UPON her return to the sport, after a six-year hiatus, Mollymook's Payton Williams dreamed of standing a top of the podium at the NSW state surf lifesaving titles.
Less than 18 months later, her decision was justified after she took out the 2019-20 NSW open women's beach flags titles.
"This was easily my best season to date," she said.
"I made so many improvements, both technically and mentally, and was rewarded with many accolades in the open's category."
Growing up, Williams was highly successful at both surf lifesaving and gymnastics.
But at the age of 12, she made the hard decision to pursue a career in the latter.
"I was involved in surf lifesaving for close to seven years, starting in under sevens and making my way through to under 13s," Williams said.
"I left the sport to pursue my love and commitment to gymnastics where I trained and competed as an elite gymnast four to five times a week, up to 20 hours.
"At the time, my life was beginning to revolve around gymnastics and I wanted to give 100 per cent to the sport in every aspect."
After more than six years in the gymnastics arena, Williams, now 20, decided to make a return to the beach in December 2018.
"I returned to surf lifesaving only last season, beginning training in December and then competing in my first carnival back in the January of 2019," she said.
"Surf lifesaving has always been a sport I knew I would return to when I left back in 2013 to pursue my life as an elite gymnast.
"However, after retiring from such a physically and emotionally demanding sport, I knew I wanted to get back onto the sand.
"I loved racing on the beach and for many years had prepared myself to begin training and competing again.
"It has always been a sport I followed and wanted to be apart of."
In her first year back on the sand, Williams claimed silver in both the under 19s beach flags and sprint at Aussies - as well as finishing in the top three during the Ocean6 Series.
But being the competitive person she is, that wasn't enough - seeing her and coach Daniel Robberds put in the hard yards during the pre-season, to lay the foundations for a sensational 2019-20 campaign.
"Honestly my first season back was amazing," she said.
"Joining in halfway through, I knew had my work cut out for me but Dan and the boys [Sam Zustovich, Brock Scrivener and Jack Bridges] were so motivating and made the transition very easy.
"I focused really hard on maintaining my strength developed through gymnastics, as well as learning to develop specific areas to improve both my sprinting and flagging.
"It was really important I worked hard to obtain sport-specific strength and skills in order to be competitive in not only my age group but also the open's if I wanted to really give this [surf lifesaving] a go."
Her season started at Bulli Beach's Super Surf Teams League, where Williams and club mate Zustovich lined up for the NSW Country Dolphins.
" The Super Surf Teams League was awesome - to be selected in a NSW team my first full season back was just something I didn't expect to happen," she said.
"The carnivals were so motivating as we all competed and knew our participation alone was scoring us points, let alone placing in the top three for my events.
"It was a really great experience and one I hope to be apart of in the seasons to come."
As Williams alluded to, she claimed multiple top-three finishes at Bulli Beach - winning silver in both the open women's beach flags and sprint.
"The results really just boosted my confidence and assured me all the work I was putting in, both at training sessions with Dan but also my own strength and conditioning work at the gym, was paying off," she said.
"The results gave me the confidence to know I had the ability to not only race in the open age group but also be quite competitive.
"I was really motivated leaving round one of teams league and was excited for the rest of the season."
This confidence was no more evident than one week later when Williams won gold in the same two events at the NSW Interbranch Championships, also held at Bulli Beach
"These victories made me so happy - I felt confident, strong and absolutely ready leading into the bigger carnivals of state and further down the track Aussies," she said.
"Claiming gold in both events is something I had never achieved in the sport and claiming those titles while representing South Coast made it even better."
Williams then secured bronze in the flags, due to a fall, at round two of the Super Surf Teams League, held at Surfers Paradise - a slightly disappointing result she used as motivation going into her biggest carnival of the season to date; the NSW state titles.
"The final was tough, not to mention being in a field of seven girls - including three from North Cronulla," she said.
"I knew I had to be smart on each turn, remembering they would work together.
"When it got down to final four, I scared myself with a pretty slow, off turn, however, I pushed hard in the middle section of the pit to make sure I got a flag.
"From the final four onwards, I really switched on, put my head down and focused on one turn after another and set my sights on getting the win.
"I knew from the start this was what I wanted and was confident I could beat the Rampoldi sisters (Alex and Leah) - who I actually competed against as gymnasts - coming from a strong start to my season.
"As soon as I did that last turn, I was on top of the world - I felt strong and confident and was super proud that I did get my first open title.
"I will remember this win for a long time and it definitely ranks highly on my achievements list - an open state title definitely outweighs my junior under 10s flags gold."
Williams was stoked all her hard work with coach Robberds had led to her breakthrough open's gold medal - as well as a bronze in the sprint.
"It [state gold] has been a goal of mine and coming into this season with a particularly strong start, both Dan and I knew it was on the table - I just had to work hard and be smart about training to ensure I was at peak performance," she said.
"Dan worked really hard with training the team and myself as we raced each other - pushing each other trying to perfect our turns.
"Outside of training with the help of my boyfriend Mitch, I also focused on my diet ensuring I had energy for training and was refuelling properly, as well as working really hard in the gym to maintain my strength and power."
This result had Williams and the rest of the Mollymook team primed for a strong assault on the Australian titles before they were unfortunately cancelled due to the coronavirus.
"I was devastated, as I imagine all athletes were when their respective season got cut short," Williams said.
"It's extremely hard to wrap your head around working so hard for something and setting your mind on it, to be cancelled just like that.
"But I read a post that explained just because our season was cut short, doesn't mean our efforts were cut short and our sadness and disappointment towards it all is a reflection on the hardworking and committed athletes we are."
Being the athlete she is, Williams is going to use this anguish as her drive during the off-season and heading into the 2020-21 season.
"Just like this season, I'm hoping to come in strong," she said.
"I am still training now, both sprinting and in the gym.
"In addition to training with my Sandratz Crew [Daniel Robberds team], I am also being coached by Roger Fabri in Sydney and we are working extremely hard on fixing my sprinting mechanics and building a really strong foundation this off-season, so I am stronger than ever coming into next season.
"Closer to the season beginning training will become stricter and become more demanding as I prepare to be just as competitive as I was this year.
"I haven't set any specific goals yet, however, I intend to race competitively, beating personal bests and regain selection into the teams I represented this season.
"I also hope to regain selection into the Australian Pathways squad, with my sights set on racing at the International Surf Rescue Challenge Challenge in Daytona Beach, United States next year."