Professional surfer Stephanie Gilmore won her first world championship event at age 17 on a day off from high school. Over the next four years, she led the sport, claiming back-to-back world titles as the undisputed champion. Stephanie’s talent seemed untouchable—until a violent turn of events abruptly ended her winning streak. This intimate documentary portrait follows Stephanie on the professional circuit as she reassesses her future. In Stephanie in the Water, director Ava Warbrick explores the culture of pro surfing, growing up as a professional athlete, and what it means to be the best.
Please describe Stephanie in the Water in your own words.
Ava Warbrick: The film is about growing up. It’s about beginning to question actions that once felt automatic and exploring the nature of competition. Why do I want to win? What changes when I do?
What inspired you to tell this particular story?
AW: When I first met Stephanie in 2009, she beamed a cheerful youth. She was so innocent, glistening, sunny and wide-eyed. She was a 3-time world champion who loved being at the top of her game, but I could see she was searching for something. During an interview Stephanie asked me, “Haven’t you ever wanted to be the best at something in the whole world?” I wanted to understand what motivates that desire to be the best. I think Stephanie did too. It is fascinating to encounter someone at the top of her field acknowledge her position, quantify its importance, and then challenge it. It was like watching someone look for a new tool or a new unit of measurement to appraise life.
What drew me to documenting Stephanie was the fact that she did not always operate like your typical athlete. She rarely trained, didn’t have a coach, relied heavily on a natural talent plus something she described as a ‘rhythm with the universe.’ She would just win. She seemed untouchable, and we explore that.
From Stephanie’s story, what can we extrapolate about the life of a professional athlete? What separates them from the rest of us—is it talent, ambition, or something else entirely?
AW: All of the above. Professional athletes adopt a fast track to a career, which I think is significant and sets them apart. Often their talent is identified in childhood and they can be swiftly placed on a world stage. Professional surfers are very young when they begin to travel the globe. They are rarely supervised. They are living with their peers, who are at once their support network and fiercest competition. In many ways it is like growing up very quickly, and in others not growing up at all. It is like endless summer camp, but the stakes are high.
Congratulations on your feature-length debut! How was the filmmaking process different from your process making short films?
AW: There was a moment when I realized, “Wait, I’m not making an experimental film here; who is going to watch this?” I felt a responsibility to fit this film into a certain template—to make a product that would appeal to the sports documentary audience. I definitely had to negotiate some contradictory impulses during the creative process.
Eventually I stopped overthinking it, and quietly allowed the story to tell itself. It found its subtle, native form. It’s definitely not your typical surf film, but it incorporates some elements of the genre.
What do you want audiences to take away from your film?
AW: I hope they will want to go surfing!
Do you have one piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
AW: Be prepared to be creative.
What are you most looking forward to at this year’s 2013 Hamptons International Film Festival? The Montauk audience, in particular, should love your movie.
AW: When we began filming, Stephanie and I were worlds apart but could connect on surfing. When Stephanie first came to shoot with me in New York we decided we should visit Montauk—a first for both of us. It was a delight to find a surf community so close to New York City. I am thrilled that we are premiering Stephanie in the Water at the HIFF in Montauk. It’s a perfect fit!
Ava Warbrick is an Australian-born artist and filmmaker whose experimental and short films, including The Fear, The Keeper, and Year of the Rat have screened all over the world. She is a graduate of Bard College. This is her first feature film.