Stab Magazine | What World Champions Look Like By The Numbers
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What World Champions Look Like By The Numbers

or The Brilliance of Stephanie Gilmore. 

style // Mar 21, 2019
Words by Stab
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Thirteenth of December, 2007. Honolua Bay was lake-like in the morning, but due to a flaccid and uninspiring forecast, round three of the Billabong Maui Pro was forced to proceed.

Some girls won. Some girls lost.

In the final heat of the day, the WSL’s reporter-on-the-ground Rosy Hodge pipped Brazil’s Silvana Lima by a little over a point, gifting Steph her first world title. Steph went on to win the event, just ‘cause. There were eight events on the women’s tour that year. She won four of them.

Remember the hype? She was still a teen! The first rookie ever! Another Gold Coast Prodigy had arrived.

Not that Steph was unfamiliar with raising hardware over her head; she had won CT events before: Sydney in 2006 and Gold Coast in 2005. (In 2005, Steph was seventeen. Seventeen—she had the week off school.)

I like Stephanie Gilmore, but I dislike others of her ilk (i.e. winners). Perhaps I’m not alone.

Unless you’re one of them, and odds suggest you’re probably not, winners bother us. Their talents mystify us. Their success eludes us. Fundamentally, they are better than us. And that just tends to piss people off.

There’s a point to this story: winning is difficult. We all know this. It’s taught to us from a young age as life delivers constant failures, beatings, disappointments. We are told that winners are special, privileged, better people, etc.

But where do the Steph Gilmores come from? How do they win? And if they’re all so talented and stuff, why don’t they win all the time? After raiding the WSL’s archives on every world title winner over the past decade, we have some answers, but not others, as to why the best are indeed the best.

Teen qualification – seems to be a thing for title takers. Photo: WSL

World Champs Qualify Young

We’ll start with the ages of all title holders at the beginning of their rookie season.

AGE AT

ROOKIE SEASON

Stephanie Gilmore

19

Tyler Wright

16

Carissa Moore

17

Gabriel Medina

18

John John Florence

19

Adriano De Souza

18

Mick Fanning

20

Joel Parkinson

19

Kelly Slater

19

AVERAGE (WOMEN)

17.3

AVERAGE (MEN)

18.8

On their own, these ages tell us little. Sure, they were young, pimply teens (except Mick) when they stepped onto the CT. This isn’t overly surprising. Future world champions tend to have an easier ride through the QS than others.

But what if we compared these ages to, say, the average rookie season age of all 2018 CT competitors who finished in the bottom half of the rankings.

 

Average Age of World Title Winners at Rookie Season

Average Age of 2018 CT Bottom Half at Rookie Season

Women

17.3

19.6

Men

18.8

23.5

What does this mean? It means World Champions graduate from the QS at a younger age than their late blooming CT colleagues.

However, there’s a cruel, underlying reality to this table. It’s obvious that world champions are already (far) more talented than competitors who will never reach the same dizzying heights. They are already ahead of the pack based on raw ability alone.

But on average, World Champions spend more time (over two years for women, nearly five for men) on the elite stage than their lesser counterparts. And what does a CT appearance provide? Sponsorship dollars and increased prize money, which allows for luxuries such as full-time coaching and other support personnel, placing these future winners even further ahead.

Mick wasted no time in winning CTs in his rookie year. (Photo: Rip Curl)

They also get to surf mostly A-Grade waves while still developing their skills, a huge advantage over groveling on the QS circuit.

It’s quite unfair really.

World Champs Perform Straight Away

The table below shows the best event result of each world champ in their rookie year.

 

BEST CT CONTEST RESULT IN ROOKIE YEAR

Stephanie Gilmore

1

Tyler Wright

2

Carissa Moore

1

Gabriel Medina

2*

John John Florence

1

Adriano De Souza

3

Mick Fanning

1

Joel Parkinson

3

Kelly Slater

5**

*Medina won an event the year before

**Slater placed third in an event the year before

This, I presume, is a grotesque piece of data to the eyes of any young rookie with world title aspirations. World champs don’t ease their way into the top league. There’s no honeymoon period. They perform. Early.

World Champs Perform Consistently  

The table below shows us the rankings of title holders over their first three years on tour.

 

ROOKIE YEAR RANK

YEAR 2 RANK

YEAR 3 RANK

Stephanie Gilmore

1

1

1

Tyler Wright

4

4

2

Carissa Moore

3

1

3

Gabriel Medina

7

14

1

John John Florence

4

10

3

Adriano De Souza

20

28

7

Mick Fanning

5

4

43 (INJ)*

Joel Parkinson

21

2

5

Kelly Slater

43

1

6

*Fanning finished third in his fourth year

Lots of low numbers there, eh? Some surfers strive their whole careers struggling to stay afloat on the World Tour, let alone scrape together a decent ranking come December. And then there’s this bunch, still working their way through CT puberty and already notching up single-digit finishes.

And this! The table below shows how many years it took each World Champ, beginning from their rookie season, to place in the top five, and then to win their first title.

 

YEARS BEFORE TOP  5 FINISH

YEARS BEFORE WORLD TITLE

Stephanie Gilmore

1

1

Tyler Wright

1

6

Carissa Moore

1

2

Gabriel Medina

3

3

John John Florence

1

5

Adriano De Souza

4

10

Mick Fanning

1

6

Joel Parkinson

2

12

Kelly Slater

2

2

It’s another frightening graphic for any CT newbie. Recent history shows that if you aren’t finishing top five within your first few years on tour, well… good luck to you.

This image has nothing to do with stalking or prey… (by WSL)

World Champs Stalk Their Prey

Some numbers. If we look at the women’s World Title winner for each of the past ten years, we see that 80% of them finished top three the previous year. For men, it was 50%. Be mindful that there are more men than women on their respective tours, likely making it more difficult for men to place high.

We hear a lot about self-belief in sport. Now, I’m no expert, but I reckon finishing close to the top would do wonders for your confidence the following year. There’s also that bitter taste sitting under your tongue from being so near to winning, but ultimately, losing (no one remembers second or third). That’s some pretty hefty motivation right there.

World Champs Dance to a Rhythm

Let’s look at the three most dominant women surfers over the past decade and their end of year rankings.

Notice the ebb and flow effect? Carissa Moore’s blue line demonstrates this the best.

Now, the men.

Similar scenario, especially for John John, albeit less pronounced.

What can we take from this?

Firstly, winning is a pain in the arse. Even the very best struggle to do it year-on-year. Perhaps, for most, winning takes a toll. The effort required is too large to be carried into the following season.

And maybe winning releases the pressure valve and removes the anxious drive to win, making the following year a sort of comedown and recovery, rather than a complete devotion to being number one.

It gives you an appreciation for the freaks of the surfing world, those champs responsible for our sport’s longest winning streaks: Beachley (6), Slater (5), Gilmore (4), Andersen (4), Richards (4).

Looking Ahead

Let’s turn our minds to recent runners up: Lakey and Julian.

Lakey is stinging to become the USA mainland’s first women’s winner since Lisa Andersen in 1997; Julian leads the Australian charge amidst an assembly of dominant Brazilians. Let’s peruse their stats.

How does this all look for J-dub? (Photo: WSL)

Age during rookie season: Lakey: 17, Julian: 22.

Best event result in rookie season: Lakey: 1, Julian: 2

Rankings over the first three years on tour: Lakey: 7, 7, 6, Julian: 9, 9, 6.

Years before securing a top-five finish: Lakey: 7, Julian: 7.

Are they victors in waiting? Compared to the champs, their numbers don’t say great things.

Maybe 2019 will be more of the same. Medina will blitz the world, or John John will wreak havoc upon his return. Slater? Maybe just one more for the road.

And Steph—she’ll be in the mix, no doubt, hunting that prized number eight which will place her as the unrivaled women’s champ. Will we ever fathom her world title win at nineteen, in her rookie year? Or the three straight after that? Can we comprehend how she is still beating the world, eleven years after her debut?

Will we ever understand her? Will we ever understand them? Let’s hope not.

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