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The Unbelievably Awkward Moment When Sally Fitzgibbons Met Her Hero

Surfer Sally Fitzgibbons is adored by millions of people around the world, but when she met her own hero, things got pretty awkward.

Ahead of the long-awaited meeting, Fitzgibbons was so excited, she even rehearsed what she was going to say. But when the moment arrived, all she could spit out was this:

"Ummm... Olympics. Ten. Hat. Oh gosh. Cathy Freeman. I'm so sorry!"

But what did that mean? When we sat down recently for an interview that aired on Sports Tonight, Fitzgibbons explained all.

Hat... something... Olympics... something. Gaaaahhhh! Image: Getty.

This all goes back to the Sydney 2000 Olympics, when (then) 10-year-old Fitzgibbons was sitting in the top row of Stadium Australia when Cathy Freeman won gold in the 400m.

"I said to my parents 'do you think she will sign my hat?' They were like, 'look she is pretty busy right now'. I was like 'maybe I can get down there?'They were like 'maybe one day you will find her'.

"And and on the train home I was crying all the way home," the world's number five-ranked surfer explained.

But you know what they say -- Mum knows best. And wouldn't you know it, almost two decades after that heartbreak, Fitzgibbons did indeed find Freeman.

Now a champion athlete in her own right, Fitzgibbons was gathered with Australia’s top surfers for an Olympic training camp in preparation for the sport’s debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games… when along came Freeman.

This was it. The time had come.

READ MORE: Watch As This Woman Breaks Surfing's Biggest Wave World Record

"I tried to play it so cool! I sat in the room and she gave the most amazing talk, goose-bump material.

At the end of her talk I went up and had my hat, it was in front of all my peers and I was like bumbling and everything. I completely lost it," she recalled.

"I started bawling at Cathy Freeman. I was so happy. She was a bit surprised and didn't know what was happening. But I guess I was just being me."

If you can do this without falling off your board, how hard can meeting Cathy Freeman be? (Photo by Matt Dunbar/WSL via Getty Images)

The golden girl eventually wrapped her up in a big cuddle. And dare we say, Fitzgibbons may never wash her arms again.

"It meant so much. And I still train with the hat, I know I should put it in a glass case, but it just feels more powerful to wear it."

We talk a lot about role models in sport, and about how they can inspire young athletes. This is a classic case of it.

Freeman sparked something in  Fitzgibbons that fateful night in 2000.

A natural athlete, she began taking running seriously, trained hard and went on to win gold in the 800m and 1500m at the Youth Olympics in 2007. But soon after, surfing stole her heart, sending her life on a different trajectory.

As much as  Fitzgibbons loved her life as a pro surfer, her Olympic dream was over. Or so she thought. Then in August 2016, the International Olympic Committee voted to include surfing -- alongside baseball, softball, karate and skateboarding -- in Tokyo 2020.

Now she is on the verge of the greatest challenge of her dazzling 11-year career, fulfilling her lifelong dream of representing Australia on the biggest stage of all.

Want the really good news? Sal has actually won in Japan before. This is her winning the final of the ISA World Surfing Games at the Pacific Long Beach on September 22, 2018 in Tahara, Aichi, Japan.  Image: Getty Images

The leading two male and female Australian surfers inside the top eight on the World Surf League rankings at the end of the year will automatically qualify for the Tokyo Games.

Fitzgibbons is currently the second highest ranked Aussie female, behind Stephanie Gilmore.

“Whether I go or not, the big win for us Aussie surfers is coming together to build a culture. Australia is going to be a powerhouse in surfing at the Olympics and I never thought I’d say that, it's epic!”

And if you bump into Cath over there, please try and stay cool Sal.

Contact the author rozkelly@networkten.com.au