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Rediff.com  » Sports » Eight years on, Cathy Freeman still conquering new frontiers

Eight years on, Cathy Freeman still conquering new frontiers

Last updated on: January 13, 2011 21:26 IST

'I am proud of my indigenous heritage'

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Bikash Mohapatra

Bikash Mohapatra chats up with Australian athletics legend Cathy Freeman, event ambassador for the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon.

Apologies for being a bit philosophical at the very outset. But one can't help but admit life is full of surprises, in this case a pleasant one.

About six months back, as I made it to the national finals of a quiz competition, in each of the three rounds (in the lead-up) I encountered three different questions, all of which had the same answer -- the fact that I was aware of all the facets as regards the person in question, I got the answer right on all the three occasions.

Six months on, I found myself standing right in front of my answer. Then she had helped me in my quest to negotiate the various rounds; now, thanks to her help again, I am being able to write this piece.

Cathy Freeman, my correct answer then, was answering my questions now.

For starters, Freeman is an Australian athlete, who, at the Sydney Games (2000), became only the second Aboriginal Olympic champion when she won the 400m gold.

The first question was palpably on expected lines.

"I am proud of my indigenous heritage," said Freeman, in the city as the event ambassador for the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon.


Image: Cathy Freeman

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'The Cathy Freeman Foundation is my passion'

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Born in Mackay (Queensland), Freeman, despite the superlative success she had, never detached herself from her roots.

That probably explains the activities she is involved with at present.

"The Cathy Freeman Foundation is my passion," she said, adding, "I do everything I have to for it voluntarily.

"But I must say it here that it is a fantastic team."

The 37-year-old was visibly emotional while speaking about her endeavour.

"The foundation is based in my home state (Queensland), at Slade Point (Mackay) where my mother was born and I too spent much of my childhood," she explained, adding, "It is a bit disconnected from the rest of Australia.

"Having said that I must also admit that indigenous people have come a long way since 1957 -- when the Aboriginal people were awarded full citizens' rights.


Image: Cathy Freeman

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Freeman won her first medal in 1990

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Freeman, without doubt one of the most recognised faces among the indigenous people, was aware of her responsibility from an early age.

"I made a big promise to myself when I was a young girl, of upholding my heritage," she said.

"And I am proud that I have been able to do so," she added, before giving an elaborate explanation.

"From 1990 (Auckland Commonwealth Games), when I won my first major gold medal, to each time I went to participate at an international level, I wanted to treat each successful step as a moment of pride for my people," she said, thereby explaining her decision to carry both the Australian and the Aboriginal flags during her victory lap.

The athlete followed her Auckland achievement by winning the double (200m and 400m) at the subsequent Commonwealth Games at Victoria (1994).


Image: Cathy Freeman

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'The biggest high came at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996'

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However, it was the five-year stretch from 1996 (Atlanta Olympics) to 2000 (Sydney) that was arguably the best phase of her professional career. In the said period she was arguably the best female 400 m runner in the planet.

Asked to evaluate her performance during the period, Freeman became a tad circumspect.

"The biggest high came at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996," she replied, adding, "Even if I lost out on the gold medal to Marie-Jose Perec, it was an achievement to record my personal best against a competitor of her stature.

"I had great respect for her. So, it was kind of a breakthrough performance for me in terms of confidence."

Freeman followed her silver in Atlanta with successive gold medal wins at the World championships, in Athens (1997) and Seville (1999). 

"I rate the Olympics and the World Championships equally," she admitted, adding, "Each one is as important as the other. I needed to win the World championships as a lead-up to the Olympics.

"Olympics, of course is the pinnacle of sporting achievement. But you first need to get the experience to win there.

"And World championships helps you get that confidence. The extent of competition is the same in both the cases." 


Image: Cathy Freeman

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Freeman won her first Olympic gold at Sydney Olympics

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However, she attained her pinnacle in front of her home fans at Sydney when she comfortably won her first Olympic gold (after having lit the flame earlier on).

The win though wasn't completely satisfying her main rival, and the defending champion, Perec left the Games following an altercation with a photographer thereby nullifying the prospects of a heavyweight showdown.

Asked if Perec's sudden abandonment had reduced the level of satisfaction, Freeman was honest to the core.

"It definitely took some sheen away from my win," she admitted, before getting a tad nostalgic regarding that whole episode.

"I always thrived on competition, as it is something that gets the best possible performance of you," she explained, adding, "And suddenly my main competitor wasn't there.

"For a day or two I was very disappointed and upset. But then I assuaged myself by saying Marie-Jose is a great athlete and can win more."


Image: Cathy Freeman

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'I don't want to focus on the regrets in my life'

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Having won everything her sport had to offer, it is difficult to imagine Freeman having any regrets as regards her career. And she admits there weren't many lows in her professional career.

"The lows in that period were all personal but certainly not something that could take my attention away from my goals," she said, before refusing to elaborate further on the topic.

"I don't want to focus on the regrets in my life," she insisted, adding, "I wouldn't be who I am if not for those regrets.

"There are questions though that will always remain unanswered, like what would have happened if Marie-Jose had competed in Sydney?"


Image: Cathy Freeman

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'In Australia, I still enjoy a reasonably high platform'

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Freeman followed up her Sydney achievement with a relay gold (4x400m) at the Manchester Commonwealth Games (2002) before hanging up her boots a year later.

Eight years on, she is anything but an athlete.

"I am now struggling to maintain my fitness, especially if you compare it to the fitness levels I had as an aspiring Olympian," she admitted. "But I do try to maintain a balance," she added, as an afterthought.

So what is it that keeps her busy?

"In Australia, I still enjoy a reasonably high platform. People still like my company back home," she said, adding, "I am into some PR work, have some business interests apart from working for my foundation.

"Besides, I do a lot of community work."

There were a few other questions that I would have liked to ask. However, there was paucity of time, and alacrity among fellow-scribes.

However, I did manage to bid her adieu.

She smiled and waved at me even as she boarded her vehicle. I waved back and as the vehicle went past I realised what I had missed out on. 

Despite having got a chance to interact with Cathy Freeman, I had failed to express my gratitude. I had forgotten to say, 'Cathy, thank you for being my answer on so many occasions.'


Image: Cathy Freeman

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