SALLY Fitzgibbons has competed at some of surfing's biggest events and traveled to some amazing places across the globe. But still, there's no place like home.
Every time that she has to leave her Gerroa home, the world number three feels a tinge of sadness. Especially when she has to head out for months at a time.
"There's no better feeling than being home. Especially during Covid, I would think 'wow, I get to train here'. Every single day it blows me away at how beautiful it is. And how connected to our community we are as well. Every time I think of home, it puts a smile on my face," Fitzgibbons said.
"And still to this day, I actually get emotional because packing is the worst to go away. I have to psych myself up, even after 20 odd years of travelling, to leave. I have to think 'I'll be back', I've got everything I need and you let go. Six months on the road is way too much. So you definitely know your heart lives there and you want to get home as soon as you can. I'm also super thankful and grateful for the support back home. And the athletes from the area, the drive and the passion they have inspires me to keep going, to keep waking up and doing my best."
Unfortunately, Fitzgibbons will have to get used to being away from the Illawarra in 2021 as she prepares for arguably her biggest year of competition.
It all started on Thursday with the Newcastle Cup, kicking off a string of successive World Surf League events to be held across Australia in the coming weeks. And all preparation will lead towards Fitzgibbons making her Olympic debut. After last year's false start, the Tokyo 2020 is set to be held this July, with surfing taking place for the first time. Fitzgibbons - alongside fellow South Coast product Owen Wright - booked their Games spots in October 2019 through the WSL tour.
Fortunately, that qualification carries over.
"When it was postponed, there was an unknown part, and we were like, 'does that mean we're not qualified'? And we got a little bit edgy about it. But we're guaranteed," Fitzgibbons said.
"We may have to go an event prior to it, but we're kind of touch and go because of the pandemic. So it feels nice to be in our position where we are qualified and might have to do one event to tick the box. But I'd rather be here than not qualified at all.
"Last year, it did come to that point where we were heading towards the Games, and then a tour event was cancelled, but there was still this carrot dangling that the Olympics would be on. And I think that was the final straw where you were like 'wow, the world is really topsy turvy and there's bigger things going on than my sporting endeavours'.
"But there was a period there where you had to allow your emotions to be as it is, because it's disappointing. You had to constantly go back and reset. As an athlete, you had to learn and train to adapt. There was a lot of pivoting and adjusting, and being okay that whether there is an event or no event, I'm going to put in this effort anyway because I want to continue wanting to grow."
So how does it feel to actually be going to your first Olympics? It's hard to put into words for Fitzgibbons. The 30-year-old always dreamed of competing in her sport's biggest events - but surfing was never an option at the Games.
"We never thought that it would be the case. You chose this path and you had a world title dream, and it was widely regarded as something that took all of the focus of those that were vying for it. It wasn't considered that you were missing out on the Olympic Games," Fitzgibbons said.
"We do have a special sport in terms of that it has a really strong and independent structure, aside from the Games. So I think it's that ultimate bonus. It's icing on the cake when you think that we chose this sport and, as a kid, you have your eyes on an Olympic dream. And you just keep showing up. Sometimes there's been moments in my career where you've had those big losses, or near misses. But there's moments where you think no matter how much this hurts or you're in the middle of a spot, I'm just going to keep showing up. And then I feel like that's the moment where, when you're going to an Olympic Games, you think 'that's why I kept showing up'. It's been a really exciting journey.
"It is special. I feel like the Olympics have always been seen as the pinnacle, whether you're in sport or not. It's that brand and moment in your career where it's almost validation for your life's work. I always feel like it's that stamp of 'hey, this is to celebrate your life's work in sport and working on your craft'. And you're going to one of the biggest platforms to display skills and just be among those who have done the same thing.
"It's incredible to be surrounded by people who have pushed their bodies to the limits. We may not obviously be in the Olympic village as planned because they might have to put us in a sub site with Covid restrictions.But I think it's that moment, and a special one at that because I'm part of the first group that went for surfing. I think that's your rocking chair moment when you're 100 and you think 'wow, I did that'."
As for life beyond the Olympics, Fitzgibbons has no plans to slow down any time soon.
She has achieved great things in surfing - including being ranked number one in the world and a three-time title WSL runner-up - but the Illawarra talent continues to learn more about her body and mind, and what it takes to perform at the highest level.
"I definitely feel like it's the pursuit of pushing myself. Like I'm not sure how great I can get as a surfer, so it's about doing that justice. If I can do all of the things that allow that, like showing up for my fitness and the routine around your food, your fuel and your sleep, and all of those little one per centers," she said.
"I've heard from others who have retired from the sport and they say 'I couldn't go any longer, I couldn't be disciplined any longer'. So I want to allow myself to keep showing up, and that will allow me to be great. I think when you stop doing that, that's when your surfing stays at the same level. I want to commit to that as long as I can to do my performances justice."
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