ALMOST 14 years ago, Australian darts representative Justin Thompson turned his back on the sport that had given him so much joy and success.
Fast forward to 2017 and the Beverford resident has not only returned to darts at an international level, but is now set to line-up against some of the world's best players.
He has spent the majority of the year venturing across Australia chasing selection for two prestigious World Series of Darts events in Melbourne and Perth.
Mr Thompson secured his spot and will now feature in the events, which will be broadcast live and include high-calibre players such as 15-time World Champion Phil Taylor in August.
It's the kind of story he couldn't have fathomed in his wildest dreams.
"I couldn't have asked for a better comeback. It's just gone really, really well," he said.
"I've been able to walk to the line to throw the darts with a feeling that I've never had before in my career."
After years of considering a return, it was the location of last year's National Championships that finally enticed Mr Thompson to return to the sport.
"My mate tried to get me back into the game every year," he said.
"He rang me last year and said 'I reckon I've got you back.'
"They were in Bendigo. I grew up there and am a life member of the Bendigo Dart League."
Mr Thompson returned in resounding fashion, earning national selection at last October's Asia Pacific Cup, going onto win an incredible four gold medals.
Mr Thompson is also back at the national championships, being staged next week in Townsville, after earning automatic entry as Victoria's top-ranked player.
"Hopefully I have another good tournament and get selected to play in the World Cup," he said.
His darts career began from nothing more than an invitation to join a couple of mates for a game in Bendigo, but quickly blossomed.
Soon, it became evident that Thompson was destined for big things after winning Rookie of the Year at his first National Championships in Tasmania in 1999.
"It all just went from there," he said.
Four years later he was a member of of the Australian side that finished third at the World Darts Federation (WDF) World Cup in France — a finish that has only been bettered once since.
The former Bendigo local said the experience remains one of the highlights of his career.
"It was an amazing feeling when we won the bronze medal and stood in front of all these people while they're playing our national anthem," he said.
"I used to hang it on Olympians winning gold and crying afterwards, but on the day, when it happened to me, it was hard to hold it back.
"It was just pure adrenalin after the fact.
"Sure I had some playing, but it was nothing like my heart rate when I was getting my medal.
However in 2003, it became a choice of family or darts — a decision that wasn't hard to make.
"I come back from playing that [the World Cup]. I had the goal and I'd completed that," he said.
"With the hassles I was having with my marriage, it was pretty easy for me to choose kids or darts, especially after doing so well at the World Cup.
"I thought maybe one day I could come back and I have.
"It's been an unbelievable adventure. I couldn't have written it any better."
While Mr Thompson said he has had little trouble flying through the ranks upon his return, he credited another sport with improving his mental toughness — golf.
During his 12-year hiatus, he took up golf on the Mornington Peninsula and proved to be quite handy with a club in hand.
He sliced his handicap from 17 to three in the space of three years and credits aspects of the sport to his remarkable return to the line.
"I think golf has had a lot to do with why I've had such success coming back," he said.
"When you're around the green, it's an entirely different game to all that has happened leading up to it. It's all about feel and finesse.
"On the mental side, it's a game that just you can't just go out and win every game, just like darts.
"At the end of the day, I think my golf experience has kept me mentally strong."
Mr Thompson continued playing when he and his wife moved north to the Mallee at Murray Downs Golf and Country Club, for whom he is now an ambassador.
"They [Murray Downs] rang me up and approached me to be an ambassador. When you're getting companies of that stature, it's a bit of an honour," he said.
Fast track to now and he is once again rising up the ranks in darts, but said he can't understand why the sport doesn't get more recognition.
"You have friends all around the world in darts, something a lot of sports haven't got," he said.
"It's about time darts gets a mention. I don't think we're far off getting it in to the Olympics."
Mr Thompson has also thrown shade at the 'everyone gets a trophy' mentality that has seemingly become the norm in sport.
After winning his first trophy in Bendigo, a minor division five accolade, he said the size of trophies in the higher grades was his drive to improve.
"I went to my first presentation after we won division five...the trophy was small, and the division one trophy was huge," he said.
"That was my drive...I wanted that trophy.
"A lot of that is now lost because people just expect things to happen instead of having to put in that hard work. A lot of sports have lost that direction.
"I know for a fact, going up through the ranks, that was my drive."
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