Date: July 21 2012
olding a cup of coffee in Melbourne, thinking about the torch she held 12 years ago in Sydney, Cathy Freeman puts herself back in the mind of the 27-year-old woman that she was.
For 17 years her goal was an Olympic gold medal. But the instant Freeman crossed the line ahead of Jamaican Lorraine Graham in the 400m final on September 25, 2000, she was on the one hand full, yet on the other hand void, when with one last winning lunge an aim that had defined her evaporated in its realisation.
A nation elevated an indigenous woman to hero status for winning a 49.11-second race that symbolised a flashpoint for 212 years of uncomfortable history. But while everyone else wanted to prolong the celebrations, the thing Freeman recalls wanting to do most as one Olympic feting rolled into another, was elope to South America and take up waitressing. Either that or join a circus.
''That's no joke,'' Freeman says more than a decade later, lowering the tone of her usually mellifluous voice.
''I wanted to be an Olympic champion. I wanted to be the best in my event. I didn't want to be someone who was put up on this pedestal. And I'm not complaining, but it just wasn't in my plan. I didn't want to be anyone's face of anything. I just wanted to run.
''I didn't really consider the meaning of the place that it would take in Olympic history, or Australian sporting history for that matter, or even Australian history.
''I wasn't looking for that position in peoples' mind.''
Twelve years ago feels like another age when Freeman, now 39, lists profound events that have happened even in the past 12 months. With husband James Murch, who stole her heart when she was closest to leaving Australia and trying on an apron, she has created life in Ruby who turned one two weeks ago. Freeman has mourned life lost too, with the passing of her brother and step-father in recent years. She has made a home. ''A really fun home,'' is how she describes it. ''A home to come home to and wake in every morning. That's good stuff.''
And there is something else she puts in the same life-defining category: ''The inception of the Cathy Freeman Foundation in 2007.'' This last item is not just a concept Freeman puts her name to. It is a job, a passion and calling. The foundation focuses its educational work on Palm Island, the historically troubled territory on Queensland's Great Barrier Reef and birthplace of Freeman's mother following her maternal great-grandparents' exile to the land mass in 1925. About 60 per cent of Palm's population is aged under 20. The average life expectancy is 50 - about 38 per cent lower than the state average - and there is about 90 per cent unemployment. Of the year 7 students on the island, nine out of 10 fail the minimum national literacy and numeracy standard; a statistic the foundation aims to change.
Young Catherine, as her mother and those close to her have always called her (''a journalist called me 'Cathy' without asking and it just stuck''), first visited Palm when she was about six. To her young eyes it was mysterious and very different to Mackay, where she grew up. When Freeman travels to Palm Island nowadays, she goes to mentor. Deliberately concentrating the foundation's efforts on one indigenous community, she makes regular trips and has already taken Ruby several times.
Working on Palm has given Freeman a familiar sensation of knowing precisely what she's on the planet to do. The same sensation she felt when she was a tunnel-visioned athlete. But this mission, she says, fulfils her infinitely more than sport did. It is a shared work in progress - Freeman maintains her 400m final was ''all about me for God's sake. I'm the one who wanted it for 17 years'' - and provides a more meaningful sense of achievement than any medal she has ever received.
Back in Melbourne, residents of the well-healed beachside suburb of Brighton are now familiar with the sight of a national icon and once-was world-beater carrying out the most ordinary of tasks. ''Basic things,'' Freeman says, which triggers a serious roll: ''Laundry, cleaning the kitchen, making sure Ruby's got fresh food. Then the grocery shopping, then going to the post office, then trying to pay attention to what's going on in your husband's life. And maintaining friendships, that's another big thing for us women, I'd go for weeks, months sometimes, without talking to girlfriends, but thankfully they call and they're fine. Then there's just trying to be organised. What am I going to wear for that event? I've got to make sure I have time to get my haircut, get waxed. And I like to go out dancing some time.'' Out dancing? Since Ruby?
''Oh my God yeah!'' she exclaims.
''Well, only once or twice.'' After gaining 20kg during her pregnancy - most of which she must have shed in a flash - Freeman is also preparing to run the New York marathon on November 4. She says she ''shuffles'' three times a week, including a long run on Sundays.
Motherhood was something Freeman dreamt of for years before she met Murch, a stockbroker by trade who now also works part-time for the AFL's Gold Coast Suns Football Club in recruitment. And while conceiving wasn't as swift and straightforward as the couple hoped, she has not been let down by the gift of life.
''I thought I'd had some pretty magnificent moments but that's as an individual,'' Freeman says.
''I think an experience like this, where you get to share it with who you just love so much, is different to a career because you kind of plan that to a point and you kind of aspire to it. But you can't aspire to this magic that takes place as a parent. It's just incredible.'' Ruby Anne Susie Murch - Anne for Freeman's late sister, and Susie for Murch's late mother - weighed just 2.6kg when she was born. Her breech position made for a very uncomfortable final stage of pregnancy for her mum and led to delivery by caesarean section.
Asked what her baby is like, Freeman says, ''She's a very funny little girl. She's a very active little girl. She was only a small baby, and she's still a lightweight, but she has the energy of 100 men.
''Our GP said that the way she reacted to having her immunisations of late, like last week, suggests she's tough … as a mum that's just nice to hear.'' Freeman describes her husband, who reaffirmed Freeman's faith in romantic love after the breakdown of her first marriage to Nike executive Alexander Boedecker, as ''one of the funny people I know''.
''Probably the funniest person. He surprises me a lot. With his sensitivity. With his thoughtfulness,'' she says.
''He's grounded. Really grounded. Pragmatic. And he's actually really, really romantic which is probably where he takes me by surprise the most.
''He stops me in my tracks and … he just makes life easier.'' When it's put to her that she seems to have hit a state of bliss, fulfilled personally and professionally, Freeman delights in the description. It's not as simple as saying she has lived two separate lives, though, because she wouldn't have the life she has now if she hadn't lived the other.
''The name Cathy Freeman draws people back to that event 12 years ago … that's what people remember me most for,'' she acknowledges.
In those unsettled years immediately after winning her gold medal, endless corporate opportunities presented and, for a period, Freeman committed to many of them though she didn't ever feel entirely at ease in the space. Now at the helm of a philanthropic mission, she has re-engaged very carefully with select companies who ''get it''.
There is only piece of Sydney Olympics memorabilia displayed in the couple's home, Freeman says: a photograph of the indigenous dance section of the opening ceremony, which was called ''The Awakening''. Freeman doesn't need reminding about what she did in front of 119,000 spectators, and countless more beyond the confines of the Olympic stadium. It still reverberates deep inside her. ''Have you ever stood by a jet on a runway?'' she asks, ''It's like that, but magnify it. MAG-NI-FY IT!''
The third Olympics since Sydney are about to begin and she is soon to spend four days in London. Her role in sporting and political history will again be reinforced, but as a woman now focused squarely on her daughter, husband and helping her people, Freeman is tuned into forces even bigger than all of that.
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