Kahla Preston writes for Honey.nine.com.au

Children often develop intense fixations, and for a young Sally Fitzgibbons it was the Olympic Games.

From age five, she would imagine herself in Rocky-style movie montages as she threw herself into various sports. The "weird infatuation" was only cemented when she saw Cathy Freeman win gold at Sydney 2000.

"Every time I'd finish running around the block or riding my BMX, I'd be like, 'Coming down the home straight, she's gonna go for gold...', having the full Bruce McAvaney moment where you commentate your life," the champion surfer, now 29, tells 9Honey.

Despite her success in athletics, Fitzgibbons ultimately chose her surfboard over her running shoes, and her childhood Olympic dream "drifted away".




Yet the universe had a surprise in store, and in 2018 surfing was named as an Olympic sport for the first time.

"It's funny how it circles back. I think when it's meant to be, it's meant to be," Fitzgibbons says.

In October 2019, Fitzgibbons secured her place in surfing history when she became the first to quality for the Australian Olympic team for Tokyo 2020.

She entered the new year with the Games in her sights, but the event was struck from the calendar by COVID-19 just weeks later.

"It felt like this race to qualify, and then there's been this pause button," says Fitzgibbons, who is part of Under Armour's athlete roster.





With sporting events on ice and the nation in lockdown, she returned to her home base in Gerroa, a small town on New South Wales' south coast.

Though she admits it was "deflating" to see her Olympic debut postponed, Fitzgibbons — whose long list of surfing titles and achievements dates back to when she was 14 — used the lockdown period to focus on her training.

"I was really fortunate that we have so many open spaces down here. I would surf every day," she says.

"I've trained around these headlands since I was really young ... Even amongst all the chaos and the world being upside-down, I think that's what gave me my biggest comfort."

One major focus for Fitzgibbons has been evolving her style and putting new tricks into practice — particularly in the aerial space — ahead of the Olympics. It's a process she describes as long and uncomfortable, but ultimately rewarding.

"You get a bit bruised and frustrated, a few ice packs," she laughs.

"But it's so worth it when you get this itch, you sit there and contemplate which tricks you gravitate towards, and you've got to unlearn some things in your technique to get to that place."

'Lockdown' also gave Fitzgibbons the rare opportunity to reconnect with her community and family. Ordinarily, she would only make it home for a few weeks of the year due to her busy touring schedule.

"I've enjoyed actually getting a home routine. There's not this big rush to cram life into one cup of tea or one conversation or one dinner with family," she explains.




Fitzgibbons' career has been peppered with achievements, but these days she's driven less by the "lure of the shiny cups" and more by the process of pushing herself to new heights and evolving her performance.

"That moment of having the opportunity to go and do it under pressure against the best in the world, and see if it stacks up — I think that's still the most exhilarating, scary, unknown part of it," she explains.

"For me it's about bringing my highest level of performance to the highest level of competition... it's sitting back in the energy and enjoying the ride."

That's not the only thing keeping the athlete busy. In recent years Fitzgibbons has earned her personal training certification, taken part in live fitness shows, released a cookbook and built an online community.

Currently, she's developing an app for beginner surfers, allowing them to tap into the wisdom she's earned over her years on the waves.

"That's what gives me the biggest kick, that I could influence someone's surf journey. It's been my biggest passion project at the moment," she says.

Fitzgibbons' name is synonymous with surfing in Australia, yet she admits it's a reality she couldn't have forseen as a child.

"When I picked up my boogie board when I was three years old, I didn't imagine my livelihood would stem from being a professional female surfer," she says.

In her early surfing days on the south coast, Fitzgibbons recalls it was rare to see another woman out on a board. Over the years, she's witnessed first-hand the increasing respect for and visibility of women's professional surfing.

"It's changed so much from when I've started. The prize money equality on the top level, that was a significant change, and just the working conditions and quality of waves we were getting put into and the respect for the performances," she says.





"The [women] that have come before us went through some tough decades ... they still went and surfed and loved their craft, but also maybe had to have second jobs to fund their travels or travel on the bare minimum, tent-style.

"These days, you're enjoying the riches of a support network, it's a real professional outfit now. There are so many women in the lineup, and young girls too. It's just so exciting."

2020 hasn't been the year Sally Fitzgibbons envisioned for herself, but those five interlinked rings glittering in her not-too-distant future are proving to be the "ultimate motivator".

"[Tokyo 2020] is acting now as that glimmer of hope at the end of everything; you think, 'All my training is leading to this one thing'."