I got into another bad fistfight last night with my pillow and Mr. Jet Lag. They wrestled me for hours until the nighttime ibuprofen kicked in around 4 a.m. When I woke, grey dawn was seeping in around the curtains. I still haven’t gotten used to an 8 a.m. sunrise. I packed up–the hotel is booked with competitors’ families for the finals for the weekend– and was tapping away at my keyboard and having breakfast in the lobby; it was 10.
A tall blond walks in. I think it is Stephanie Gilmore, or Steph, six-time world title winner. But her skin has a few blemishes, like she’s human, like she may have had a pimple, once. If it is her, she looks more rugged in person. Then again it was purple-fingers cold around dawn and a few feet overhead and she’s just got out of the water. The hotel owner, Jerome, is projecting the live broadcast of the contest on screens in both of the small dining rooms. Her face appears projected on the screen at a large four by six feet. Lakey Peterson and their friend give her shit. She smiles and quiets them down. She’s used to this. But doesn’t like it. She appears a little embarrassed and annoyed by the attention, which makes her all the more charming.
Last year we had a baby sitter who was on the cheer team at UCLA. One day I watched her nibbling on some diet bar. We talked about eating disorders and diets. She said once you see yourself on an eighty foot billboard in the Rosebowl, you become careful with what you eat. I remember walking up to a theater in small town in Georgia where I was supposed to give a reading at a university. I saw the face of someone on a poster in a window and wanted to see who was playing; maybe I’d see a show. Then I realized the face in the poster was me. We are never who we are in posters and biographies and we are never not who we are in posters and biographies. This strangeness had to be much worse for a young female cheerleader, too sexualized in that way, on that scale. Gilmore was attacked, I think, stabbed by some nutso fan as she was entering her apartment in 2014. Too see herself in those posters, to understand how celebrity projects a false familiarity, must be unsettling to her more than anyone I know.
She hasn’t won a world title in the last two years. I know you don’t go through an attack like that without some PTSD, some depression, without some scar tissue. You just don’t. So the fact that she’s made it back to being in the top six in the world is impressive. That she appears comfortable chatting with me, a stranger, a middle-aged random guy eating breakfast in the same hotel, is also impressive. But these women travel the world, often with a pack of alpha males, most of the year and know how to handle themselves. They surf bigger waves in more varied conditions and put themselves into more stressful situations than I ever have and probably will. We chat for a bit about a local break we love in Malibu. She confesses, “I don’t like big waves.” There’s that modesty again. How can you not cheer for her?
Miles Davis is rumored to have leaned in and said to the young Chet Baker, after Baker played his first big gig at the Fivespot, “Come back when you’ve lived a little.” This Steph, now on the cusp of thirty, is so much more attractive than the twenty year old “Happy Gilmore” Steph. I confess, I want her to win another world title, the way I want Kelly to win a 12th world title. But she doesn’t have to.
I watch Steph and Lakey–they’re surfers like me, so I’m assuming first name familiarity –and Steph’s friend and her coach watch the round three heat with Jordy Smith. There are world title consequences to this heat. I always assume competitors know how much a turn on a wave will score. Jordy, at the end of a solid wave a few feet overhead, bottom turns into the lip, does a weird wraparound twisty semi-aerial thing I know someone is making up a teenagish name for. Steph and Lakey cheer it on. I hear a volley of “sicks.” But then coach says that will be a “nine.” Steph says, “ Seven and a half.” I’m blown away. I know the announcers often don’t know, but if the competitors don’t know, if Steph doesn’t know, how has she won so often?