It took her the best part of two years, but Cathy finally came home to the international athletics arena last night. As she eagerly took possession of a relay baton and set off on a circuit of the rain-soaked track in the City of Manchester Stadium, Cathy Freeman picked up where she had left off in Sydney 22 months ago.
It was in the Olympic final of the women's 4x400 metres relay that the Australian icon last appeared on the international stage. On that occasion, five days after her winning home run in the 400m, she anchored her team to fifth place. Last night she ran a second leg in the Commonwealth Games semi-finals and helped to ease the Aussies into tonight's final.
In truth, it was little more than a training track run for the Olympic champion. With the first three in the race guaranteed qualification, she had no need to unduly exert herself when she took over from the heptathlon silver medallist, Kylie Wheeler, some 15m down on Charmaine Howell, of Jamaica, and Madeleine Kaboud Me Bam, of Cameroon. Freeman, though, extended herself sufficiently to close the gap to Kaboud Me Bam. The she watched from trackside as Tamsyn Lewis and Jana Pittman pulled Australia through to second place behind Jamaica.
"I'm really happy to be back," Freeman said. "I love the crowd, the championships, the races and the fear. It's all part of me." Asked whether she felt any pressure, she exclaimed: "My God! "Compared to Sydney? I'm having a ball." Whether the golden girl of Sydney can achieve golden girl status in Manchester remains to be seen. The Australian quartet were the fourth-fastest qualifiers, with 3min 33.25sec – behind England (3:30.63, Jamaica (3:31.99) and Nigeria (3:32.38).
A medal of any colour would be a bonus for Freeman. It was a big enough step for her simply to be back on the international track after the extended sabbatical she took to recover from her pressuredrome experience in Sydney, and after the shock of discovering just two months ago that her husband, Sandy Boedecker, was suffering from throat cancer.
It was Boedecker who persuaded Freeman to run here, telling her, "Go for it Cath." That she has gone for it, despite being "only 75 to 80 per cent fit," confirms the quarter-miler still has the hunger for international competition at the age of 29.
Gemma Nicol has it, too, at the age of 16 and three days. Scotland's youngest-ever track and field representative at a Commonwealth Games helped her team qualify with a determined first-leg run.
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