SIOM #19: The Aspirational Australian Aboriginal

Catherine Astrid Salome “Cathy” Freeman was born on 16 February 1973, the third of five children,  to a family subjected not only to limited financial means but, being Aboriginal, no small measure of prejudice. Her early family life was unstable as her father, a skilledQueenslandfootball player, became increasingly estranged from her mother, distancing himself both physically (through his career) and emotionally (through his alcoholism). When Cathy was five, her father left the family home and was replaced by a lodger who would ultimately become Cathy’s stepfather.

Freeman discovered her talent for running at an early age, winning a gold medal at a school athletics championship when she was 8 years old. Unfortunately, even as a youngster, she encountered prejudice. She recalls winning a primary school athletics competition only to look on as the white girls she had beaten received trophies, one of which was rightfully hers. Freeman’s desire to ultimately win an Olympic gold medal was born.

Cathy was coached by her stepfather until 1989, at which point she accepted an athletic scholarship to Kooralbyn International School, where she received professional coaching. The benefits followed shortly thereafter – the following year Freeman, as a member of the 4x100m relay team at the Commonwealth Games, became the first female Australian Aboriginal to win a gold medal at an international athletics event. Her great triumph suddenly met with personal tragedy as, shortly after returning to Australia her sister, who had been born with cerebral palsy, died. Freeman later said, “I ran because she couldn’t. I’ve got two arms and two legs and it’s my duty to use them.” And use them she did.

In 1991 Freeman was presented with the Young Australian of the Year award and, a year later, became the first Australian Aboriginal to represent Australia at an Olympic Games. While her performance there was disappointing (she failed to qualify for the 400m semi finals and was part of the 4x400m relay team that placed seventh) the experience had been invaluable. In addition to the disappointment surrounding her performance inBarcelona, Freeman soon had to contend with the sudden death of her father, who had a stroke while she was inLondon. She was unable to secure a flight home in time for the funeral.

A promising career threatened to burn brightly but fade early, as Cathy waited four years since her Commonwealth Games 400m gold medal in 1990 to finally secure another international gold medal, which came at the 1994 Commonwealth Games (and was joined by a 200m gold medal). She met with some success in the relay events too, earning silver in the 4x100m and placing first in the 4x400m (although this team was subsequently disqualified). With her performances at the 1994 Commonwealth Games, Freeman attracted the world’s attention and, with her victory lap trademark of carrying both the Australian and Aboriginal flags, courted stern criticism from some quarters.

By the time Freeman lined up at the start of the 400m final at the Atlanta Games, she was recognised as one of the world’s best (although her fourth place at the 1995 World Championships had been disappointing). Her main competition was Marie-Jose Perec, a formidable athlete who lined up as 400m Olympic defending champion and who won the 200m gold medal at the Barcelona Games. She was also reigning 400m European Champion (1994) and double 400m World Champion (1991 and 1995). Freeman, while certainly a contender, would have to overcome the biggest challenge of her life to win the gold medal she had been dreaming of since childhood.

In the final, Freeman broke the Australian 400m record and recorded the event’s sixth fastest time ever. Perec had had to run an Olympic record, and the third fastest time in history, to beat her. Freeman was far from finished, and made this emphatically clear with a victory over Perec in the month following the 1996 Games, as well as gold medals in the 1997 and 1999 World Championships.

While Perec had been favourite four years earlier, by the time the 2000 Games began in Sydney, Freeman had stamped her authority on the event and established herself as the athlete to beat. As if her position as favourite, demands of the home crowd and expectations of an entire ethnicity were not enough, Freeman was given the added pressure of lighting the flame at the opening ceremony. While the identity of the final torchbearer was kept secret, few expected the honour to be given to her, for never before had a current competitor lit the Olympic torch.

On 25 September 2000, the nation who had waited expectantly, and the athlete who had won her first gold medal almost twenty years earlier, finally had the their answer.

Freeman had achieved her childhood dream and Australia’s 100th Olympic gold medal, breaking Perec’s Olympic record in the process. Many had eagerly anticipated a showdown between these two athletes at the 2000 Games. In the event, Perec left the Games before the final, citing extreme media pressure. Perec’s pair of gold medals from the 1996 Games would prove the last of her international victories. Freeman, conversely, was undefeated in international individual events from her Olympic gold in 2000 to her retirement in 2003. Indeed, between August 1996 and March 2003, Freeman won forty six of forty seven 400m races, the sole defeat partly attributable to a foot injury.

Today Freeman continues to inspire children and budding athletes, as a motivational speaker and the founder of the Freeman Foundation, which she started in 2007 to “bridge the education gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children and provide pathways to success”, envisioning “An Australia where Indigenous and non-Indigenous children have the same education standards and opportunities in life”. The Foundation currently supports around six hundred children of school-going age.

Cathy’s middle names, respectively, mean “star” and “peace”. Her surname has an all too obvious meaning. While her first name means “pure” – I venture to suggest that it’s merely another way of spelling “iconic heroine”.

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