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Cathy Freeman’s gold medal milestone echoes 20 years later

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As Cathy Freeman powered around the track at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Australia held a collective breath.

Twenty-seven-year-old Freeman – with long, elegant strides that made running look almost effortless – carried more pressure than any other athlete at those Games as she ran the 400m final.

But pressure, the kind that could have caused another athlete to buckle, only seemed to spur Freeman. Twenty years ago today, she became Australia’s first Aboriginal athlete to win an individual Olympic gold medal.

“My running has allowed me to walk in a light, to be in a light, to live in a light that comes from within. It’s carried me to these places that I never thought imaginable,” Freeman said in an ABC Australia documentary called “Freeman” released this month in commemoration of the anniversary. She was unavailable to comment for this story.

Freeman was born in Mackay, a city in Queensland near the Great Barrier Reef. She grew up in a tight-knit family, one of five children. Her paternal great-grandfather served in World War I, but because of his Aboriginal heritage, his military service was not recognized when he returned home. He was not offered a land grant given to white soldiers. Her maternal great-grandfather was sent to a penal colony on Palm Island with his wife and children after refusing to sign over his paycheck to local authorities.

“I was a kid who was quite embarrassed to be a Black kid, an Indigenous kid. I grew up with that self-image,” she said in “Freeman.” “I could never understand why, when I smiled at someone, they wouldn’t smile back. … It used to quietly really devastate me.”

Her stepfather, Bruce, encouraged Freeman to run as a child, and to harbor big dreams.

“To put up on the wall, ‘I am the greatest athlete,’” she told ABC.

At 16, Freeman became the first Aboriginal woman to win a Commonwealth Games title as part of a 4x100m relay in Auckland, New Zealand. She made her Olympic debut in 1992, eliminated in the 400m quarterfinals.

Before leaving for the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria, British Columbia, Freeman packed an Aboriginal flag in her suitcase. The black, yellow and red flag, first flown on National Aborigines Day in 1971, represents the Aboriginal people, the sun and spiritual connection to the land.

After winning the 400m, Freeman wrapped herself in the Aboriginal flag before taking the Australian flag and bringing both around the track in a victory lap. Arthur Tunstall, the head of the Australian delegation, was outraged.

But Freeman was undeterred, carrying both flags again after winning the 200m.

“I wanted to shout, ‘Look at me. Look at my skin. I’m Black, and I’m the best,’” Freeman told ABC. “There’s no more shame.”

The gesture ignited national debate, shining light on the racism and repression Indigenous Australians faced at home.

“There’s this mural in Melbourne with traditional Aboriginal people with chains around their necks, being treated like animals,” Freeman told ABC. “I draw strength from those sorts of paintings, which is pretty much what the flag represents, all the struggles, I suppose, and hardships my people have had to deal with.”

Freeman won a silver medal in the 400m at the 1996 Games in Atlanta, beaten by France’s Marie-Jose Perec, the defending champion from 1992.

A few weeks after the Olympics, Freeman topped Perec at a meet in Brussels. Perec focused on the 200m the following year and was out with health issues in 1998, while Freeman won back-to-back world titles in 1997 and 1999 in her absence. Going into the Sydney Olympics, the two hadn’t raced each other in four years.

Freeman made no effort to conceal the fact that Perec was a major source of motivation.

“It was always her in the front of my mind and the front of my heart that made me do the things I did – training the way I did, aspiring the way I did, and dreaming the way I did,” Freeman told ABC.

Perec was entered in the 400m in Sydney but left the city under mysterious circumstances before her race. Perec, according to a New York Times story at the time, vented her frustrations about the Australian media.

“I have the impression that everything has been made up in order to destabilize me,” she said.

One front-page headline read “Mademoiselle La Chicken: Perec flees before facing Cathy.”

“My heart dropped,” Freeman told ABC of Perec leaving Sydney. “My heart drops still now. I knew that I was up for it. She knew it, and I knew it, but we’ll never know because it didn’t happen. That race will never happen.”

Freeman, meanwhile, faced relentless pressure leading up to the 400m final. Newspaper headlines read, “The single gold all Australia craves” and “Running for her country, her people, herself.”

Freeman’s friend Michael Johnson – a four-time Olympic gold medalist who won the 200m-400m double four years earlier in Atlanta – understood the weight and importance of performing at a home Olympics.

“I sort of lived that moment with her, because it was four years after I was the face of the Games in Atlanta in a home Games,” Johnson said in August. “It was her time four years later in Sydney. We talked a lot in the lead-up to that and I tried to advise her as much as I could of how to deal with that pressure.”

On Sept. 15, Freeman lit the Olympic cauldron to open the Sydney Games. Ten days later, after easing off her warm-up clothes to reveal a sleek Nike body suit, she settled into her blocks for the most anticipated event of the Games.

Her coach, Peter Fortune, had jotted down a race plan on a piece of paper, with notes like “fast start for 50m,” “move from very fast to fast relaxed to the 200m,” “pick up on bend a little to make sure of your position,” and “go hard from about 120 to go and hold form to finish line.”

Johnson was at Stadium Australia that night waiting for his own 400m final, which would take place just after the women’s event. Instead of waiting in the call room, he left to go into the stadium, beneath the stands, so he could watch Freeman race. His seven competitors followed.

“We all just stood there,” Johnson said. “We’re fierce rivals, and we stood there to watch that race because it was just that intriguing. You could hear the crowd, and everybody knew that this was the race that everybody wanted to see, and we wanted to see it, too.”

In the noise of more than 112,000 spectators, Freeman found quiet.

“I remember in my warm-up feeling really relaxed, and all of the sudden the words, ‘just do what I know,’ came into my head,” Freeman recalled to NBC on The Olympic Show a year after the Games. “And so, that was that. I went out and did what I knew.”

Freeman trailed off the start, careful not to overexert herself too early. She closed in on the last curve and powered ahead on the final stretch, crossing the line at 49.11.

When she looks back on the race, “I feel like I’m being protected. My ancestors were the first people to walk on this land. It’s a really powerful force. Those other girls were always going to have to come up against my ancestors,” she told ABC.

Fiercely competitive with herself, Freeman was disappointed by her time. She knew she could run under 49 seconds. But her win remains one of the most significant moments of the Games, and the image of Freeman circling the track in a barefoot victory lap with the Aboriginal and Australian flags is indelible.

“The power of the emotion of everybody that night was just amazing,” Freeman told NBC on The Olympic Show. “Maybe some massive cosmic explosion took place in that stadium. … It was something I don’t think I’ll ever, ever experience again.”

That night at the track, later called “Magic Monday,” would go down as one of the most memorable in Olympic history.

After Freeman’s victory, Johnson became the first man to win consecutive 400m titles. American Stacy Dragila won the first Olympic women’s pole vault competition, topping Russian-born Australian Tatiana Grigorieva. Great Britain’s Jonathan Edwards, the world record holder in the triple jump, won a long awaited gold medal in his fourth Games. The men’s 10,000m came down to a head-to-head sprint in the last 100 meters, as Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie edged Kenyan Paul Tergat by .09 of a second after 25 laps around the track.

Freeman, who initially targeted the next Olympics in Athens, ultimately retired in 2003, citing a lack of passion and motivation to continue running at the highest level.

Her influence and legacy stretched far beyond the track, continuing to resonate with those who hoped to follow her lead.

On Sept. 25, 2000, 12-year-old Patty Mills sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV, his stuffed Sydney mascots and the Aboriginal flag on display. Mills and his mother had decorated the room in the Australian colors.

Years before he became the first Indigenous Australian to win an NBA title with the San Antonio Spurs, before representing Australia as an Olympian himself, Mills readied for Freeman’s race like it was his own.

He doesn’t remember much of the race – “maybe because I was screaming my face off trying to push her along” – but he does recall happy tears that followed as he watched with his parents.

“What Cathy never knew at that moment was that there was a little 12-year-old boy … that was so inspired that he was fully committed to becoming just like her,” Mills wrote in an email. “I was inspired by the way she represented herself and her culture. She was clearly very proud of who she was and never ashamed of it and because of this, I was inspired by the way she handled adversity.”

Freeman, now 47, is still amazed by the legacy of her triumph 20 years ago.

“People still light up when they talk about that night in September. They sparkle, and we’re talking about something that happened so long ago,” she told ABC.

“The lovely thing about this particular story is a lot of people were involved in it.”

OlympicTalk editor Nick Zaccardi contributed to this report.

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How Cathy Freeman came to light the Olympic cauldron in Sydney

Cathy Freeman
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About four months before the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Cathy Freeman and her husband dined with the Australian Olympic Committee president at an Italian restaurant in Los Angeles, where she was training.

Freeman, already a 400m world champion, the 1998 Australian of the Year as an Aboriginal icon, sensed that the Olympic boss, 50-year-old John Coates, was nervous. She soon learned why.

“We’d be really honored if you’d like to light the cauldron,” Coates revealed to her.

Freeman was shy, but she accepted without hesitation. Even when warned about the weight it could add to her race prep.

“John, I like pressure,” she reportedly said. “That’s when I perform at my best.”

About five seconds later, she turned back to him.

“I understand if you change your mind,” she added.

Coates didn’t.

“I preferred Cathy because hers was the biggest sport on the Olympic program, plus the Indigenous aspect,” he said, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, which reported that Coates also considered swimmer Susie O’Neill and field hockey player Rechelle Hawkes worthy, active candidates. “I thought awarding the honor to an Aboriginal athlete would send a wonderful signal to the world.”

The night before the Opening Ceremony, around 10:30, Freeman surreptitiously left a Sydney hotel. She boarded a car, was hidden under a blanket and taken to Stadium Australia for a rehearsal. The identity of the cauldron lighter remained a secret, though on this night the penultimate torch bearer — 1988 Olympic 400m hurdles gold medalist Debbie Flintoff-King — joined the need-to-know group, according to Australian media. (The whole scene was reminiscent of Muhammad Ali‘s rehearsal in Atlanta in 1996 with Janet Evans)

On Sept. 15, 2000, Freeman shivered in a wet, white body suit (with the Olympic rings sewn upside down), her right hand grasping a torch accommodating the Olympic Flame.

She stared ahead as tens of thousands of people fixed on her that night, plus millions more on TVs around the world. She just lit the cauldron, a ring of fire with a waterfall surrounding and sprinkling an athlete who already had a head cold.

“It was all really calm, and it was really hard to know exactly what was going on around me, because I was listening quite attentively to what was being said to me,” via an earpiece, Freeman told NBC Sports a year after the Games, noting an initial thought upon receiving the flame was a fear of falling down the five flights of stairs she first had to ascend. “So I didn’t really have time to soak up the atmosphere.”

A problem with the movable cauldron — it refused to lift toward the top of the stadium, stalled for four minutes — complicated her thoughts.

“Then I hear in the [earpiece] we’ve got a slight technical hitch, nothing that can’t be fixed,” said Freeman, the last of a lineup of all-female torch bearers in the stadium to mark 100 years of women at the Games. “Then it’s swearing, and the next thing is crazy swearing and screaming. I can’t repeat what I heard because it’s swearing.”

Turns out, those 240 seconds were precious. The cauldron was running out of gas needed to keep it lit until it reached the top of the stadium. Quite literally, it was nearly extinguished before the Games began, artistic director and producer David Atkins told Australia’s 7 Network for a 20th anniversary TV special.

Freeman didn’t know any of this. But she felt the need to give the impression that everything was fine. She remained standing, holding the torch out in front of her. She turned to the dark crowd at one point, then back to the cauldron. Finally, she descended the stairs just before it started moving and enveloped in a covering held by swimming legend Dawn Fraser.

“I actually was surprised when you couldn’t see my legs shaking,” she said. “I had a fantastic evening. I just wasn’t ready to let myself acknowledge what was going on because I had a race to win.”

Ten nights later, Freeman won the Olympic 400m final, dubbed “the race of our lives” by Australian media, in front of some 110,000 spectators. It came on arguably the greatest day of competition in one sport in Olympic history — Magic Monday at the Sydney Games.

Freeman, after her victory lap, was asked what she thought of when she saw the cauldron burning above the stadium.

“I lit that!” she said with a laugh with the Australian and Aboriginal flags around her neck. “It’s been a real kick. A very big honor to be asked to do it. I couldn’t reject, even though I gave the AOC every chance to change their mind. They had every confidence in me that I was the right person for the job.”

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Arnie the Terminator: Aussie rival to Katie Ledecky an unlikely swim story

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In August 2016, a 15-year-old Australian swimmer named Ariarne Titmus followed the Rio Olympics as she prepared to fly to Maui for the Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

Titmus paid special attention to her best events, the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyles. Katie Ledecky swept them, breaking two of her own world records.

“I remember watching her races thinking, like, this chick is nuts,” Titmus told NBC Sports in Australia early this year. “She’s just doing stuff that no one’s gonna get near.”

Three years later, Titmus stunned Ledecky at the world championships, chasing down the American in the last 50 meters of the 400m freestyle. She became the first woman to beat Ledecky in a distance race in seven years and a bona fide rival one year from the Tokyo Games.

Ledecky at first attributed her late fade to tight and tired legs. Then she spent seven hours the next day in a South Korean emergency room with what she believed was a stomach virus.

“She was sick,” said Dean Boxall, Titmus’ South African-born coach, “and we happened to pounce.”

Titmus’ time — 3:58.76, a personal best by .59 — was slower than Ledecky’s wins at her previous three major international meets — Rio Olympics, 2017 Worlds and 2018 Pan Pacific Championships.

“It wasn’t a good swim by Arnie,” said Boxall, a vocal coach known to shout Ledecky’s name in practices. “And I know it wasn’t a good swim by Katie. Definitely not. But there was things that Arnie did in that race I was pleased with, and there was a lot of things that she did that I was not happy with at all.”

The Olympic postponement to 2021 gives Titmus and Boxall another year to work on those inefficiencies down in Brisbane. Another year to mature, to turn 20 years old before the Games.

“I try not to dwell on that [beating Ledecky] too much,” Titmus, sometimes called “the Terminator” by Australian press, said of the world championships, where she also out-split Ledecky in the 4x200m free relay and took bronze behind the American in the 800m free. “Next year’s the big one at the Olympics.”

Nowhere is swimming closer to a national sport than in Australia, but none of its Olympic champion Dolphins hail from Tasmania, an island 150 miles south of the mainland.

Notable Tasmanian sports persons include cricketer Ricky Ponting, retired NASCAR driver Marcos Ambrose and woodchopping world champion David Foster, but no listed swimmers.

Stephanie Rice, the last Australian female swimmer to win an individual Olympic title in 2008, visited “Tassie,” the state a little bigger than West Virginia, nearly a decade ago. She met a young Titmus, who still remembers what Rice scribbled: “Be the best you can be.”

“I say it’s my favorite quote,” Titmus said. “She wrote it on my shirt, so it has to be my favorite quote.”

Titmus was born a week before the Sydney Olympics — “She loved watching Thorpie,” her mom said — and grew up on 16 acres of country land. The family — parents Steve and Robyn and younger sister Mia — had horses, a trampoline and a swimming club just down the road in Launceston.

They also had an indoor pool (areas of Tasmania approach freezing in the winter). One evening more than 15 years ago, Robyn was chopping vegetables and peered to see her elder daughter, then a toddler without formal swim lessons, doing the breaststroke.

“We didn’t know anybody at the swimming club,” said Steve, a longtime TV journalist. “And we turned up and said, hi, we’re the Titmuses. We’ve got a daughter called Ariarne, and she wants to race. Tuesday nights they had club night, and she jumped in the water, and away she went.”

Titmus wasn’t the fastest at first, but by the time she won a third Australian junior title, she became too big for the Apple Isle.

“[My coach] said, look, you can’t really do anything else down here,” Titmus remembered. “There’s no one for you to train with. There’s no one for you to race. It’s all up in Queensland. And he said, if you really want a shot at this, you should really move.”

The family relocated to Brisbane when she was 14 or 15, following Titmus’ coach.

We packed up the car, got on the boat, sailed to Melbourne,” said Robyn, a former national-level track sprinter. “We even stopped at Albury on the way for a training session because the coach she had at the time was a hard task master.”

Right around that time, she first met Boxall while with the Australian junior national team.

“I originally thought this guy is nuts,” Titmus said. “He gave us this speech about the New Zealanders or something were trying to be better than us. His veins were popping. It was crazy. I was like, I’m never ever going to have a coach like him.”

Boxall became her coach about a year later.

“I’ve got great athletes here that hurt themselves, and they enjoy going through the pain,” he said, “but you want to try and get that little bit extra from someone. You have to actually go there with them a little bit.”

In a sitdown, on-camera interview, Boxall first told how he met Titmus, his first impression of her and a bit about their relationship. He first mentioned Ledecky, umprompted, when asked the fourth question, about Titmus’ progression.

Boxall noted that Titmus swam the 400m freestyle in 4:09.81 at the August 2016 Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

“Ledecky went 3:56:46,” Boxall said, correctly noting Ledecky’s Rio Olympic world record to the hundredth, “so we’re 13 seconds off [at] that stage.”

Titmus raced Ledecky for the first time at the 2017 Worlds and finished fourth in the 400m, closing the gap to six seconds. In 2018, she took second to Ledecky at Pan Pacs, 1.16 seconds behind, becoming the first Australian to break four minutes in the event.

At 2019 Worlds, Boxall needed to be alone during the 400m free final. He left the Australian team box and snuck into a VIP area. As Titmus reeled Ledecky in, Boxall stood up and ran.

“Like a shot of adrenaline,” he said. “I couldn’t contain myself, but I was calmer as I’d ever been as well.

“That’s the first race that Arnie has raced Katie and actually was in the race. … Prior to that, it was just Katie.”

Titmus swam 10 seconds faster than when Boxall first compared her to Ledecky in August 2016.

“She’s 2.4 seconds off [Ledecky’s] world record,” Boxall said. “We know what the benchmark is, and we’re still a long way off.”

Titmus recorded the eighth-fastest 400m freestyle in history. Ledecky owns the top seven times.

“The greatest thing apart from obviously winning, I think, [is] being able to actually race someone who has been on her own for so long,” Titmus said. “I find it so crazy that now I’m in this situation where she’s my main rival.”

Scroll down the list, and you’ll see that the top 27 times in history (aside from the now-banned suit era) are shared by Ledecky (23) and Titmus (four).

“She’s certainly special,” Boxall said of his pupil. “Special enough? We’ll see.”

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