jueves, 19 de enero de 2012

Cathy Freeman: the Mystic of Running

Home... Cathy Freeman with the Olympic torch
              Bruce Barber was the first person who realized about the huge natural talent her stepdaughter Cathy Freeman had for running. And he knew more. "There are people in this world who have been born to accomplish important feats, who might be in the limelight for just one minute, but the purpose of their whole life is aiming to that one minute. Cathy is one of those chosen ones." (1) Yet that minute, or more precisely those 49.11 seconds, became one of the most transcendental moments in Olympic history and a landmark for Australian society. Cathy was raised in Baha’i faith by her mother Cecelia and it is Baha’i belief we are all the branches of one tree, the flowers of one garden. (1) Australia had transformed from the white male-dominated imperial squad in Melbourne-56 to the multicultural melting pot they were as they organised the Olympic Games for the second time, in the inaugural year of the new millennium. (2) As a positive sign of that new world, a member of the long persecuted Aboriginal people, Cathy Freeman, had been chosen to light the cauldron at the Opening Ceremony. Then that same athlete fulfilled the dreams of an ecstatic crowd of 110.000 spectators, which had gathered at Sidney Olympic stadium, delivering the only gold for her nation in track and field. Freeman achieved the symbolic reconciliation between black and white Australian, who became one heart and one soul cheering the charismatic girl and celebrating her prowess. In her subsequent victory lap, Cathy would take together both the official Australian flag and the Aboriginal one, reunited for that special day.   
                Nevertheless, there was a long way for Cathy Freeman and the indigenous Australian people until that historical date. The Aborigines, considered the oldest civilisation on planet Earth, had migrated from the African continent to Australia around 50.000 years ago. Since British settlement in the XVIII century, the indigenous inhabitants were taken their land and water resources away, as well as suffered discrimination, were murdered and ultimately had their children stolen until not long time ago: kids were removed from their parents and adopted by white families, pretending it was done to protect them from mistreatment. Actually the final aim was to assimilate the indigenous population in a moment it had a quick decline and was feared its extinction. Eventually, in 2008 the Australian government would apologise to indigenous people for what was called the stolen generation issue. Cathy, born in McKay, Queensland, the 16th February 1973, had experienced this unfair treatment against her own family: her grandmother was stolen and never could meet again her true parents. “Imagine. It was like a prison within a prison. Imagine seeing your child walking across a street and not being allowed to make any contact with him”, says Cathy. (3) Elsewhere, her father and grandfather were excellent rugby players but it was not possible back then for an Aboriginal to represent Australia or to develop a career in an English club. "People in my family were slaves, were prisoners, were so trapped and imprisoned within the laws of the day. No wonder they were such fighters and no wonder I am such a fighter too, how could I not be?'' (4)
"Cos I'm Free"

            Cathy has a famous tattoo on her right shoulder which says “Cos I’m free.” It refers to her way of feeling life and love but also to her Aboriginal identity. From her cultural background she has inherited determination, pride and strong sense of self. Her mother also believes Cathy possesses an inner peace and sense of spirituality which comes, either from her Baha’i teachings, either from her daughter's own childhood, growing up into the woods. When she was a little child, aged 5 or 6, Cathy would enjoy running for hours with no shoes on, as well as riding bikes or horses, along with brothers and cousins. Running among the bushes and by the banks of the river would made the young Cathy feel free, strong and in communion with nature. “Freedom is only something you can find inside of yourself. The heart is kind of like, metaphorically and spiritually speaking, your wings. It makes you soar and fly. There is a connectivity that I used to feel anyway, through the actual earth. So much life force and energy that comes up in through my toes and into me, which makes me feel like I can do anything.” (1) For Cathy, running was as natural as breathing, it was her gift.  Running would help the young athlete to keep an emotional stability, in spite sad events, as her parents divorce or the untimely death of her father and sister Ann-Marie. It would also help to balance her often erratic sentimental life, which episodes as the romance with her manager Nic Bideau, which ended up in a bitter court contractual battle.  “I took all of the feelings and all of the emotions I had about everything and everybody that ever mattered to me in my heart and just took it and just threw it into the thing I could do the best, which was run.” (1)
           No matter how much enjoyed sport Cathy Freeman, it was not an easy task to make her become a disciplined and focused athlete. Rebel was not the word. She was actually dizzy. “I guess I have always been away with the fairies a little bit. I am spacey, vague…” (3) She was a natural free runner in the bush but did not seem to care much about committing for a serious professional career in sport. There was not either any Aboriginal role model to look up, the only exception being tennis player Evonne Goolagong. Romanian Mike Danila was her first real coach. They met as she was 14. Danila used to tell her one day she would be signing autographs in Australia but Cathy could not see the rewards. (5)Then it was the time for old-glory Raelene Boyle to try but Freeman was also too much undisciplined for her. Eventually it would be Peter Fortune who convinced the freewheeling teen methodical training was indispensable for international success. Under Fortune’s influence, Cathy would become one day Olympic champion. Anyway, Cathy has not changed much. She keeps much of her dizziness and all her quirky sense of humour. The same Cathy describes her personality as a mix of a big kid and a wild cat, as her pets Billy and Bob. (3) However she still remembers one day she was too lazy to go out of bed for training and her mother shouted: “you are not like Anne. You have two good legs and two good arms. Use them!” (6)

Cathy Freeman with her mother
               Anne-Marie was born with cerebral palsy seven years before Cathy. After passing most of her late years at a special centre, she would eventually die of an asthma attack three days after her sister became the first Aboriginal golden medallist ever at the Commonwealth Games in 1990, as a member of the 4x100m relay.  At the funeral Cathy swore aloud every race she ran thereafter would be for Anne-Marie. (6) The deceased sister has always been a driven force for the winner at Sidney Olympic Games. Every time she points at Anne as her main hero. “Because she could not talk or walk, communicate the way that most of us do, her expressions were just ultimately so pure. And when she felt love, she gave love. And I think that had a lot to do with why I was so good at what I did, too, because she taught me so many wonderful lessons, and the importance of pure love."  (6) 
            Another source of inspiration for Cathy Freeman was the extraordinary three times Olympic champion Marie-José Pérec. 1994 was the year of Freeman’s sensational breakthrough at the Commonwealth Games, where she won both the 200m and 400m, displaying for the first time the Aboriginal flag in a lap of honour, in a self culture-pride demonstration later reprimanded by the Australian Committee. Yet Freeman was still far from being a match for the best athlete in the world of that moment. Still a junior, the Australian had made her debut at the Olympic Games in Barcelona, witnessing the French’s stunning victory at her event. It was the turning point of her career, when she could realise how big the Games were and think about what she would need to do to become one day an Olympic champion. The full mental process started when Sidney was awarded the Games the following year. From then on Freeman was slowly growing as an athlete for her day, which had to come in seven years time. (5)
               At the 1995 World championships in Goteborg, Pérec was again untouchable in a final where Freeman finished fourth. "I respect her so much, not just as a competitor but for what she stands for and the way she has done it. She is such an aggressive runner... ballistic! She would go out hard and if you were not physically or mentally prepared for it you were never in the race. I knew I had to strengthen my character to match her.” (5) Indeed she did. Marie-José Pérec had pushed her to become tougher and Freeman seriously challenged for the first time the defending champion at the 1996 Olympic Games final. That race stands as one the best 400m competitions in history, along with the inaugural World championships in Helsinki, where Jarmila Kratotchvilova broke for the first time the 48sec barrier, and the 1985 World Cup in Canberra, where Marita Koch set the current world record. Pérec, also gold medallist at the 200m in Atlanta, clocked 48.25 and Freeman followed with 48.63, which still rank both runners 3rd and 6th respectively in the all-time lists. Four other women also dipped under 50sec in that awesome final. Thereafter the French suffered from injuries and illness, being unable to keep her number one status. This honour went to Cathy Freeman, unbeatable in the next couple of years, where she won back-to-back world titles in Athens in 1997 and Seville in 1999, where she celebrated again with the Aboriginal flag. 

Cathy Freeman lines up for the 400m final at Sidney Olympic Games
Photo: Getty Images
            After scarcely competing in the previous year, Marie-José Pérec was back in 2000 to try to defend her Olympic titles. She made the trip to Sidney but mysteriously left the country after reporting being threatened in her hotel. Some observers said she actually was not fitted enough for the occasion. Whatever it was, Cathy Freeman was fairly disappointed of not having the challenge of Pérec in “her race.” The Aussie thinks she would have run considerably faster had Marie-José been in the race. (7) The same Cathy was asked to boycott the Games by activists who denounced Aboriginal rights were not respected yet. However, Cathy rejected that idea, stating she could not understand life without running. And how could she withdraw from the race she had waited for so many years? The most Australian successful sportspeople in the Olympic Games had traditionally been swimmers. However, Cathy Freeman, who had become “our Cathy”, had surpassed them as country’s heroine for the contest. To train anonymously in a quite place she travelled to Eton in Great Britain but, at her return, just after getting off the plane, she behold her face in a colossal picture in the airport. Some others were covering tower blocks in the city. Cathy could not escape pressure anymore. Instead she had to find the way to stay calmed and relaxed to deliver her best in the race she had prepared all her life for.  
                 Wearing a space-like one-piece jumpsuit, which covered her from head to toe, Cathy Freeman chose to start the final cautiously. She wanted to avoid, pushed by the public and her own emotions, going out too hard and then hit the wall. After a controlled first 300m, the favourite entered the homestretch in third place, after Jamaican Lorraine Graham and British Katharine Merry. Then she dramatically increased her pace to overcome everybody and win handily, completing the last 100 metres in an incredible split of 12.97, for an eventual clocking of 49.11, her second best mark ever. Graham won the silver medal and Merry the bronze, ahead of her compatriot Donna Fraser, all of them under 50 seconds. After her sensational victory, Cathy pulled back her hood and just sat down on the track, emotionally exhausted. The burden had been too much and she remained overwhelmed for a long minute. Then she got up and recovered her riveting smile for a triumphal victory lap, under the enthusiastic ovation of the crowd.    
            When asked how she had been able to cope with the pressure of a whole nation over her in the Olympic final, Cathy Freeman found again the secret in her cultural background and special charisma. “I have a focus in humour and fun. I do not take myself too seriously and it helps me to relax before relevant events. Besides, I love the people I belong to and the place I come from. I have a strong attachment to my ancestors, which allows me to always have a sense of belonging to a very special group of people. I also have a strong sense of connection to nature and a higher consciousness so I feel a part of a world of wonder and power. I love and accept with grace the person I am. If you are true to yourself you cannot put a foot wrong.  You have to be honest and sincere in your feelings, thoughts and actions. When such purity of purpose occurs it creates magic. (7) And it was a magical moment indeed.  

Cathy Freeman is elated after her Olympic victory in Sidney
Photo: Getty Images


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