THE year 2020 threw plenty of challenges to athletes on the sports field.
As we approach the halfway mark of 2021, it's becomie apparent numerous athletes used that extra training time to good measure.
One of those athletes is Culburra Beach's Sam Wright-Smith, who has just wrapped up one of the busiest, yet most rewarding periods of his hockey career - which all started with preparations for the 2021 under 18s field hockey national titles.
"Training leading into nationals was tougher than previous tournaments, as we had three weekend training camps scheduled - each two weeks apart," Wright-Smith said.
"But when bad weather caused much of Sydney and the coast to be flooded, the second camp in March was cancelled.
"This meant we only had the training camp one month before the tournament, and another on Easter weekend just before we flew to Launceston."
Once in Launceston for the April 8-16 tournament, the Shoalhaven High School student and his side opened with a 3-nil win against South Australia.
This was followed by a victory against the Victorian Development squad (7-nil) before falling 1-nil to the Victorian state team and 5-3 to Western Australia.
But Wright-Smith's state team responded in a big way by smashing ACT 7-nil, to set up a semi-final showdown with Victoria.
After the match finished 3-all, NSW prevailed 3-1 in a shootout - booking their spot in the big dance against Western Australia.
Goals from Rhys Cropper and Craig Fletcher guided NSW a 2-1 win in the decider, securing them a memorable gold medal.
"After Western Australia beat us in our round games, we went into the final knowing what we had to improve on and how we had to shut down their attack," the 18-year-old said.
"Our defence had to shut down their opportunities to get short corners, as this was where Western Australia had scored most of their goals in the tournament.
"By doing this, the game was in our control for most of the second half and once their attackers began to fatigue, they weren't able to counter-attack our defence with the possibility of scoring a goal.
"I always knew winning gold would be a special moment, but when the siren finally sounded, it was better than I thought it would be.
"I've played many years of competitive hockey, and this, by far, is the best gold medal I've ever won with a good bunch of lads.
"This achievement in my hockey journey is definitely at the top.
"After a tough year when COVID-19 caused the cancellation of all national and state tournaments, I didn't know what my return to hockey at that level would look like, as I hadn't seen the competition for almost two years."
As stoked as he was from a team perspective, Wright-Smith was also happy with how he performed on the field.
"As a senior player in the team, I had the advantage of previous experience playing at this level in under 18s," he said.
"This allowed me to play with more knowledge and patience, leading to me playing a more controlled game in defence."
Following the celebrations in Tasmania, Wright-Smith and six of his NSW teammates (from both the state and blue team) headed to Kurnell for the Combined High Schools tournament with the South Coast side.
"We were confident in our chances of success at CHS, but we knew we had to play as a team and not a bunch of individuals as we knew that talent wins games but teamwork wins championships," Wright-Smith said.
South Coast opened the April 21-23 tournament with a 7-nil win against Hunter.
This was followed by solid defeats of Sydney South-West (3-nil), North Coast (7-1) and Western (5-nil) - to book their spot in the semi-finals.
After brushing aside North-West in the semi-final 7-1, South Coast took on Sydney North in the decider - where they ground out a tough 2-nil win.
"During the tournament, we focused heavily upon playing as a team, under the guidance of our coach Georgia Cooper, who was coaching South Coast for the first time," Wright-Smith said.
"Our experience in playing together as a team in previous years and many of us with Illawarra Hockey Association also meant that we knew each others' games."
Making this title even more memorable is the fact Wright-Smith has grown up playing alongside a number of his teammates, including Nowra High School's Scott Crisafi.
"I've played with some of the boys since I was 10-years-old, including a few in state teams over the years," Wright-Smith, who was named CHS player of the tournament, said.
"The one mate who I've shared this journey with for the longest is Scott Crisafi, as we've been playing together since we started minke hockey as six-year-olds in the Shoalhaven.
"To finish our CHS journey together with the gold medal was a perfect way to end our school hockey journey, which started when we both played for South Coast in year five."
Following the tournament, Wright-Smith, Crisafi and four other South Coast teammates were named in the CHS team, which will play a tri-series against the Combined Catholic Colleges and Australian Institute of Sport at Homebush in July.
Soon after, the accolades kept coming for the Bernie Regan Memorial Sports Trust grant recipient, as he was named in the national under 18s talent squad.
"For years I've been wanting to play for my country and to be recognised as a future Australian hockey player, so gives me the motivation to keep going for that dream," he said.
"This will give me the opportunity to further develop my skills and knowledge of the game alongside others from around Australia."
Upon reflecting on his busy start to 2021, which continues with the NSW under 21s state trials this weekend, Wright-Smith admits the hardships he endured last year set him up for success.
"I've been fortunate to play with some other great hockey players in strong teams, which has enabled me to focus on my game and develop as a player," he said.
"During COVID-19, I was able to rest and develop a new level of appreciation for the game after not being able to play it for so long - while also zeroing in on small aspects of my game that needed tweaking.
"It's been an unreal year thus far and I'm excited to make it even more memorable in the coming months."
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