‘okay I’ll see you next year on tour.””

Ironically Steph, then a promising 19-year-old would not only go on to over- take Layne’s record of World Titles but became an advocate for the very same causes Layne had been fighting for. Both women were instrumental in pressuring the WSL to finally offer equal prize money to women and men surfers beginning in 2019. Layne’s glory days as a competitor belonged to a slightly earlier era, so she never saw the spoils of her own vigilant campaign wind up in her back pocket – but those who came after her did. Steph carried the same torch until the WSL committed to prize money equality publicly at the end of 2018 – the very year she had equalled Layne’s seven World Titles.

***

Issue 593 is on stands now, available to purchase online or click here to read the full feature by subscribing to Tracks premium!

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