Cathy Freeman after winning the 400m at the 1997 IAAF World Championships (© Getty Images)
Cathy Freeman had a wonderful 1997 season and her World Championship gold medal represented the first ever won by an Australian Aboriginal. But, as LEN JOHNSON reports, although Freeman was born with sport in her blood, she has covered a lot of ground to get to the top
Cathy Freeman has vivid memories of her first pair of track spikes. So, too, has a now anonymous housewife in Apsley, a suburb to the north of Brisbane. Let’s call her "Mrs Smith."
Eight-year-old Cathy Freeman, in Brisbane for the Queensland state primary schools’ titles, was billetted to stay with "Mrs Smith.’’ Freeman arrived with her first set of spikes in her case. No longer able to contain the urge to try them out, she donned the shoes and went for a sprint along the hallway.
To Cathy’s embarrassment, and "Mrs Smith’s’’ consternation, great chunks of the carpet followed Freeman to the front door.
I don’t know if "Mrs Smith’’ kept that piece of carpet but, if she did, it will now be worth a lot. A strip of carpet damaged by an over-eager kid is one thing; one ripped up by the feet of a world champion is entirely different.
The carpet story is just one of many from a childhood which saw Cathy Freeman living in several different Queensland towns, educated at several different schools, playing many sports, but always finding a place for her first love, running.
Both Cathy’s father, Norman Freeman, and mother, Cecilia, were full-blood Aborigines. Queensland, the northernmost state on Australia’s populous east coast, is passionate about rugby, especially rugby union. Like many Aboriginals, Norman Freeman was skilled at the game founded in England’s great private schools over 100 years earlier, his great speed earning him the nickname "Twinkletoes.’’
Norman and Cecilia split up when Cathy was five. A year later, Cecilia remarried. Cathy’s stepfather, Bruce Barber, worked for the Queensland Railways, a job that took him all around the vast state. At the age of eight, Cathy was living in Mackay, and even joined her first athletic club, the Slade Point club. Another member was 1982 Commonwealth javelin champion Sue Howland.
Within a year or so, Cathy was living in Hughenden, a small town near Mt Isa, one of Australia’s great mining towns. After another couple of years it was back to Maura, another small town near Mackay.
All the time, Cathy was running. She would run with her brothers - on a football oval, on sawdust running tracks, along sandy riverbanks - but always running.
"We’d ride or walk everywhere,’’ Freeman recalls. "And anywhere we lived we’d be doing sports - netball (a game like basketball), touch football, athletics.
"Our stepfather used to take us down to the local oval, and we’d have races against each other.’’
Sometimes Cathy would just run for the sake of it. "I remember once running 10-12 laps of the track at Mackay,’’ she says. Perhaps that explains her quite natural endurance, a quality that comes in handy for early-morning sessions on Melbourne’s 4-kilometre Tan track (so named because it circles the city’s Botanical Gardens). Her London home backs onto Bushy Park, and Freeman has been known to complete the occasional 7-mile circuit there.
Bruce Barber recognised and fostered the talent of his step-daughter. As a railways employee, he was entitled to free travel, and he used his pass to take young Cathy around the state for competition. She won her first state primary school age group championship at the age of seven or eight.
Soon, Freeman was travelling interstate. She first came to Melbourne to represent Queensland at the Pacific School Games at the age of 10. As well as her sprinting, she did hurdles and high jump. Even in her late teens, Freeman won the hurdles in the Australian Schools’ Championships, while her younger brother Norman won a sprint double.
Freeman grew up surrounded by lots of kids who excelled at sport. Some of them went on, others faded into obscurity. It was an eclectic mix - Aborigines, Torres Strait islanders, Fijians, whites. Wendell Sailor, a top rugby league player for the Brisbane Broncos club, and Australian hockey forward Baeden Choppy (both Torres Strait islanders) are two she remembers.
By the time she entered secondary school, Cathy Freeman’s athletic talent was beginning to take her places. Her first high school was in Mackay, but she advanced to boarding schools, the Fairholme Presbyterian Girls’ College, at Toowoomba, near Brisbane, and the Kooralbyn International School on the Gold Coast hinterland, on sporting scholarships.
As a kid, Bruce Barber was Cathy’s coach. At Kooralbyn, she came to the attention of Mike Danila, a Romanian who had emigrated to Australia and taught at the school. Danila introduced her to intense training for the first time. She trained every day, mostly doing endurance sprints and strides.
Danila recognised Freeman’s ability. "He was always harder on me,’’ Freeman recalls. "Some of the others had days off, but I wasn’t allowed to miss training.’’
Except for one occasion. It was Freeman’s last day at the school. Together with a friend, she decided that this landmark warranted a night off . "Mike came looking for us,’’ Freeman remembers with a laugh, "so we hid in a cupboard.’’ The coach assumed the miscreants must be down by the river. "He climbed straight over the barbed wire fence. We could hear him yelling for us,’’ Freeman says.
Danila’s coaching took the 16-year-old Freeman into the 1990 Commonwealth Games team, where she won a gold medal in the sprint relay team. She was only the second Aboriginal (and first woman) to win a Commonwealth gold medal in athletics. Seven years later, she would be the second Australian (first Aboriginal, and first woman) to win a world championships gold medal.
At the Commonwealth Games, she met Nick Bideau, a Melbourne journalist who would become her partner and manager. She was also influenced by many older athletes. "I still didn’t know what it took to be a top athlete, but I decided it would be great to be like Debbie Flintoff-King, Deek (Robert de Castella), Steve Moneghetti and Darren Clark.’’
Little over a year later, Freeman moved to Melbourne to live with Bideau. She met Raelene Boyle, and at first was coached by the former Australian sprint champion. But neither was completely comfortable with the arrangement. So Bideau consulted with several trusted friends before asking Peter Fortune, a former club sprinter with a growing coaching reputation, to take over.
Thus began a network of relationships which would take Freeman to a Commonwealth Games 200/400m double, an Olympic silver medal and, finally, a world championships gold medal in the 400m. The third member of the team was Maurie Plant (a member of the IAAF’s Grand Prix Commission) whose knowledge of the international athletics circuit is second-to-none.
Cathy’s ambitions developed gradually. "I never really decided at one point that I wanted to be a champion. It was more that at each stage I decided that I didn’t want to miss out.’’
Cathy went to the 1991 world championships in Tokyo as a relay squad member, but did not get to run. "I was determined then never to miss (individual) selection again.’’
At the next championships, in Stuttgart, Freeman finished fifth in her 200 metres semi-final. This time the resolution was that she would never miss another final.
The results of the past two years are well-known, but Freeman’s world championships gold medal came at a cost. Earlier in 1997, her rock-solid relationships came under considerable pressure as she and Bideau ended their personal (but not business) partnership.
It was even rumored that Freeman wanted to retire. "I would never give away athletics,’’ she said in Zurich before the Weltklasse meeting, "but there were times when I almost gave this year away.’’
As Freeman told the medallists’ press conference in Athens: "This year has really tested me, not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well.’’
Freeman’s narrow win, ironically over her Jamaican friend Sandie Richards with whom she had spent the previous three weeks training, demonstrated both her ability and fighting heart. It was a win to savour, one that did not appear possible at many times through the year.
After her narrow win in Athens was finally confirmed, Cathy Freeman took a two-sided flag on her mini-lap of honor (she was too tired for a full one).
On one side was the Australian flag; the other face was the Aboriginal flag. Designed in the 1970s when Aboriginal land rights issues were forcing their way into the national consciousness, the flag has three colors. Black is for the people, red for the land, while the yellow circle in the flag’s centre represents the sun.
While not overtly political, Freeman has a growing sense of her Aboriginal identity. She first paraded the double-sided flag at the 1994 Commonwealth Games, where she won the 200/400 metres double. Some criticism was voiced then, but both the prime minister, Paul Keating, and the leader of the opposition supported her.
There is a growing public awareness of, and sympathy for, Aboriginal issues in Australia. The country is once again grappling with the complex issue of land rights and, despite the election of a conservative government. there is a prospect for full reconciliation in the coming years.
As one of Australia’s most successful sportspeople, Freeman embodies that spirit of reconciliation. Sport has always been the area in which Aboriginal people have been most successful in expressing themselves. There has been a recent influx of Aboriginal players into the national Australian Rules football competition, regarded as the most positive development in the game for many years.
Freeman said there was never a question of not carrying the Aboriginal flag in Athens: "What a pleasant surprise to see those beautiful colours. How could I stand by and not take it? I’m such a proud indigenous Australian.’’
Ironically though, early in November, Freeman received an open letter from a group of Aboriginal elders urging her not to run in the 2000 Olympic Games as a way of focusing attention on the increasingly bitter struggle between the Aboriginal people and the Australian government over land rights.
Len Johnson is a former 2:19 marathoner and the athletics correspondent for The Age, one of Melbourne’s two major dailies. He has covered five World Championships and two Olympics.