Sally Fitzgibbons has endured more heartbreak than any athlete should, and it’s taken a heavy toll on the Aussie surfing star.
Sally Fitzgibbons has endured more heartbreak than any athlete should, and it’s taken a heavy toll on the Aussie surfing star.

‘It rips your heart apart’: Sally’s agony revealed

Sally Fitzgibbons knows all too well the pain of being burned by the thing she loves most in this world.

The knockabout 29-year-old from Gerroa on the NSW south coast was a talented soccer and touch footy player growing up and won gold medals in the youth Olympics as a middle distance runner, but ultimately surfing stole her heart.

However, the ocean has proven to be a cruel mistress.

One of the most likeable and down-to-earth personalities in Australian sport, Fitzgibbons has been tagged as always the bridesmaid but never the bride in her quest for a world championship.

Three years in a row - 2010, 2011 and 2012 - she finished runner-up in the World Surf League (WSL) standings, twice behind countrywoman and seven-time world champ Stephanie Gilmore. Three times Fitzgibbons has finished third.

Unfalteringly positive, Fitzgibbons wears a smile as often as she does a wetsuit or a rash shirt. But speaking to sports broadcaster Mark Howard on his podcast The Howie Games, she opened up on the anguish of being denied the silverware she's been hunting for years by the barest of margins.

"Losing - it just destroys inside of you. It just rips your heart apart," she says.

"Especially in terms of that build-up to vying for a world title and you've just done everything in your power and you still (fall short).

"That essence of coming close to something, it keeps getting ripped away. It's right there and that one wave you needed or that 0.3 of a score, it just didn't happen."

Fitzgibbons says it's easy, particularly as a young athlete in the first few years of a career, to feel like your sport owes you something. That because you tried so hard and came so close, time and time again, the universe will make things right eventually. It has to.

But the older you get and the more maturity you gain, she says, you realise such a pact with the world doesn't exist at all. You're looking for reasons as to why you were denied and why everything will work out in the end, but they're simply not there.

Even as Fitzgibbons suffered heartbreak after heartbreak after heartbreak, she tried to put a positive spin on her situation. She fronted up to the media saying all the right things, even if she didn't always believe them. She was hiding the truth.

Fitzgibbons has come so close but the ultimate prize has remained out of reach.
Fitzgibbons has come so close but the ultimate prize has remained out of reach.

"Your whole dependency and self-worth is still tied (to results), as much as you want to say, 'No it doesn't affect me'," Fitzgibbons says. "You do all these interviews and you say, 'I'm just so happy and fortunate to be doing what I'm doing'.

"But deep down, it just hurts. It's like someone is punching you in the heart and you just get so shattered."

"It felt as though there were some interchangeable moments where it could have been me," she adds of watching from close quarters as compatriot Gilmore racked up championships galore. "You start to go, 'That could have been me'."

Being the second-best in the world in your field is normally cause for contentment. But in the cut-throat environment of professional sport where the margins between first and second are so fine, yet the difference in weight of accomplishment often so great, it's easy to fall into the trap of viewing being anything but the best as a failure.

Fitzgibbons doesn't go that far - she's proud, as she should be, of her hugely impressive career - but she does admit to a voice gnawing away inside of her suggesting she wouldn't be truly whole until she had a world title on her resume.

At least a handful of times she's been close enough to reach out and touch it before having her shot at glory cruelly ripped away. In 2014 at Maui, Fitzgibbons fell less than a point short of advancing past a heat that would have sealed the championship. In 2017 at the same event she needed one more wave to roll in for a chance at the title but Mother Nature didn't deliver.

Once would be hard enough to swallow but the surfing gods haven't been kind to Fitzgibbons for far too many years, for her and her supporters' liking.

"You just keep believing there's this thing or monumental moment," Fitzgibbons tells Howard. "That's utopia.

"It just erodes at you that you start to believe in the storyline that others give to you - that you're not enough, that it's failure, you're not worthy.

"When you get that title you'll be complete.

"It just erodes away until that becomes your belief and you think, 'I'm going to train a bit harder, I've got to work harder, I'll just do this and it will all be better and I'll make my family proud'."

Fitzgibbons has long felt the love from the surfing community.
Fitzgibbons has long felt the love from the surfing community.

For some, time doesn't heal all wounds, but it can do wonders for altering perspective. So it proved for Fitzgibbons, who understands now holding a trophy above her head at the end of the season won't define her.

Other athletes in her position, after a decade on the pro circuit, might be anxious time is running out to tick off their bucket list item. But not Fitzgibbons.

If anything, falling agonisingly short of surfing's most prestigious honour has made her appreciate even more the opportunity she has.

"I've applied myself and there's … a task and when you don't achieve that task it's just going to hurt, and it hurt, but it doesn't mean I'm going to stop," she says.

"It made me realise my unconditional love for the craft and what sport is.

"You feel as though that leads towards a finish line. There is no finish line … even if you grab that cup, and I realise that after all this time in that contemplation mode after a loss. I feel that.

"These are the glory years because you've traversed that first point and come out with more enthusiasm. All that you've been through has energised you to keep going.

"That's the big (realisation). When the tide turns, the cup isn't utopia, there's not this big change to your life when you turn gold-plated or something."

And what if Fitzgibbons retires from competitive surfing without a world title? Will the memories she's made, the people she's inspired and the goals she's accomplished be enough, without the icing on top?

"Holy moly, yeah."

Originally published as Sally's agony: 'It rips your heart apart'

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