Cathy Freeman after her famous victory in the 400m at the Sydney Olympics.
Cathy Freeman after her famous victory in the 400m at the Sydney Olympics.

‘Will you still love me if I lose?’: Cathy’s moment of doubt

Even heroes must have heroes. Cathy Freeman inspired Australia but who inspired her?

It's a rich, emotive story which stretches all the way back to Freeman's childhood in Mackay, one which gained a withering focus the day Cathy struggled to find motivation to get out of bed to train.

"Your sister can't walk or talk … you have got two good arms and legs - go out and use them,'' Freeman's mother said firmly to Cathy.

Cathy was stung but also stirred. She jumped out of bed and vowed never to complain about training again.

Freeman called her older sister Anne-Marie "my guardian angel.''

Anne-Marie was born with severe cerebral palsy and Cathy would often get to see her only a handful of times a year after a three-hour train trip to a hospital in Rockhampton.

Anne-Marie died of an asthma attack in 1990, three days after younger sister won a gold medal at the Auckland Commonwealth Games but her inspiration lived on.

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The moment Cathy Freeman became an Olympic champion.
The moment Cathy Freeman became an Olympic champion.

 

From that point Freeman dedicated her journey to Anne-Marie and perpetuated her memory by making Anne the second name of her daughter Ruby.

If Freeman had one regret about her night of glory when she won the 400m at the Sydney Olympics it was that the person who inspired her was not there.

A few weeks after the Games, when the cheering had stopped and she was allowed to escape the bubble a loving nation had placed around her, Cathy made a special trip to her sister's grave, placed some flowers at her headstone said "Anne-Marie I did it for you.''

Freeman claimed whenever her journey became tough and the pressure became greatest over the previous decade she thought of her sister and it gave her strength.

And the pressure did become great …

THE BIG NIGHT

"Will you still love me if I lose?''

Those were the last words Freeman spoke to her coach Peter Fortune before being shepherded into the athlete's zone to prepare for her gold medal winning race.

Despite winning 41 of her last 42 400m races and being an obvious favourite, a tiny sliver of doubt seeped into her thought processes. It caught Fortune by surprise but he gently swatted it away.

"There was just that little fraction of doubt, the first she had shown to that point,'' Fortune said.

"Those words were serious. It was not a joke. But I said to her "it won't matter … you won't lose. She just had such a great temperament. She could handle anything.' '

All this from a girl who was so shy when she had her first race as an eight-year-old in Mackay she hid in the toilets beforehand and, as later revealed in her autobiography Born To Run, only came out when her teacher Mrs Bauldry said "Catherine your race is on … NOW.''

Her night of glory was so big it got its own name … Freeman.

Fans would say they had "Freeman'' tickets in the way they might have said the same of Springsteen or Oasis.

Cathy Freeman in action.
Cathy Freeman in action.

THE DOMINATOR

A strange thing happened in Freeman's 400m victory. The awe-inspiring lady who was the focus of a nation devoured the pressure like it was a pre-race snack but what about the women who chased her home?

This was a rare night where the slipstream and the shadows had a more scorching presence than the spotlight.

Maybe it was Freeman's recent form or the sights and thunderous sounds of 112,000 fans. Maybe it was the aura of her new super suit which made her look like Wonder Woman in spikes.

But just as Usain Bolt was shocked no-one took him on in the Olympic 200m final in Rio, the magnificent, imperious Freeman was waiting for a red hot challenge that never arrived. She was third on the turn before floating to victory.

"I was surprised nobody forced it, pushed it a bit,'' Freeman told Mark Howard in The Howie Games.

"I was surprised Lorraine Graham didn't go ahead but in that moment people are hesitant because no-one realty committed against me. Nobody really believed they could beat me.

"When I look back at the footage nobody really believed they could win and I think shows because the pace at which I was running when I was back in the field … it should not have been that way. For a real contest there should have been more of a fight earlier.''

THE CALL OF CALLS

Some commentators can suck up a lot of oxygen telling us nothing. Olympic silver medallist Raelene Boyle took just over a second to put an iconic performance in a perfectly sculptured three-word nutshell.

Main caller Bruce McAvaney was suitably grandiose when he roared "this is a famous victory. A magnificent performance. What a legend. What a champion …''

Then, as if to pluck us from the fluffy clouds and reacquaint us with the gritty, underlying essence of the moment, Boyle chimed in with "What a relief."

Relief indeed. For Freeman, Boyle, McAvaney, Australia, the Games.

No-one wanted to say it but everyone knew it. If Freeman won, the Games could not fail. If she lost they could never be perfect.

"Those three words just came out naturally - a combination of listening to what Bruce had said and what I was seeing with Cathy,'' Boyle told News Corp.

"I could just see through her shoulders, her demeanour - everything - the overwhelming emotion was just sheer relief. It was over. I won. It went right.

"No Australian athlete has ever known the pressure Cathy faced that night. People like me could just run. She was the pin-up. An indigenous woman. A duel world championship winner who had fascinated the country for so long.''

 

THE LEGACY

When Freeman raced across the line into Games folklore a 14-year-old schoolgirl sat entranced in front of her television on the Gold Coast suddenly convinced of her life's calling.

"When I saw Cathy run I knew from that moment I wanted to be a world champion,'' Sally Pearson, a 2012 London Olympics hurdles gold medallist, told News Corp.

"I wasn't even sure what event I was going to go in but I knew I wanted to be the best.

"It was not the fact she won - everyone thought she was going to win - it was how she won. She was so focused. She was going to Sydney to win. She inspired me to find out how I can be the best athlete in the world.''

Australia's Indigenous basketball star Patty Mills, who so admired the way Freeman was a trail-blazing campaigner for Indigenous Australia with great commitment without ever sacrificing her natural grace, was another deeply touched by the moment.

"She was my role model because of how she carried herself as an Indigenous woman,'' Mills said.

"I wanted to be like her - a very down to earth person who just went about her business the best way she knew she could and that's by representing Aboriginal people here in Australia.''

Which she continues to do. Two decades after her run Freeman remains Australia's best and least known athlete. This past week she has been everywhere and nowhere.

Mysterious and dignified all the way, she has never yearned for the spotlight and quickly vacated it after retiring.

"I'm a shy girl who makes my natural choices," she recently News Corp.

"The next thing, I find myself in places I wouldn't have possibly imagined."

Cathy Freeman in the moments after her win. Picture: David Caird
Cathy Freeman in the moments after her win. Picture: David Caird

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