Freeman's journey to Olympic gold

Cathy Freeman carried the weight of a nation on her shoulders at the Sydney Olympics.
Cathy Freeman carried the weight of a nation on her shoulders at the Sydney Olympics.

Cathy Freeman's body is numb, her mind a whir.

Sitting on the track, she's just won a gold medal at the Sydney Olympics and fulfilled her life's dream.

Her body barely moves for three minutes after winning the 400m final on September 25, 2000.

But her mind is "whirling like a film reel locked on fast-forward" as images of her life flash by.

Then, they suddenly stop.

And all she sees is the smile of her sister, Anne-Marie, who has been dead for 10 years.

"I'm just a little black girl who can run fast," Freeman recounted in her biography.

"And here I am sitting in the Olympic stadium with 112,000 people screaming my name.

"How the hell did I get here?"

Was Freeman there because of Anne-Marie, who suffered from cerebral palsy and died, aged 24, from an asthma attack in 1990?

As a small schoolgirl in Mackay, Queensland, Freeman was asked why she liked athletics.

"I have a sister, Anne-Marie, who has cerebral palsy and my mother told me that I had two good arms and two good legs, so use them," she replied.

Was that how she got there? Or was she there because of a sense of destiny?

A 14-year-old Freeman, asked by her school vocational officer what she wanted to do, replied: "I want to win gold medals at the Olympic Games." And after that? "Oh, I don't care."

Or was she there because she was driven by the pain and suffering of her Indigenous family and people?

Her beloved grandmother, Nanna Sibley, was among the Stolen Generations.

"All that pain, it's very strong. And generations have felt it," Freeman said.

Was she there because the athletics track, and running fast, was her freedom?

"Running for me is always more than just physical and mental; it is also emotional and spiritual," she said.

Or was it because Australia demanded she become the nation's first track and field Olympic gold medallist since 1988?

"The sense of expectation had nearly suffocated me," Freeman said.

In truth, she was there because of all of that.

When those fabled 400 metres ended, when her body snapped from numbness and her thoughts stopped and she saw her sister's smile, Freeman could finally relax.

Only then could she take it in. The enormity of her feat; the unbridled jubilation of the 112,524-strong crowd and her nation.

"I felt everyone's emotions being absorbed into every pore of my body," she said.

The months leading into the Sydney Games held other emotions.

Among them, disbelief when asked by Australian Olympic Committee president John Coates to light the cauldron at the opening ceremony.

"I said to her 'of course, your priority is winning the 400 metres'," Coates told AAP.

"And she said: 'John, I love pressure. That is when I perform at my best'."

On September 14, the eve of the opening ceremony, Freeman was taken at midnight to the stadium for a secret rehearsal.

She was on medication for a cold and distraught when drenched by a waterfall surrounding the cauldron.

At the September 15 opening ceremony, Freeman insisted on marching with her Australian team - both for the thrill, and to prolong her secret.

She slipped her teammates, was taken away and dressed in a flame-proof white suit.

Freeman entered the darkened stadium, took the symbolic Olympic flame from Debbie Flintoff-King, and held it up.

"I started giggling and had to put my hand over my mouth. It was all too bizarre," she said.

Freeman warily trod into the pond surrounding the cauldron, petrified of slipping on a wet step among five flights of stairs.

"The first step was a bit shaky but the next felt good so I went for it."

Up top, she bent down and pretended to the light the cauldron - it was actually done by remote control. Then she waited for the cauldron to rise.

And waited. And waited. A technical hitch meant the cauldron didn't move.

"The whole process was meant to take around 90 seconds yet I was still standing there after what must have been three or even four minutes," she said.

Eventually, the cauldron rose and reached its peak. And Freeman's mind immeditalely turned.

"I began to think about my race."

She won her September 22 heat despite a shock along the home straight when momentarily blinded by thousands of camera flashes.

"I must have Elvis Presley running alongside me," Freeman thought.

She won her September 23 quarter-final despite, mid-race, her mind wandering and wondering if her deceased father was proud of her.

"I was angry that I'd let my focus be invaded by sentiment. I couldn't afford to have any weakness."

She won her September 24 semi-final despite feeling sluggish that morning, before running in the rain.

On September 25, Freeman woke, feeling better.

She had her usual race-day breakfast - four WeetBix, milk, fruit - then played Scrabble with her husband.

After lunch - more fruit - she went through her usual race-day ritual of preparing her kit. This time, it featured a one-piece hooded suit.

"It could have been a pink tutu with black stilettos and a flourescent orange wig, as long as it enhanced my running."

At 3pm, she went to the athletes' village to stretch and massage a sore hamstring.

At 5pm, she went to the warm-up track, walked the bend, stretched on her favourite towel - from the 1990 Commonwealth Games, her first senior Australian team - and then did three 80m run-throughs.

At 7.30pm, she went to the callroom at the stadium. Complete silence.

At 8pm, down the tunnel. Into the arena. Complete pandemonium.

At 8.10pm, the starter's gun fired.

And 49.11 seconds later, she was an Olympic gold medallist, sitting on the track.

Freeman's body was numb, her mind a whir.

She didn't know how. But she had got there.

Australian Associated Press