Freeman feedson the pressure

Race of grace for golden gazelle

Cathy Freeman has come a long way since the afternoon her mother and stepfather were summoned to an urgent meeting at her Queensland school, Pioneer High in Mackay. The school's vocational guidance officer wished to express his concern about the 14-year-old Freeman's response when asked about her career intentions. "I want to win gold medals at the Olympic Games," she had told him.

Cathy Freeman has come a long way since the afternoon her mother and stepfather were summoned to an urgent meeting at her Queensland school, Pioneer High in Mackay. The school's vocational guidance officer wished to express his concern about the 14-year-old Freeman's response when asked about her career intentions. "I want to win gold medals at the Olympic Games," she had told him.

Thirteen years later, Freeman stands within two months of achieving her vocational goal. Beaten just once in four years of 400m racing, by a foot injury in Oslo four years ago, the one-time teenage wannabe is the clear favourite to win her event in the Olympic Stadium in Sydney on 25 September. She is such a strong favourite, in fact, it's difficult to imagine the Games without her expected golden home run on the track.

The scenario has, however, crossed Freeman's mind. "Whatever happens happens," she said, looking out on the London landscape from the top floor of the Park Lane Hilton. "That attitude comes naturally to me. I want to win, obviously, and if I were to get an Olympic gold medal in Sydney I think it would make me cry. But if I didn't win I wouldn't consider it to be a failure. I mean it wouldn't cause me to stop living in any way. Running isn't my whole life."

Freeman's horizons have always extended beyond the narrow confines of the running track. As a member of Australia's Aboriginal community, it was never likely to be any different, though the blows she has suffered in life's school of hard knocks have helped to place the winning and losing of foot-races into perspective. She was only five when her father - Norman "Twinkletoes" Freeman, a legend in Queensland rugby league - left home and her parents divorced. She was only 16 - and savouring her first international success, as a member of Australia's gold medal winning 4 x 100m relay team at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland - when her sister, Anne-Marie, died at the age of 24 of acute asthma.

In her homeland, however, it is nigh impossible for Cathy Freeman, the human being, to escape the shackles of her high-profile life as Cathy Freeman, the athlete. Even before she won her second world title in Seville last summer to start the countdown to Sydney as Australia's golden track and field hope for the Games, the pressure upon her was intense.

As the first Aboriginal athlete to make an international impact, she has long been a national icon - Young Australian of the Year in 1991 and Australian of the Year in 1998, the first person ever to achieve both governmental honours. When she returned from the Atlanta Olympics four years ago, after taking the silver medal in the 400m behind Marie-José Pérec, 50,000 letters awaited her. Just to get around the streets of Melbourne without bringing traffic to a standstill, she drives a car with tinted-glass windows. Not that she has been behind the wheel lately.

To escape "the pressure cooker" of home, Freeman has been on global walkabout since early May. After five weeks in Los Angeles with Maurice Greene, Ato Boldon and the John Smith sprinting school and a fortnight in Bath with Colin Jackson and his training group, she has settled in London to prepare for the Games. As a temporary resident of Kingston-upon-Thames and a high-speed patron of the Thames Valley Athletics Centre in Eton, she will findthe British grand prix at Crystal Palace next Saturday avirtual home meeting.

"I guess flying into Heathrow from Melbourne now, it is like a second home to me," Freeman mused. "I've been coming to London since 1992 and it's fantastic. I'm left alone. I can focus on my training. It's a fairly easy lifestyle. I feel really comfortable here. I like the fact that I'm not that well-known here."

Even from a distance of 11,000 miles, though, Freeman has still been big news back home. The courtroom battle she has been fighting with Nick Bideau, her former boyfriend and manager, has been front-page news, though the contract dispute - following Freeman's break from Bideau's Melbourne Track Club management group - has been suspended until after the Olympic Games. She also hit the headlines with remarks she made to an Australian journalist working for an English newspaper after a training session at Eton a fortnight ago. In describing the Australian government's continuing refusal to apologise for the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families between 1910 and 1960 as"insensitive", Freeman precipitated a political storm.

She has always been a proud standard-bearer for Australia's indigenous community. She caused a stir by carrying an Aboriginal flag on her lap of honour after winning her first major title, the 400m at the Commonwealth Games in Victoria in 1994, and has the chosen colours of her people - black for the people, red for the land, yellow for the sun - incorporated into her specially designed running shoes. Freeman has no wish, however, to be used as a political pawn on the Olympic stage in Sydney. The pressure on her on the track will be great enough.

"It's going to be interesting, how I cope with everything," she pondered. "I think I'm handling it well so far, but there's nothing that can prepare you for an Olympic final, absolutely nothing. I'm a woman who thrives on pressure, though - a lot of pressure."

It's just as well, because no Olympian will be under greater pressure than Cathy Freeman when the Games begin on 15 September.

Sport
footballHe started just four months ago
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Travel
Streets ahead: Venice
travelWhat's trending on your wishlist?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect