BEFORE a starter's whistle had even blown, Mollymook's Sam Zustovich had a feeling the 2019/20 surf lifesaving season was going his biggest to date.
How big, he didn't know.
But on the back of hard work and dedication, he knew he would put himself in the best position to succeed on the sand.
The season all started on the international arena for the six-time national champion - where he helped his Australian team win the 2019 International Surf Rescue Challenge.
"South Africa was an amazing experience," Zustovich said.
"To be a member of the Australian team, be around all those elite athletes and obviously get to travel to a part of the world I never thought I would see, is something I'll always remember."
As memorable as it was, it didn't all go the 17-year-old's way - which he in turn used as future motivation.
"Unfortunately, in my first sprint race in South Africa, I tripped over the finish line and was disqualified - earning no points for my team," Zustovich, who dominated the beach flags event in South Africa, said.
"That was really hard to take - I had never really had a moment in racing where a mistake had cost me so much.
"It definitely made me switch on and focus on all the little things in my racing throughout the rest of the season."
Following his return, Zustovich started his 2019/20 season with a bang, at the Bulli Beach's Super Surf Teams League - where he and fellow Mollymook star Payton Williams lined up for the NSW Country Dolphins.
"The Surf League was really fun," he said.
"To be able to race the best open competitors in the country, so early in the season, really pushed me to another level, especially in my sprinting.
"It was also interesting to have to work together with other NSW competitors who are usually my rivals.
"The highlight was defeating my main rival Blake Drysdale (Newport) in the flags - it was important because it showed me could beat him again after obviously finishing second at Aussies.
"It was really a perfect start for my season."
But sport can be a fickle thing, as one week later, Drysdale got the better of Zustovich at the NSW Interbranch Championships.
"The Interbranch loss was hard to take - I thought I had him," he said.
"My coach Dan [Robberds] and I spoke about just how close Blake and I were going to be this season and how important it was to do little things correctly - as a 9/10 turn wouldn't guarantee a win against an experienced flagger like Blake."
But Zustovich got revenge in the beach sprint
"That was my first open sprint win in a major carnival, so it meant a lot," he said.
"I was in a battle with Blake up in the top two lanes over the first 60-70m and I just tried to stay strong through my finish, which is something I had been working on all pre-season."
Following this, he finished fourth at round two of the Surf League at Surfers Paradise before helping NSW with their third straight Interstate title.
"The fourth place was hard to take as I hadn't really ever broke in a competition and I was on such a high after nearly winning the sprint," he said.
"After being part of the NSW team in the past, this year was different, as I was selected as the open flags competitor - so the pressure was on.
"I was able to win my flags and then team up with three other guys to win the relay."
All these results led to Zustovich winning an event that has alluded him in previous seasons - the NSW open men's flag.
"The NSW open flags final was actually a lot of fun," he said.
"I had my teammates Brock [Scrivener] and Jack [Bridges] in there with me and I just felt really relaxed and ready to get the win.
"In the final six, I turned into Blake and tried to keep my teammates in but unfortunately I was shouldered out and had to cut back, meaning Jack missed out.
"That made me refocus and from then on, I felt like I was ahead in each run and my belief in myself was building.
"In the last two, I drew into Blake which is always tough for me due to our size difference.
"But I had learnt from past losses and was ready to try something I hadn't done.
"I was able to turn well, avoid the body clash and make it a foot race to the flag.
"Even though I have won Aussies a few times, this state gold meant the world to me because I had been out-flagged the past two years and finished with bronze - I really wanted to prove myself and show how much I had improved.
"Our Sandrats team were the loudest supporters on the sidelines that day too and it felt good to get the win for them as well."
As stoked as he was with the result, Zustovich knows years of hard with work coach Robberds had gone into it
"Dan told me two years ago I could do it and from then on, we've been working at being able to consistently do it," he said.
"Unfortunately I had not been able to beat Blake consistently.
"Dan and I knew his size was an issue and anytime I was turning into Blake, it was going to be tough for me.
"At Maroochydore in January, I turned into Blake and he knocked me out in fifth.
"Dan and I spoke about having more of a strategy and started to cross off ways that weren't working and spent the next month perfecting my turn to ensure I wouldn't need to worry about Blake.
"In the final two at state, Dan told me I was flying and that I wouldn't lose if I stayed away from the initial body clash.
"I focused on my strengths - staying low and swinging into a big first step - but then ran down a little more, away from that initial shoulder clash with Blake, taking away his advantage and I think that shocked him.
"I know Blake will now come back a vengeance, which continues to push me to be a better flagger.
"I love the competition between us and my respect for him has helped me get to the point that I'm ready to be number one."
Zustovich and his teammates, such as Williams and Bridges who also won state gold medals, then shifted their focus to the Aussie titles at the Gold Coast.
But unfortunately, like a lot other sports in the country, the event was cancelled due to coronavirus.
"The cancellation of Aussies was a tough pill to swallow, especially after my state performances," he said.
"I would've loved to have repeated my success on the biggest stage and with all the hard work I've put in, to not have an Australian title to show for it, feels kind of empty.
"But it is what it is and there are bigger issues in the world to worry about right now.
"I had a great season and am proud of what I achieved."
Zustovich and the rest of the Mollymook crew will now rest up ahead of a busy 2020/21 season - where the speedster has set even loftier goals.
"I definitely have another growth spurt in me, so I'm excited to develop more physically and work on my strength in the gym," he said.
"I have made lots of progress in my turn but Dan still tells me I'm not at where I can be, so I'm sure he'll be pushing me even more to be a better all-round flagger.
"My number one goal is that open flags gold at Aussies - there's nothing I want more now after going so close last season.
"I also proved I can match the open male sprinters this season, so I'm looking forward to taking it to them again.
"At the end of the season, they'll select another Australian team to compete at the ISRC in the United States, so I would love to be a part of that again.
"I'm excited about it all and will be working extra hard to go to another level next season."