Northland squash prodigy Natalie Sayes has her eyes firmly set on success in 2019 after injury and illness hampered her progress this year.
Throughout the year, Sayes went through extreme heat exhaustion, a serious knee injury and a bout of glandular fever which forced her to underperform in tournaments she had won in 2016.
"It's been a pretty bad year compared to previous years. I've had a lot of injuries throughout the year which has taken its toll," Sayes said.
Despite her setbacks, the 14-year-old won the Auckland Young Sportswoman of the year award for squash (under 21) for the fourth year in a row at the Auckland squash awards held at Alexander Park Raceway in October.
In her first year as a Takapuna Grammar Year 9 student, Sayes also won the award for the top squash player for secondary school girls at the Auckland Secondary Girls School sports awards held at Eden Park.
"I've gotten a few awards that I didn't expect because of the year that I've had with all the injuries but I was still happy to get the awards."
Sayes began the year well, winning the Oceania Junior Age Group Championships under-15 title in Australia in January. Playing conditions were difficult with temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius which was challenging for Sayes as an asthmatic.
"We had to focus on each point as it went because everyone was feeling pretty light-headed like they were going to pass out. You had ice-packs waiting for you and you just dealt with it.
"There's a different feeling for me than there is for other people but we were playing in really small, old squash clubs that didn't have very good fans, it was pretty horrible."
Sayes would go on to play at the Australian Junior Open, a tournament she had won in 2016, where temperatures on court reached about 56 degrees and she lost in the final.
"I could barely do anything at that point, I couldn't breathe. When you're having bad asthma it's like your swimming and you're gasping for air.
"When it gets to a certain point, the fact that I'm from New Zealand where it's colder and I have asthma, they combine and you never really have a shot but you have to play the conditions."
Later in the year, Sayes played in three selection tournaments which determined whether you were chosen to play in the World Junior Squash Championships. She performed well in the second but in the first and third, ongoing knee issues kept her from playing her best and she wasn't selected.
"I had to get injections in my knee and they were done about five days before the third tournament. I couldn't straighten my knee and I was walking with straight legs so I obviously didn't do well in that one."
However, she got her revenge when she beat two players who had been selected for the world championships in the North Island Junior Age Group Championships in July where she came third.
Sayes got back to winning ways at the South Island Junior Age Groups Champs in July where she took out the U17 and U19 categories. But her success was short-lived as she prepared for the national squash competition.
"I trained hard out for nationals and eight weeks before nationals I started feeling weird. I was getting really tried, I couldn't move on court."
This was the same time as Sayes debuted as one of the youngest players ever to be selected for and to represent the Auckland senior woman's squash team, however, the debut did not go to plan.
"It should have been an historic debut but it was kind of ruined because I couldn't move.
"I was in a deciding match to see if the team would get third or fourth and I just couldn't push myself or anything."
Sayes was diagnosed with glandular fever a week after that match and she was put out of squash for a month and could not play nationals, a tournament she had won in 2016.
"It sucked really. I just stayed at home and watched squash videos, it wasn't fun."
Through the help of her coaches Manu Yam, an ex-nine time Filipino National champion, and Paul Hornsby, former English national squash coach, Sayes has returned to full fitness and was ready to perform better in 2019.
"I only want perfection and when I don't get it, it's not satisfying so I'm all about drive and perfection and if it's not that, then I'll go back and fix it.
"I'm willing to give everything. I want my Australian Junior title back, the Oceania title and to do well in the selection tournaments and get into worlds."
Sayes' next tournament will be the Oceania Junior Age Group Championships in January next year.