CATHERINE ASTRID SALOME FREEMAN OAM (16 Feb 1973 – )
Cathy Freeman was born in Mackay, Queensland and began athletics at a young age, first coached by her stepfather Bruce Barber.
In the 1988 National All-Schools Championships, Cathy first sprang to wider notice, finishing third in both sprints in the under 17 age group. The next year she was awarded a scholarship to the Kooralbyn International School where she linked-up with coach, Mike Danila.
At 16 years of age, Cathy ran in the Commonwealth Games Selection Trials in Sydney in December 1989 and surprised everyone by tying Kath Sambell for third in the 100 metres in 11.42 and placing fifth in the 200 metres. A week later in Adelaide, she became national under 17 all-schools champion in the 100 and 200 metres and hurdles. She was selected for the 4x100 metres relay in Auckland and with team-mates Sambell, Monique Dunstan and Kerry Johnson, she won gold in 43.87.
Soon after at the 1990 Nationals in Melbourne, Cathy won the 200 metres in 23.59 and was second in the 100. Later she moved to Melbourne with manager Nic Bideau and began being coached by Peter Fortune who then guided most of her international career.
Cathy continued to show signs of promise when she competed in the 1990 World Junior Championships in Plovdiv, Bulgaria where she finished fifth in the 200 metres in 23.61 and was a member of the relay team which also placed fifth.
At the end of the year she was only second in the sprints at the All-Schools Nationals but came back strongly to tie for first in the 1991 National 200 metres in 23.50. She was selected for the 1991 World Championships as a relay emergency but did not run.
The move to 400 metres was then made and quickly brought rewards - by finishing third in the event in 52.90 at the 1992 Nationals in Adelaide, she was selected in the squad for that year’s Barcelona Olympics. There she was far from disgraced, being eliminated in the strongest of the quarter-finals in 51.52 and contributing well in the relay team which finished seventh in 3.26.42.
A month later in Seoul, Korea at the World Junior Championships Cathy won her first individual international medal, a silver in the 200 metres in 23.25.
The 1993 Nationals in Brisbane was really the beginning of the magnificent track rivalry between Cathy and Melinda Gainsford, Cathy finishing second over 200 metres in a quality 22.67. A week later both were off to Toronto, Canada for in the World Indoor Championships but a disqualification for a lane infringement for Cathy made it a less than enjoyable experience for her.
The World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany in August provided a better outcome for Cathy, missing the 200 metres final by just one spot after a slick 22.58 in her semi final.
At the 1994 Nationals in Sydney Cathy turned the tables on Melinda, winning the 200 metres in 22.75 after being beaten in the 100 metres by the visiting US Olympic champion Gwen Torrence, 11.46 to 11.52.
One of Australia’s great hopes for the Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada Cathy came through with flying colors winning both 200 metres in 22.25 and the 400 metres in 50.38. Her lap of honour carrying both the Australian and Aboriginal flags brought censure from the ACGA but great support from the Australian public.
A silver medal came in the 4x100 metres but only more controversy in the longer relay. Running last, Cathy was boxed in and in pushing her way out caused Australia’s disqualification after crossing the line first.
Cathy won the 1995 national 400 metres in 50.94 in Sydney but lost her 200 metres title to Melinda. The year’s World Championships were in Goteborg, Sweden and Cathy was among the favorites in the 400 metres. She came into the final turn level with Marie-Jose Perec (France) but 1992 Olympic champion pulled away to win in 49.28. Cathy had gone out too fast and was pushed back to fourth by the line. It, however, proved to be a lesson well-learned for the future.
In the 200 metres both Cathy and Melinda finished fifth in their semis, but a medal beckoned in the 4x400 metres relay and teaming with Lee Naylor and Renee Poetschka a bronze was duly delivered, due in no small part to Cathy’s gritty 49.57 anchor leg.
Armed with the Goteborg experience, Cathy prepared herself for the big clash with Perec at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and began the year by winning the 100/200 metres double at the Nationals in Sydney. In the Atlanta 400 metres final, Perec went through 300 in 35 with Cathy right behind her in 35.1, managing to stay with Perec until the last 25 metres when the Frenchwoman’s longer legs pulled her clear to win in 48.25 to Cathy’s eventual lifetime best of 48.63.
Cathy won the 1997 national 400 metres in Melbourne in 52.09 but it was again Melinda’s turn in the 200. By mid-year, Cathy was again in great form as she got ready for the World Championships in Athens, Greece.
Despite misjudging her semi and ending up in lane one in the final, Cathy was now a very seasoned runner and ran a controlled race from the inside. Seventh at the 200 metres she made her move around the bend and finally worked her way past her then training partner, Jamaican Sandie Richards to win the first of her two world titles in 49.77.
Cathy was Australian of the Year in 1998 and retained her 400 metres title at the Nationals in Melbourne but missed the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur due to injury.
She competed in her second World Indoor Championships in Maebashi, Japan in 1999 and brought her 4x400 metres relay team of Susan Andrews, Tania Van Heer and Tamsyn Lewis into second place in 3.26.87. She returned to Melbourne and again won the 400 metres at the Nationals, this time in 50.04.
The World Championships in 1999 were in the searing heat of Seville, Spain but Cathy ran magnificently to retain her 400 metres title in 49.67.
Cathy started 2000, the most important year of her athletic career, by winning the national 200 and 400 metres crowns in Sydney in 22.78 and 50.00 but that was the easy bit.
Carrying the weight of the nation on her shoulders, Cathy was awarded the honor of lighting flame at the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Olympics. Ten days later, in a packed stadium of over 112,000 people and wearing a now legendary full body suit she collected the ultimate prize. Taking the lead 75 metres from home Cathy Freeman held off her challengers to win Olympic gold by four metres in 49.11.
Never afraid of a challenge, Cathy returned to the Hombush stadium to contest the 200 metres, finishing seventh in the final in 22.53 and then ran a brilliant 49.35 anchor leg of the 4x400 metres relay to bring the team home in sixth place in a new Australian record of 3.23.81.
Cathy took a break in 2001 which included nursing husband Sandy Bodecker through illness, but returned to the track briefly in 2002 for what proved to be the final stanza of a great career. At the Commonwealth Games in Manchester. she ran only the 4x400 metres relay but her strong second leg of 51.3 helped Lauren Hewitt, Tamsyn Lewis and Jana Pittman to the gold medal in 3.25.63. She contemplated continuing her athletic career but announced her retirement in 2003.
Amongst many other accolades, Cathy was, in 2001, awarded the Olympic Order from the IOC. She also received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award the same year.
Cathy was an extraordinary athlete who could compete under enormous pressure. She was always determined whether competing at inter-club, a domestic grand prix or at an international meeting. Her victory from scratch over 400 metres at the Stawell Gift Carnival remains one of the truly magic moments of the century-old event.
Cathy Freeman set a fine example and a very high standard for any athlete to follow. She proudly represented her country as well as her indigenous people.
Acknowledgements: Paul Jenes – “Fields of Green, Lanes of Gold”, Paul Jenes & Peter Hamilton – “Australian Athletics Results”; Mark Butler – “9th IAAF World Indoor Championships, IAAF Statistics Handbook”; “10th IAAF World Cup Athletics, IAAF Statistics Handbook”; “11th World Junior Championships in Athletics, IAAF Statistics Handbook”; “IAAF Statistics Handbook, Berlin 2009”; Wikipedia; Athletics Australia Handbook of Records and Results