THE 2019 off-season represented a time of change for both the sport of surf lifesaving but also Nowra-Culburra product Kirsty Higgison.
After a number of seasons in the surf, the Ocean6 Series is no more, being replaced by a revamped Nutri-Grain Series, which involves five rounds, starting with the Coolangatta Gold for the first time ever.
Similarly, after a number of seasons with Surfers Paradise, Higgison decided to move to Northcliffe SLSC.
"Obviously I had an amazing result last season to finish in fourth, but I wasn't happy with the way the season ended - especially the final three rounds," Higgison said.
"I dealt with sickness and being in a moon boot during those final rounds and just felt like I need a fresh start.
"It was nothing against Surfers Paradise, who have an amazing, supportive environment at the club, but I just needed a new challenge to be put me outside my comfort zone."
By joining Northcliffe, the 2016 series runner-up, will be competing and training with first and second from last season's series Georgia Miller and Maddy Dunn, as well as title contenders Courtney Hancock and Harriet Brown - in one of the strongest women's programs in the country.
"Being able to train each and every day against the girls who are going to be the pacesetters in the series is going to be invaluable to me," she said.
"These girls are the pinnacle of the sport for a reason and being around them and this club should help me achieve my dream of winning the series."
All this training prepared the St Johns alumna, both mentally and physically, for second-ever Coolangatta Gold - her first in more than five years.
"The training for the Gold was some of the craziest I've ever done, we were doing up to 15 sessions a week, involving long time and distances," she said.
"This intensity and quality of training made me very confident in my ability to compete, as I knew I had done the work."
Saturday's event, which involved 17 of the top 20 female ironperson athletes in the field of more than 30, started with a 23km ski leg.
"I knew it was going to be a crazy race, with the field assembled and it started that way with a frantic pace," she said.
"The plan was to sit on the front of the wash and work as a pack but that went out the window because of an IRB boat in front of the lead group.
"Eight of the front girls jumped on the wash of the IRB and left the rest of us to battle through the mess - it was really an unfortunate situation.
"That whole situation threw me a little and used more energy than I had hoped, but because of my positive mental training, I was able to refocus on the race - something I might not have been able to do five years ago."
Despite this, Higgison finished her ski leg in a time of 2:09:28, just over five minutes behind the lead group.
Next up was the 2.5km run from Miami to Burleigh Heads.
"Generally the run leg is my weakest but I was happy with my time (11:07), which saw six of us run together," she said.
Next was the 3.5km swim - a split time (51:19) Higgison was stoked with.
"I always love my swim and I was able to drop off another three competitors during this leg," she said.
Just when she thought all her bad luck was behind her, lightning struck twice, this time on the 6.5km board leg.
"During my great board leg, I'd just pulled back in another competitor and was working with her," she said.
"Then an official on an IRB told us we were going the wrong way around the buoys - seeing us return to the shore to get back on the apparent right course, as we'd been told we'd been disqualified if we didn't.
"But when we got back to the beach, we figured out we were actually on the right course, meaning we had lost both valuable time and energy - which was crucial going into the final run leg."
Although she was apprehensive about her run 7.1km leg (39:31), Higgison held onto her position and to finish 10th overall in the elite women's category, with a time of 4:45:36 - with winner Lana Rogers clocking 4:27:51.
"I'm super excited with the result - the main difference to my race last time to this time was my nutrition," she said.
"I knew how important it was to keep my fluids up and have family members at certain stages feeding my gels.
"Last time I didn't have enough nutrition and by the end of the race, I was completely empty, which wasn't the case for me this time.
"This result sets me up really well for the season."
The next event on the schedule is the endurosurf stage at Burleigh Heads on November 17.
"Each of the five events have different races on the day - Burleigh has a double-M shaped course, which is my favourite," she said.
"My strengths are my surf skills and the longer races, which allows me to get into my groove."
This stage will be followed by Bulli (super sprint) on December 1, Surfers Paradise (the specialist) on December 15 and North Cronulla (survival) on January 19.
"Each different stage is so different, meaning we have to change our training a little to tailor to the upcoming events," she said.
"And with all the girls being at the highest level I've ever seen, it's shaping up to be a great series.
"After coming so close to winning on a number of occasions, I know it's possible to win the series - that's all my focus is on right now and I think I'm in the best position I've ever been to achieve my ultimate dream."
Higgison's former Surfers Paradise clubmate and six-time Coolangatta Gold winner Ali Day (from Kiama) did not compete at this year's event due to injury.