Two magic moments

Cathay Freeman winning the 400m gold in the Sydney Olympics. — Pic. VINO JOHN-

Cathy Freeman seemed bewildered, barely able to fathom that almost two decades of training and pain had given her the triumph of her life.

Looking down at her palms, she took a deep gulp to help cool the lactic acid that had built up in her thighs and the emotions that welled in her gut about winning an Olympic gold medal on home soil.

Millions of proud Australians breathed freely for the first time in a minute. It was 8:11 p.m. on Sept. 25, 2000 and Freeman had won the 400 meters, 10 days after she'd sparked off the flame which marked the end of a stirring welcome ceremony and the opening of the first Olympics of the new millennium.

These two defining Olympic moments will be cherished by Australians from the now-retired Freeman. She'd raised the hopes of sports-loving Aussies who'd considered her a certainty to win the host nation a gold medal and silenced her few critics.

She claimed Australia's 100th Olympic gold medal and the first individual gold medal for an Aborigine. Following the race, Freeman pulled back the hood of her green, silver and gold bodysuit, sat on the track and slipped off her shoes.

Her victory lap drew thunderous applause from the Olympic-record 112,524 people who squeezed into Sydney Olympic Stadium to witness the race, and she managed to find her mother amid all that and give her hug.

On her lap, Freeman carried an Australian flag and the red, yellow and black flag that unites indigenous Australians in a profound gesture to national reconciliation.

Men and women cried, little children hooted and strangers embraced to celebrate Freeman's win. In the streets, most people shared a common identity for the night: Mate.

It took almost three years for Freeman to come to the realisation that she would never beat that. It had been her childhood dream.

"I won't ever have the same fulfilling moment as I already have had,'' the 30-year-old Freeman was quoted saying after announcing her retirement in London. "I don't have the same hunger."

"I know what it takes to be a champion, to be the best in the world, and I just don't have that feeling right now.'' Despite being a two-time defending world champion, Freeman had been a surprise choice to light the cauldron at Sydney's opening ceremonies.

Many Australians expected that honour would go to a proven Olympian like swimming great Dawn Fraser or sprinter Betty Cuthbert rather than an Atlanta Games silver medalist.

But in the end, the symbolic lighting of the flame and Freeman's faultless performance on the track did more for the reconciliation between black and white Australians than decades worth of politicians.

And Fraser and Cuthbert were in on the act.

Three-time silver medallist Raelene Boyle had entered the stadium on Sept. 15 pushing the wheelchair of Cuthbert, a multiple-sclerosis sufferer who won three Olympic gold medals at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

The flame then passed to Fraser, a triple-gold medallist, and onto Shirley Strickland, Shane Gould and Debbie Flintoff-King before Freeman, wearing a full-length, shimmering running suit and struggling to keep her emotions in check, stepped into a pool formed by a waterfall and ignited the circle of fire that rose around her.

For billions of people who watched on television it was the perfect opener. For almost 20 million Australians, Freeman's gold medal was the next logical step.

"It was a lovely race, a lovely last 50,'' her coach Peter Fortune recalled at the time. Lining up in Lane 6, with Mexico's Ana Guevara on her immediate inside and South Africa's Heide Syerling on her right, Freeman went out hard from the staggered start and settled into her stride in about second position along the back straight.

When the challenge came from Jamaican Donna Fraser and Britain's Katherine Merry in lanes 2 and 3, Freeman held her nerve. She kicked off the final bend, eliciting wave after wave of roars from the crowd, and maintained her form into the last 50 meters.

Having extinguished the challenge, Freeman pulled clear to win in 49.11 seconds, well clear of second-placed Fraser.

Freeman, unbeaten over 400 in the three previous years, didn't produce her personal best time but she didn't need to. She dragged half the rivals behind her to their PBs and seemed to have some in reserve.

The usually shy and reserved Freeman, hadn't had a choice in becoming a role model for indigenous Australians in a year when Aborigines were pushing for a formal apology from the government after more than 200 years of white settlement.

Yet she became a hero for all Australians, expressing outrage at Australia's leaders for refusing to apologize for policies such as the forced removal of children from Aboriginal families in the early 1900s known now as the "Stolen Generation.'' When she won the 400 metres at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Canada, she ran a victory lap carrying the aboriginal flag. When officials rebuked her, she won the 200 metres — and again unfurled it.

By repeating her flag-waving exploits on home soil and earning praise for it, she accentuated the push for reconciliation.

Believing that her actions speak louder than words, she's rejected calls to go into politics or be more outspoken on indigenous issues.

She wore one of her most important messages at the Sydney Olympics, the words "Cos I'm Free" on a tattoo concealed under the sleeve of her running suit.

She took 18 months out after the Olympics and then struggled in a comeback, and hasn't won a major international individual race since. Struggling with mixed emotions about defending her Olympic title in Athens, she finally resolved to be free.