Ever since she watched Cathy Freeman win gold at the Sydney 2000, Sally Fitzgibbons wanted to compete at the Olympic Games.
So much so, running became her first real sporting love - which led to her winning gold in the 800 metres and 1500 metres at the 2007 Youth Olympics in Sydney.
"The Olympic dream is so real and I've had it since I was a kid," Fitzgibbons, who was in attendance at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games ceremony, said.
"Looking back at clips from my athletics days, I was such a little grom and after one race, I said to my parents 'this is just the best atmosphere - I just love it'.
"To this day, I still love the Olympics atmosphere and it's incredible that it's come full circle and I'm actually going to compete as a surfer."
Following that experience, the Gerroa product decided to trade the track for the surf - which at the time, appeared to end her hopes of an Olympic Games.
"I loved my running, especially athletics so much as a kid - to be, it's the most simplistic and pure version of sport there is, as all you needed was your runners," Fitzgibbons, who called athletics the epitome of the Games, said.
"You could make an argument we didn't even need them down on the South Coast, as we regularly ran on the beaches.
"Also, the discipline around it, where you applied yourself to this gruelling training regime - where you'd run before and after school and be absolutely exhausted just to try and get half a second off your time.
"This application as a junior required so much and if I was to have pursued that career, instead of surfing, it would have been interesting to see how I went and how much my love grew for the sport.
"My times as a youngster were definitely [in terms of potentially medalling] strong enough, as were my training times in terms of peaking at the right time and not breaking down from over-training.
"The strength of my squad, under my first coach Ian Hatfield, was definitely there, as I trained with Olympian Ryan Gregson.
"I still to this day dream of how fast and light I used to be around the track and with me doing so many kilometres on the treadmill during lockdown, I can still smell the track and wonder how different my life could have been.
"While athletics and running have also been part of the Games movement, I'm confident surfing can become part of that Olympic fabric for years to come."
But when surfing was unveiled as part of the Tokyo 2020 schedule for the first time ever, Fitzgibbons knew this opportunity was too good to pass up.
"It's a dream come true and it's all a little surreal," she said.
"We're starting to appreciate what this pressurised Olympics moment is all about because for some sports, this is their own pinnacle while we experience these moments quite regularly.
"In saying that, I imagine this will be a whole new ball game and we're all trying to navigate those emotions on the fly as we head towards Tokyo.
"You can definitely feel that build-up happening and how best to use that energy to our benefit as a team and channel it into a strong performance."
Mix in her third ISA World Surf Games gold medal at El Salvador in June and the Kiama High School alumna is carrying excellent form into the Games.
"This year has been such a fun ride and I'm definitely keen to keep my form going," she said.
"The cross-pollination between the world tour and these events with the Irukandjis, always meant this was going to be a busy calendar year and I wouldn't have it any other way.
"It's unreal surfing has been able to share the love around in 2021 and with Tokyo fast approaching, it's becoming real that there is an Olympic dream on the table and all the countries are rallying together to make it happen.
"I know from our team perspective, with us surfing together on the tour and in other lead-up events, our culture is great and everyone is doing what they can to ensure they're ready to come round one in Tokyo.
"There's been a fair bit of trash talk thrown around by the other countries and we know they're coming in hungry.
"But with our fighting spirit, where we're all prepared to do whatever it takes to succeed."
"Tokyo is generally known for its small-wave surfing and relies heavily on those storm systems," she said.
"With that in mind, it's imperative to get your body and mind right to be on rapid-fire mode and as agile as possible.
"There's a lot of other countries, such as Brazil who have produced a lot of progressive surfing in recent years, by taking to the air.
"Luckily for our team, we've all had the luxury of growing up in Australia and dealing with absolutely every condition under the sun.
"As such, I've been really trying to hone my small game in recent weeks, at breaks that don't have much power, to prepare me as best as I can for Tokyo.
"The comparison is not too dissimilar from a sprinter to a middle-distance runner, as those long point-breaks or even at the Surf Ranch, we had up to 50-second rides which are long and extremely hard on the legs, whereas the smaller waves are all about spring in your body and getting your reaction times up, to make the most of the shorter rides and sticking every single trick you do.
"There's no real chance to move your feet around, get comfy on a wave and extend your lines - I like to think of them as little firecrackers going off in my head.
"At the end of the day, it'll come down to which athlete can produce the most creative performance on the day, which I'm confident can be from our team."
The other conditions Fitzgibbons' green and gold side, who are getting tested daily, will be to deal with while at the Chiba coastline, close to two hours east of Tokyo, is COVID-19.
"While travelling in a pandemic, there is that layer of anxiety that you deal with and to me, it's an underestimated energy drainer," Fitzgibbons, who admits it's devastating that her family and coaches won't be able to attend the Games, said.
"Coupled with the pressure, it's going to be managing those energies and are the things I can control.
"While we are a little prepared for the Tokyo environment because of our recent trip to El Salvador, I don't think you can ever truly get used to this setting because at any given moment things could change.
"It's been a tough rollercoaster the past two years and I've just been focusing on the positives and staying as fit and healthy as I can.
"We can fully appreciate how tough it's going to be to host a global sports event in the middle of a pandemic but in the same breath, it'll be an all-mighty celebration if Tokyo and the world's sporting community can pull it off.
"There's something quite pure watching people go out and compete at their best and I know how much of a freeing moment it will be when we step into the competitive arena, put the rashie on and paddle out.
"Hopefully that can be done in front of some fans on the beach at Chiba because us surfers feed off that energy and the excitement on their faces.
"There's like an unspoken surfing language we can all understand just from the way people react to certain rides."
While this is Fitzgibbons and surfing's Olympic debut, she hopes this is the start of an extraordinary marriage between the sport and the world's top athletic event.
"The sport has come such a long way over the past few years and we now get the chance to showcase our talents on the ultimate stage, that no one has experienced before.
"Hopefully this is just the start of the fruitful relationship between the Olympics and surfing."
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