Cathy Freeman: 400 metres that united a nation

September 25, 2000 or ‘Magic Monday’ as it was dubbed at Sydney 2000, was one of the most significant days in Olympic history.

Not just for the incredible sportsmanship that was on display, but for the way in which a young Aboriginal woman united a nation that was in desperate search of reconciliation.

Twenty years on, you can ask a crowd of athletes, media and fans alike, ‘Which Sydney 2000 moment moved you the most?’ and you are guaranteed to hear a resounding chorus echo, “Cathy Freeman.”

A proud Kuku Yalanji woman, Catherine Astrid Salome Freeman grew up in central and outback Queensland as one of five children and from the time she was five-years-old, running was what set her soul on fire.

“I remember running my first race, I was petrified. It was actually my teacher, Ms. Baldry, who forced me to the start line.”

Bessie Baldry was Freeman’s first-grade teacher and the one who literally pulled her out of hiding in the girl’s toilets so she would run her first race.

“Once I started running, it was like feeling the sunshine for the first time. I was so happy,” Freeman said.

Catherine Freeman as a child
Catherine Freeman as a child

She felt free, weightless and happy every time her feet would hit the ground and coupled with her natural ability, she had all the makings of a future champion, except, where Freeman came from, dreams of greatness were not commonplace… But she was always ‘different.’

As a child, Freeman put a sign on her wall saying, ‘I am the world’s greatest athlete,’ and would draw inspiration and self-belief from it every day.

Freeman spent most of her time in Mackay, but would also frequently visit Palm Island, where her maternal grandparents lived.

Palm Island in North Queensland was a rural, tropical and isolated town where prosperity and ambition just didn’t form part of the lifestyle.

Freeman once described the remote Indigenous community as one that brought about a way of life you would expect of an isolated outback town.

Indigenous photographer documents the Cathy Freeman Foundation on Tiwi Island

“Palm Island was similar to any isolated outback town, the isolation brings about a particular way of living.

“It wasn’t helplessness or hopelessness, it just didn’t have that same sense of prosperity you would find in the city, where people have the confidence to go out and get what they want.

“Having that burning ambition just didn’t exist, so it was always unusual for ‘someone like me’ to have such great aspirations.

“I recognised that what I was dreaming of, was something that most kids like me wouldn’t have even thought they were capable of.”

Freeman’s father left when she was only a toddler, but three years later her mother, Cecelia, re-partnered with Bruce Barber. Until then, she raised five children on her own, working as a cleaner at the local school and earning just enough to keep her young family afloat.

Barber noticed young Catherine’s ability and took on the role of not only her stepfather, but mentor and trainer.

“Bruce was a wonderful step-father and he loved my mother. He was also a great mentor and role model,” Freeman said.

“He was actually the one who told me to hang the ‘I am the world’s greatest athlete,’ sign on my wall.

15 Jan 2000: Cathy Freeman of Australia during the Optus Grand Prix at the AIS Athletics track, Canberra, Australia. Mandatory Credit: Scott Barbour/ALLSPORT

“He taught me about self-talk, filling my mind with positive information and visualisation.

“I didn’t actually believe I could be the world’s greatest athlete, it was more about letting that positive self-talk sink into my brain and let that language become quite comfortable, because it’s not everyday language.

“That was so key because it really helped shape my attitude,” she continued.

When she was 14, Freeman was asked by a school vocational officer what she wanted to do after school. Her answer: “I want to win gold medals at the Olympic Games and after that, I don’t care.”

“There’s a lot of power and self-empowerment in taking control over what you want, who you want to be and saying that out loud,” Freeman explained.

“Even if it’s privately to yourself or to your reflection in the mirror, just putting it out there opens up your potential.”

Freeman began winning races early on, but one, in particular, stood out when she was 10 years old.

She had just finished a race in first place and while the second and third placegetters were awarded their trophies, Catherine never received one. The only thing she could put it down to was the colour of her skin.

Freeman said that as a child, she always felt ‘less than,’ due to her Indigenous heritage.

Her paternal great-grandfather was a World War I veteran although his service to the country was never recognised.

Her maternal great-grandfather and great-grandmother were banished to the penal colony of Palm Island, for not signing over control of their wages to the local police.

As a result of the hardship and discrimination her family and her people faced, Freeman was always determined to represent her culture and her people with pride and stand up to those who believed that Aboriginal people were of lesser value.

At the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland, 16-year-old Freeman became the first Indigenous woman to win a Commonwealth Games gold medal when she won the 4 x 100m relay.

Two years later she competed in her first Olympic Games at Barcelona 1992 where she finished seventh in the 4 x 400 m relay and reached the second round of the individual 400 m event.

Her next Commonwealth Games was her breakthrough.

At the 1994 edition of the games in Canada, Freeman won gold in both the 200m and 400m. It was here, that she proudly carried both the Aboriginal and Australian flags during her victory lap.

23 Aug 1994: Cathy Freeman of Australia celebrates with both Australian and Aboriginal flags after winning the 400 metres final during the Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada. Freeman won the gold medal with a time of 50.38 seconds. Mandatory Credit: Tony Feder /Allsport

Many supported Freeman in her expression of pride and unity, but some did not.

“I was always very clear that I needed to express my true colours, especially when I won major titles,” Freeman explained.

“At the 1994 Commonwealth Games I flew both flags and then when I won my first World Title in 1997 and a second before Sydney 2000, I also carried both.

“It’s the ultimate celebration for me and was very personal. It was never a political gesture; it was just me being very proud of my ancestry. It was as simple as that.”

Aside from acting as a beacon of inspiration for her people and a role model for unity and reconciliation across the country, Freeman’s motivation to achieve greatness was closer to home.

“My sister Anne-Marie was seven years older than me and had severe cerebral palsy, she passed away when I was 16,” Freeman shared.

“She was quite physically disabled, but not intellectually, her personality was very astute, sassy, loving and sweet.

“She taught me to look beyond the surface, not just with her, but with everybody.

“Apart from teaching me that important life lesson, she also helped me understand the importance of making the most of my physical capabilities because she quite obviously couldn’t walk or crawl, she couldn’t sit up on her own or feed herself and there was a lot of spasticity in her body which was quite confronting visually,” she explained.

“She taught me that if you can run, do it, if you can walk, do it and to just be humble and have respect for life and the gifts that are there for you.

1993: Cathy Freeman of Australia in action during the 200 Metres event at the 1993 Panasonic AAA Championships in Birmingham, England. Mandatory Credit: Gray Mortimore/Allsport

“The life of an athlete can be incredibly selfish but also in a sense, quite selfless because when you have a guiding light or higher purpose in life, that gives other people an example of possibility.

“It’s a way of being able to teach focus and resilience because when you’ve got that inspiration in the background, people can understand why there is so much real determination and Anne-Marie continues to be an amazing presence in my life.”

As she ran for her sister, her family and her people, Freeman’s star continued to rise.

She contested her second Olympic Games, Atlanta 1996 where she won silver in the 400 m and ahead of Sydney 2000, she was the back-to-back World Champion in the event, but just a couple of years prior, she wanted to give up the sport altogether.

“It was about three years before Sydney and I really did feel like giving up,” Freeman said.

“I was in a haze and I felt all over the shop because I’d gone through some hard times but I had the common sense to listen to my race planner at the time.

“We talked and I listened, I trusted in what he was recommending to me and I ended up feeling really proud of myself for opening up.

“I went against all the things I was telling myself about giving up and I think that takes a lot of courage and a lot of belief in yourself and trust in people who support you.

“It’s when those moments that are the hardest and you know that you somehow moved through it and overcome it and gone against all the negative self-talk, they’re the ones you’re most proud of and that’s my proudest moment right there, three years before Sydney.

29 Jul 1996: Cathy Freeman of Australia recovers after finishing the women’s 400 meters final at the Centennial Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. Mandatory Credit: Todd Warshaw/ALLSPORT

“It was very character building and I actually went on to win my first World Title which was such a confidence booster and it just really set me up to win in Sydney.”

Prior to Sydney 2000, the noise surrounding Freeman had gone from a quiet whisper to a deafening roar so no one was surprised when she was asked to light the cauldron at the Games, except for Freeman herself.

“I remember when Coatesy (John Coates) asked me to do the honours of lighting the Olympic cauldron, I was really taken aback,” Freeman said.

“I was struggling to come to terms with it, because I just felt that there were other people who were so deserving of the honour.

“I said ‘You want me?’ – that was my reaction, but when I recognised that John was very serious, I was just so honoured, and I happily accepted.”

When Freeman lit the cauldron, she did it not for herself, but for all of those who ever felt like they couldn’t.

378396 10: Aboriginal Australian Cathy Freeman holds the Olympic torch prior to lighting the Olympic flame September 15, 2000 during the opening ceremonies of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Al Bello/Allsport)

It was for the children on Palm Island who believed that greatness was out of their reach, it was for all Indigenous people who had ever experienced their own version of not being awarded a trophy and it was for people like Anne-Marie, who never had the opportunity to walk, let alone run.

The pressure on Freeman leading into Sydney 2000 was enormous. The stories of ‘Freeman wins gold at Sydney’ had already been written before the Games had even begun, but the only pressure Freeman was concerned with, was her own.

“I actually put a lot of pressure on myself and all of that pressure was a choice,” she said.

“It was something I’d become quite accustomed to, bearing in mind that I was only little when I started running then I was 16 when I’m made my first senior national team, so I was kind of used to having these expectations.

“I actually thrived in knowing that people believed in my ability, it was just like a warm blanket, but certainly when Sydney 2000 rolled around, I had grown into an athlete where the only expectations that mattered were my own, I’d become shaped that way.”

Freeman also said that going into the race, her biggest concern wasn’t how or if she was going to win, it was how she was going to present herself when she did win.

“I remember going into the race, I had a sense that there was going to be a lot of drama around my competition so I did what my instincts told me to do and I had to practice the one thing that petrified me the most,” she explained.

26 Aug 1999: The photographers capture Cathy Freeman of Australia after she won the 400m event during the World Athletics Championships held at the Estadio Olimpico in Seville, Spain. Mandatory Credit: /Allsport

“That was getting comfortable with accepting gold on the Olympic dais.

“Because I’m in essence, a very shy and low-key person I practiced it at home, stepping up on the dais, receiving my gold medal and acknowledging the Olympic crowd. I had to get comfortable with that whole scene in my mind and if I wanted to win, I had to be ready in that sense.

“I remember the words came into my mind, ‘Just do what you know,’ and that centred me immediately and I could’ve been that little girl from years before, just doing what made me happy and trusting myself,” she continued.

“Having that trust dissolves all the tension in your body and the mystery because when you’re familiar with your vision, your desire or your dream, it allows you to just sink into what you need to do to achieve it.

“When it came to the actual running, I had so much belief in myself and the technical aspect of the race itself, that it was more about just managing the outside stuff,” Freeman explained.

The 110,000-strong home crowd roared as Freeman took off her warm-up tracksuit to reveal her skin suit, specially designed with Freeman to be the ultimate speed machine.

Covered from head to toe in silver, green and gold and the colours of the Aboriginal flag carrying her feet, Freeman was expected to make history.

No Indigenous Australian had ever won Olympic gold in Athletics and the last Australian woman to win a 400m Olympic gold medal was Betty Cuthbert at Tokyo 1964.

Freeman had the expectation of an entire nation on her shoulders.

The cheers of over a hundred thousand sent vibrations through the stadium, but as she lined up in lane six, the 27-year-old was a picture of steely concentration.

The starting pistol rang out through the stadium with Freeman fourth out of the blocks.

For the first 250 metres, she was holding steady in third place and as they headed into the straight, it was as though time slowed down.

As each millisecond ticked by, fans and media grew anxious, why isn’t Cathy in first place, there was less than 150 metres to go?

Then, it was as though she found another gear.

Freeman effortlessly rocketed past Lorraine Graham and Katherine Merry at a speed that made it look like holding back was part of her plan the entire race.

At Sydney Olympic Stadium, Cathy Freeman became Australia’s first-ever Indigenous Athletics Olympic Champion and the first Australian woman to win an individual track event in 36 years.

Her dais practice had paid off and unlike her experiences as a schoolgirl, this time she would be rightfully awarded gold.

“I remember I said to myself as I was mid-air, crossing the finish line, ‘So this is what it feels like to be an Olympic Champion,’ and it was such a wonderful feeling because you spend so much of your life being so dedicated.

“In essence, it took me 17 years to get to the point where I won this Olympic gold medal and it was just such a sweet moment.”

Freeman sat down on the track and for a moment looked as though she had the weight of the world on her shoulders.

25 Sep 2000: Cathy Freeman of Australia after winning gold in the Women’s 400m final held at Olympic Stadium during the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, Sydney, Australia. Mandatory Credit: Andy Lyons/ALLSPORT

When asked what was going through her head at the time, she said although the lustre of Olympic glory was more than she could’ve dreamed of, she wishes she had run faster.

“Every time I’ve been in the zone in a high-pressure competition, I haven’t really been aware of what was going on when it came to the sound or what was going on in the crowd, but Sydney was really different because I felt everybody in the closing stages of my 400 metre race,” she explained.

“As soon as I took the headwear off, the noise and the atmosphere was so incredible, nothing could have prepared me for it, so I think it took me a while to take in.

“But there was also a second of me being really disappointed in my time of 49:11. I was just really annoyed that I didn’t get under 49 seconds,” Freeman continued.

“I would have been really happy if I’d run 48 seconds and it still grates at me. I know that makes me sound really ungrateful, but I’m not, I am very grateful, but as an athlete it’s just in my nature to be a perfectionist so I would’ve loved to have run that bit faster.

“I think that annoyance comes because I knew I had it in me to run faster, but at the end of the day being an Olympic Champion is something I feel very, very good about.”

Freeman hung up her spikes in 2003, but her passion to see other Indigenous kids succeed the same way she has, plays out in the work she does with her charity, the Cathy Freeman Foundation.

Even to this day, the shy girl from Mackay is still overwhelmed knowing just how much of an impact running on a tartan track has had on so many people.

25 Sep 2000: Cathy Freeman of Australia celebrates after winning gold in the Women’s 400m final held at Olympic Stadium during the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, Sydney, Australia. Mandatory Credit: Nick Wilson/ALLSPORT
Through her determination to not only be the world’s greatest athlete, but to stand up and proudly represent her heritage, she brought an entire nation together and proved that no matter who you are or where you come from, everyone has the right to pursue their dreams.

“Hearing that I have inspired people, still catches me off guard,” Freeman said. “I feel really honoured.

“Knowing that I represent something reachable and something possible just makes me really happy.”

Freeman’s advice to those seeking Olympic glory is to ensure you are strong in yourself and your identity.

“This is a journey not for the faint-hearted, it’s for those who are strong in will, strong in determination and strong in their identity.

“The sense of knowing who you are and who you belong to.

“There are a lot of sacrifices along the way and it’s for those who can withstand pressures while also being able to lean on others and lock into the support that is there for you.”

Originally published for

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