THIS year has thrown plenty of curveballs to numerous athletes all around the world, due to COVID-19 and the changes in how sports are played.
But the adversity Kirsty Higgison has had to overcome the past few seasons, saw her better prepared to combat these issues.
So much so, that the Nowra-Culburra product was in the best shape of her life, heading into the summer surf lifesaving season.
Those plans quickly took a turn for the worst.
In May, the 27-year-old broke a rib while surfing, before sustaining a knee injury.
These, among other factors, led to her deciding to leave Northcliffe SLSC and join Currumbin, to team up with former Warilla-Barrack Point teammates Hayden White and Ben Carberry, as well as her sister Ellie's boyfriend Jackson Maynard.
"Although I was as fit as I'd ever been last season, I found I wasn't in the right headspace on race day and was defeated before the starter's whistle even went off," Higgison said.
"But moving to a family-orientated club, with so many familiar faces really suited me as a person and where I was at in my career - it allowed me to re-align my beliefs to where I wanted them to be.
"One positive of the COVID break was it gave me a lot of time to think about what's important in my life and what I enjoy.
"Trying to juggle work, university study and three training sessions a day can be a grind and not sustainable, so it was good for me to realise I need to put my well-being first and not put so much on my plate."
With that being the case, the St Johns alumna believes she has burnt herself out, which has led to a number of frustrating seasons, which have included four quadricep and two back injuries, ankle ligament damage and knee complaints.
"I had a good hard think about why these injuries kept happening to me and I figured out I was pushing the boundaries too much," she said.
"I've always been stubborn and tried to push through the pain, as I want to achieve success so bad.
"So whenever my body started to fail, even though my mind could keep going, it was very frustrating but now I realise I need to start listening to the signs and rest up whenever is necessary - which I've found very hard at times to do.
"It's a fine line but a better balance in my life should translate to better results in the surf."
After recovery from her rib injury and seeing an osteopath to help re-align her body when walking and running to fix the knee complaint, Higgison then had to deal with Bell's palsy in August, which was induced by her increased stress levels.
Just when it appeared Higgison was through all her issues and could concentrate on the 2020-21 ironperson series, disaster struck at training.
"I was in paddling out into the surf and could see one of the juniors had caught a solid wave, so I turned around and decide to catch it with him, in case he lost control," she said.
"The next thing I knew, he lost control of his board and it shot out from under him and hit me right in the face.
"That and telling myself to not let go of the board were the last things I can remember.
"Thankfully, I held on and caught the wave into shore, because if I didn't, it could have been a dramatically different outcome - I was extremely lucky.
"When I got to the beach, I tried to stand up and completely blacked out - my coach was asking me if I was okay but I couldn't speak.
"When they carried me up the beach, I was having trouble recollecting my mother's name [Karen Higgison (nee Phillips)], age or home address."
The doctors also tested her for facial fractures and a brain bleed, as the swelling on Higgison's face prevented her from opening her eyes.
Thankfully Higgison was cleared from any further damage but was not out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination, with post-concussion syndrome hitting her 'hard'.
"I had brain overload whenever a situation was too bright, too loud or had too many stimulants, which forced my brain to go into overdrive," she said.
"I had heightened anxiety and constant vertigo for weeks.
"I also lost a lot of my cognitive ability, forgetting simple words and phrases."
Five weeks after the accident, after being primarily homebound, those symptoms had started to subside, meaning Higgison could slowly begin to integrate herself back into normal life.
"After being at home for so long, it was great to go for a little swim at the beach or a small drive int he fresh air - I was becoming frustrated being stuck inside all the time," she said.
"But you can't rush these things because your time brain is so important to everyday life and you've gradually got to learn to adjust each day."
It was because of this, Higgison had to make one of the hardest decision of her life and withdraw from the 2020-21 ironperson series.
"My family, doctors, coaches, friends and I all agreed the best thing for me to do was the take the series off and not put any pressure on myself to get better quicker than I need to," he said.
"It didn't entirely sink in until a saw the qualification series a couple of weeks ago, which made it a really hard pill to swallow.
"My goal of competing in as many consecutive series as possible was taken away from me but at the end of the day, my long-term health is more important.
"I've lived and breathed the sport for close to 15 years and to have that taken away, after working so hard, is really tough.
"But I'm not one who would have wanted to go into the series underdone or to just make up the numbers, whenever I do something, it's at 110 per cent.
"The fact it's not a physical issue, that I can necessarily feel, makes it even more annoying but I've accepted it and am looking forward."
Upon reflecting on the past six months, Higgison admits it's been her hardest mentally to date.
"It's all taken a big toll on me mentally," Higgison, who has been seeing a sports phycologist on and off for the past seven years, said.
"You take your mental health for granted and I've gradually seen it slip away the past 18 months, with this injury being the straw that finally broke the camel's back.
"It forced me to stop, address my issues instead of suppressing them and get myself right - that old saying of 'she'll be right' let it slide further than I'd hoped.
"Waking up and not being able to do the little things I love like surfing or spending time with my family were definitely low points.
"I've always been a yes person, constantly taking more on and pushing the boundaries but this is the universes way of telling me to slow down.
"I'm now setting little goals each day, such as at work or in the surf.
"I've had tough years but this one has well and truly tested me."
Higgison has recently resumed light training, ahead of potentially competing at next year's Queensland state titles (March) and Aussie titles (April).
"I'm back in the gym now, doing some coordination work to get my strength back as well as reformer pilates, which has been a new, gentle challenge for my body," Higgison, who also returned to small shifts at work three weeks ago, said.
"I'm also just getting the body back into the ocean when I can, with a hope of restarting ski training in a couple of weeks,
"My motivation and drive to improve and compete are slowly coming back, which is a positive sign.
"Before this, I took all the little things in life for granted but now, I'm giving each day a purpose because I realise how fortunate I am to have lived the way I have the past decade or so.
"I'm going to take my recovery slow and enjoy it for what it is.
"State and Aussies are goals I want to work towards but I'm not going to put any pressure on myself, instead, seeing how the body holds up over the next couple of months and reevaluate then."
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