The other great Cathy Freeman race: the Stawell Gift 1996

SUPERSTAR: Cathy Freeman on her way to Olympic victory (main pic); celebrating her win at Stawell; and Paul Nolan's account of that race. Picture: Getty Images.
SUPERSTAR: Cathy Freeman on her way to Olympic victory (main pic); celebrating her win at Stawell; and Paul Nolan's account of that race. Picture: Getty Images.

The ABC documentary 'Freeman' this week took viewers back to one of the defining moments in Australia's sporting history. It tracked Cathy Freeman's journey from a shy, indigenous girl with a fierce love of running, to the woman who carried the hopes of a nation - and so much more - 20 years ago today, September 25.

Unbowed by the weight of all that expectation, she powered down the home strait and into sporting legend. That finish, still one of the fastest ever last 100 metres in an Olympic final, still inspires goosebumps two decades on.

It was a moment that defined her, that crystallised a sporting legend - but was it her greatest ever athletic performance? Within that documentary, there was footage of another, earlier, event much closer to home: the Stawell Gift in April 1996.

For a display of sheer talent, that handicap race, in which Freeman starts with other athletes way in front, stands right alongside that moment in Sydney. It is a dazzling moment of athletic brilliance.

Every now and then, the film circulates on social media. This week, prompted by the documentary, it once again took on a new life, reaching a fresh audience.

The race took place on Easter Monday, a few months ahead of the Atlanta Olympics. The event, officially known as the 1996 Lorraine Donnon Striproll 400 metres Handicap, was one of the most anticipated races ever held at the famous Stawell oval.

THE BUILD-UP

Paul Nolan was a raw, cadet sports reporter for The Ballarat Courier newspaper at time, thrilled to have been dispatched by long-time sports editor Jim Murphy to cover his first Stawell Gift.

For Mr Nolan, who now works at St Patrick's College, the atmosphere of the occasion still resonates.

"It was electric, there were 10,000 people there but it sounded like an AFL grand final - it was that noisy.

"It was just a buzz that Cathy Freeman was there. She'd run it the year before, but this year was an Olympic year, and she was using this rural oval as her preparation for the Olympics which was going to be held just a few months after, so there was this great sense of excitement and anticipation. It was amazing."

He was observing a short distance back from the finish line, which was also where Freeman, running in a red vest, was starting from 'scratch'. He remembers looking around the curve of the track to scope the size of the task ahead of the woman who had already become one of the country's most recognisable athletes.

"I was standing there and looking where Cathy was starting, and turned around to see where the other runners were, and you got a greater sense of the distance she had to catch up. You thought 'really? That's a heck of a long way to catch up, certainly the front markers'."

The closest athlete to Freeman was Shanie Coutts (now Shanie Singleton), lining up in a white vest 30 metres in front of the future Olympic champion.

A GREAT GIFT: Cathy Freeman, left, powers ahead in the 400m handicap race in 1996.

A GREAT GIFT: Cathy Freeman, left, powers ahead in the 400m handicap race in 1996.

To put things into context, Coutts, who married Stawell Gift champion Paul Singleton, was no Sunday park stroller. She was a talented athlete who made national finals and still harboured hopes of making the Australian relay team at the time. She would later go on to win the prestigious Tasmanian Women's Gift in Devonport. And yes, you read that right - she had a 30-metre head start on Freeman. One athlete was as far as 54 metres in front.

Now working as a deputy principal at a Central Coast secondary school, Ms Singleton remembers her race plan being tailored around the athlete behind her. Having run heats the previous day, she recalled feeling confident that she had the measure of her rivals out in front. But it was the electric talent of the 23-year-old out of her eyeshot that worried her.

"I knew that she was certainly going to be my danger and I knew the tenacity of her," Ms Singleton told The Courier.

"I just knew I would have her coming at me. My plan was just to try and run her off her legs a little bit and [get her] to put a good chase on."

THE RACE

The starter gun fired, and Mr Nolan remembers Freeman quickly making an impact.

"As she was going round, you could just see that gap closing and closing," he said. Freeman was catching up, and fast, but surely her handicap was too much?

Even coming round the final bend, Freeman had an tremendous amount of ground to make up. Such was the distance between her and the lead athletes, the young Courier journalist saw a headline slipping away.

"Everyone was barracking for her, we all wanted Cathy to win," he recalled. "Me being a young journo, I knew it was a better story if Cathy won, so I was hoping for the story."

Shanie Singleton (née Coutts) in full stride (at a different event). Freeman pipped her on the line at Stawell in 1996.

Shanie Singleton (née Coutts) in full stride (at a different event). Freeman pipped her on the line at Stawell in 1996.

With the race three-quarters over, he didn't fancy his chances of getting the ending he wanted.

"You probably still didn't think she was going to get there because the girl out in front was still a fair bit away," he said.

His hopes hit another stumbling block down the home straight - almost literally. Unlike a traditional lap of the track, the athletes are not confined to lanes so jostling for position can be akin to a more physical middle distance encounter. So it proved in this race as, in a moment of drama, Freeman began gliding past the backmarkers - and collided with another runner.

Momentarily put off balance, she regained her stride and continued her trademark surge. Only Coutts, who had also overtaken all the other competitors, lay between her and an extraordinary victory.

But the finish line came just a fraction too late for Coutts and Freeman swept past her - thrilling the crowd, and delivering Mr Nolan's hoped-for yarn in astonishing style. Almost a quarter of a century on, Ms Singleton still recalls the sheer exhaustion of the moment she was pipped by one of Australia's greatest athletes.

"One memory I have, I thought she was much taller than me. I think it's probably because as we came over the finishing line, I was just spent and she was running so high - and yet in reality I think she's about three inches shorter than me."

If I had beaten her on that day, that video wouldn't do what it's done. Good things come from being a loser sometimes. I still get a kick out of it because she was just an awesome athlete.

Shanie Singleton, Stawell Gift runner up, 1996

"I just remember thinking 'wow' she's gone past with such spring in her legs."

THE AFTERMATH

Not only was the manner of the victory exhilarating, the time was something special. The clock stopped at 50.48 seconds, a world class 400-metre time in any circumstances. But this was on grass - a much slower surface - with athletes forced to go wide around the outside to overtake other athletes, as well as having to deal with a knock in the process - three factors that make Freeman's time all the more extraordinary.

For Shanie Singleton, the fact Freeman includes an account of the race in her autobiography is an indication the athlete felt the same way. "It was nice that it meant enough [to be in the book]," she said. "She probably recognises what a fantastic run she ran that day."

Here is another benchmark: the previous year, when Freeman also won the Stawell Gift from scratch, the clock stopped almost three full seconds slower at 53.24 seconds.

Mr Nolan, a big Hawks fan, ranks Freeman's run in 1996 as the best individual sporting performance he has ever seen live - and that includes Hawthorn beating Geelong in the 1989 Grand Final despite Gary Ablett's nine-goal heroics.

"Just to be part of it, just to witness it - here we are talking about it 24, 25 years later - it just shows it was a pretty special moment," he said.

As for Ms Singleton, there are no hard feelings about missing out on glory that day.

Every now now and then, as has happened over the past few days, the footage emerges again, and Ms Singleton is reminded of a magical moment in her competitive running career - even as second best.

I pushed her to a world record grass time and that was phenomenal. She ran 50.48 on a grass track, being knocked by another runner - it just shows how damn good she was.

Shanie Singleton

"It was a fantastic experience, I was very privileged to have that opportunity," she said.

"If I had beaten her on that day, that video wouldn't do what it's done. Good things come from being a loser sometimes," she laughed.

"I still get a kick out of it because she was just an awesome athlete. I pushed her to a world record grass time and that was phenomenal.

"She ran 50.48 on a grass track, being knocked by another runner - it just shows how damn good she was."

  • Cathy Freeman won an Olympic Gold medal in Sydney on September 25, 2000. The story of her journey to that moment can be seen on the 'Freeman' documentary, which is now available on ABC iView.

WATCH: Stawell Gift 1996

Stawell Gift 1995

This story Cathy Freeman's other great race:- on a grass oval, with a 42m handicap first appeared on The Courier.