Just under a decade ago, Lucy Stephan arrived in Ballarat - scared, nervous but captivated.
Her new home, Ballarat Grammar School, alone had more people than Nhill; the unassuming town tucked off the Victoria-South Australia border where she grew up.
In a new city, a far cry from the family farm, and with no one she knew around her, the change was understandably daunting.
The self-described "little girl from the country" felt lost.
Then, one seminal day in 2008, she was in the crowd at the Head of the Lake watching a crew a year her senior being presented their oar for winning at the previous regatta.
"I turned to my mum and said, 'I want one of them, I want to win the Head of the Lake. Mum said that was the first time she'd heard me say I wanted something myself," Stephan told The Courier.
Stephan only had to wait a year.
The rowing newcomer was in the stroke seat as Ballarat Grammar stormed down the Barwon River to reclaim the Head of the Lake crown.
"Winning the Head of the Lake was the first thing I did for me. It was the first thing that I set a goal for and set tasks for," Stephan said.
"Now, rowing has taught me how resilient and determined I am as a person. If you had asked me before, I probably would have said yes, but I don't think I had that channel for my determination and passion before I started rowing."
Rowing wasn't something completely foreign.
"I went on a school camp in year 6 to the Australian Institute of Sport, and they had the two rowing machines set up where we could race each other," Stephan said.
What happened next is folklore in west Wimmera.
Stephan beat all her classmates - boys included - and caught the rowing bug.
"For me, I had always played netball and basketball, and I was always kind of average, just middle of the crowd," she said.
"All of a sudden, there was this sport where it was all about pure determination and grit that made you go fast.
"Especially on Lake Wendouree (at the time) when there was no water, and it was barely rowable. It was literally about who's going to hurt themselves the most."
Stephan has never been one to shy away from the fight.
She spent her first year rowing in the thirds with crewmates who'd taken up the sport years before as juniors.
The next year, veteran rowing mentor Bill Gribble approached Stephan to take up the coveted stroke seat in the Grammar girls' firsts.
She didn't believe she was good enough, but Gribble saw potential.
"I learned a lot from Bill being my coach. The way he coached was through passion, and that taught me that the way to be successful in anything, rowing, work or school, you just have to be passionate and results will come," Stephan said.
"He put a lot of faith in me, and I thrived off that."
From Ballarat, bigger adventures called.
A move to the Melbourne University Boat Club was the obvious next step, but it was still a big culture shock for the girl from the wheat belt.
"I remember in Melbourne I started rowing with all these girls who grew up in the city and them saying 'I don't know how you grew up in the country. I could never do it," she said.
"I'll always be a country girl, and I'm quite proud of that. I never really got angry when people said I was small because I knew I would prove them wrong. That's how I grew up as a child.
"I've never seen coming from the country as a disadvantage. It's great, you know, growing up in the middle of a drought and waking up at 6 am to get the sheep in before it gets too hot.
"There are challenges we faced that helped me get to where I am today."
The Melbourne switch didn't deliver the immediate success all had hoped for.
Stephan missed selection in the club's first four, but that wasn't to be the end of the story.
Her second team beat the first four's boat in the final race of the season, elevating Stephan and her crew to state and national honours.
In 2012, after two years of dominating national competitions, she made her debut on the international stage, winning a silver medal at the U23 World Championships.
Selection in the Australian open-age team capped a breakthrough 2013, where Stephan won bronze at the World Rowing Championships and gold in the U23 World Championships.
Commanding domestic seasons would follow, while strong showings at World Cups set Stephan up for a turbulent year.
Having only earned selection in Australia's women's eight at the start of 2016, Stephan and her crew received a call-up to the Rio Olympics following Russia's disqualification in the wake of the state-sponsored doping scandal.
A crew that had not rowed together in months boarded a last-minute flight to Brazil, asked to compete in a borrowed shell with loaned equipment.
In hindsight, the Australian's results are no surprise. Stephan's crew finished last in both its heat and the repechage.
Off the water, things weren't much better.
Stephan was one of 10 Australian athletes who were detained by Brazilian police and had their passports seized after they were caught with modified Olympic accreditation.
The practice of applying different accreditation stickers that allowed access to more sporting venues was "traditional not only in Australia but in other countries as well," then Australian chef de mission Kitty Chiller said.
Yet, the "mistake", used to get better seats at the basketball stadium for a semi-final game between Australia and Serbia, landed Stephan and her fellow Olympians in custody.
Despite the setbacks, Stephan said she was thankful for her Rio experience.
"I didn't return from Rio hating it and questioning whether I wanted to row again," she said.
"I think had things gone a different way and we hadn't got such a late call and had a proper preparation, the results might have been different.
"But, right now, I'm so proud I actually got that experience and learned from that."
"All Rio did was reassure how much I wanted to win gold. I guess going and being able to do that in Tokyo proves you can go from being dead-last in the Olympics to winning a gold medal.
After the 2016 Games, Stephan was selected in Australia's coxless four.
In 2017, the crew didn't lose a race in the international season, winning gold at the World Rowing Championship and the World Rowing Cups II & III.
The next year Australia won gold at World Rowing Cups II and III, and silver at the world championships.
Two gold medals and a silver on the world stage in 2019 was enough to see her named Victoria's Female Athlete of the Year.
Stephan was unable to receive the honour in person, instead busy training for the eventually-postponed 2020 Olympics.
It was the beginning of a punctured build-up to the Games.
The 2020 season started with Stephan and her New South Wales-based crew unable to train due to smoke from the country's bushfire crisis.
Then the pandemic hit. Rowing took a backseat and world events were abandoned with each passing month.
Australia's crews did not compete internationally before setting off for Tokyo, a year later than planned.
An Olympic-best time in a heat win settled nerves about Stephan's crew ability.
The world champions were gold medal favourites, and excitement was building back home.
Nhill's pharmacy adorned its windows with words of encouragement, while another local hired an electronic road sign wishing good luck to Lucy that welcomed travellers on the Western Highway.
Despite her best efforts, the chaos reached Stephan halfway across the world.
"It was amazing to see and incredible, but it got to the point where I was coming into the final, and my dad just kept tagging me in things on social media," she said.
" There will always be a certain amount of pressure when people are so invested in you and are showing that love that. If we didn't win gold, I was worried I would let them down.
"I'm sure that wouldn't have happened and that no matter the result, they would have showed me that love regardless. But, coming into race mode its hard and you're always going to have those negative thoughts pop up."
Stephan needn't worry.
The Australians led at every mark before holding off a spirited Netherlands fightback to make history.
"Hotel quarantine is going to be tough, but it's going to be nicer now i have something shiny to look at. A gold medal is a nice bit of decor for the room," she said.
"I'm just excited to go back home. The best thing about winning a gold medal is being able to share it.
"I can't wait to go back to Nhill and to (Ballarat) Grammar and pass my medal around to the kids and let them hold it and see it and feel it.
"(It's important) for me to let these kids know that you can achieve anything. It's a massive thing for me if they can see someone who sat in their seat at school that's gone on to do big things, whether it be rowing or finding success elsewhere."
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