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.

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