In 2010, five-time world champ surfer, Stephanie Gilmore had just come off a fourth consecutive ASP world championship win and was poised to become the world’s next international surfing icon. Then, in a terrifying turn of events, she was brutally attacked in the stairwell of a parking lot near her apartment in Coolangatta, New South Wales two days after Christmas.
“When I got to the stairs that lead to my apartment, I turned around and saw [a man] sprinting at me with a metal bar in his hand,” she recounted in an interview with ESPN. “The first time, he hit me in the head. I saw blood all over everything. I put my left wrist up to protect myself, and the second hit snapped my ulna and tore ligaments in my wrist. . .My body went into survival mode, and at the time, I didn’t feel pain.”
After the incident, Gilmore was forced out of the water to allow time to heal. Her momentum as one of surfing’s hottest stars began to stall. “I had never been forced to not surf for that long,” she told ESPN. When doctors finally gave her the OK to ride the waves again it was nearly two months later—an excruciating eternity for a pro athlete who worked out every single day. Her first efforts back, including the Roxy Pro Gold Coast in Queensland Australia, were not successful. In fact, after a streak of wins that started when she was a rookie at age 17, Gilmore endured an entire lackluster season. “[Before the accident] my confidence was at one of its highest points it has ever been, and I was trying to find and draw from that, and I just couldn’t. I couldn’t find it,” Gilmore told ESPN.
At the end of her losing 2011 season, Gilmore had had enough and took a break—she needed to get back in touch with her organic love for the sport she had been practicing since childhood, and she needed it not to be all about winning. Months of soul searching and subsequent training led to serious, inspiring triumph: And in 2012, Stephanie Gilmore won the ASP world championship for a fifth time, just a year and a half after her terrifying attack.
“People overcome injuries. And yeah, my injury will have a little more emotional scarring to get over, but sweet is never as sweet without some sour,” she told ESPN at the time. “I imagine any win from here on in will feel so much more rewarding.”
Gilmore’s comeback story inspired millions, including filmmaker Ava Warbrick, who decided to honor the famous surf girl by pulling together snippets of film she’d recorded while following her career. The result—a project Warbrick says she let “evolve on its own”— is the cool new documentary Stephanie in the Water, which gives viewers a close, sweet, and intimate look at the inner life of an athlete and fierce competitor. through triumph and hardship, and goes beyond the typical “sports documentary” in the process.