ALMOST two years after her last win and in the wake of the worst season of her career, Sally Fitzgibbons is back on top of the world.
Lonely morning surf sessions in the dark, a relentless fitness campaign and the desire to prove she can still be a force in world surfing delivered Fitzgibbons an emotional victory in the Margaret River Pro on Saturday.
"I had that little private movement out there to enjoy it, to savour it," said Fitzgibbons, whose finance is Penrith NRL star Trent Merrin.
"I just laid back on my board and went, wow. All that hard work has paid off. The reward has come. It's a big relief.
"I am so, so stoked. That was amazing. It's feels great to be back."
In an extraordinary march to victory, the 26-year-old pro surfer and business entrepreneur took down three world champions - including reigning titleholder Tyler Wright - in a row for her first world tour win since the Fiji Pro back in 2015 which she won with a broken ear drum.
Written off by some as a spent force in the battle to be the next Australian world champion after an eighth place finish last season, Fitzgibbons proved her critics wrong with her defeat of Wright in Saturday's final.
The result has put her into the equal lead in the world title race with six-time champion and fellow Australian Stephanie Gilmore.
It has also infused Fitzgibbons with a confidence she admits has taken a battering in recent times as she struggled to make finals and replicate the form of her youth which saw her finish in the top two on multiple occasions.
"To win this, I am on top of the world," Fitzgibbons said.
"I feel like I still have much more to give.
"I feel a sense of belonging. My body and mind are back where they need to be."
Fitzgibbons beat triple world champion Carissa Moore from Hawaii in the quarters and then Gilmore, winner of the Roxy Pro last month, in the semis to advance into the finals of the second round of the world tour.
Once there she defeated defending champion Wright 14.90 to 12.53.
The final day of the men's competition is scheduled for Sunday with world No.1 Owen Wright pitted against fellow Aussie Jack Freestone in the first quarter-final.
The pair are the only Australians left in the competition.