“My ancestors were the first people to walk on this land. Those other girls were always going to come up against my ancestors. Who’s going to stop me?”
The torch. The swift suit. There she is. Good on ya, Cathy! Butterflies. The back straight. Freeman cool. The bend. Cathy lifting. The home straight. Flying now. Go Cathy. “What a legend, what a champion.”
Twenty years later. More tears. Goosebumps, still.
Back into the limelight
Olympic champion Cathy Freeman hasn’t yet seen the final version of the new documentary, Freeman.
She’s going to watch it on telly with her husband James and their nine-year-old daughter on Sunday night.
“I just thought it was about time I shared as much of the whole story and as much of the experience as I could,” she said.
Her daughter saw a trailer the other day and was a bit confused.
“Mum, why are you doing this film? I thought you were a private person,” she said.
“It’s a little bit of an introduction into the athlete I once was.”
Freeman has known the film’s French-Australian director Laurence Billiet for a long time.
“I’d met her in around 2004 or 2005 and we seemed to have a marriage — that we seem to still enjoy,” she said.
This partnership now extends to include the Bangarra Dance Theatre, which provides one of the highlights of the film through beautiful sequences of dancer Lillian Banks.
“I think Laurence absolutely copped to the fact that it was all very much a story about me coming from a heritage that I’m obviously very proud of,” Freeman said.
“Stephen Page [Bangarra artistic director] was the perfect person for the job in terms of really telling a story and locking into the story and the whole intent of the story.
“It’s absolutely reflected so perfectly. It’s a wonderful aspect of the film.”
The director has recreated an unforgettable time, place, style and pride in Australian history in the documentary.
Looking back. Looking forward
Right now, Freeman is living in lockdown Melbourne.
“I’m too busy kind of burrowing away at domestic bliss now, as you are, as others are sometimes,” she said.
“I often take a good look up around and see the reactions of folk to me as that athlete I was 20 years ago, it certainly takes me back, certainly surprises me.”
Otherwise, she is overseeing the Cathy Freeman Foundation (CFF) which delivers educational programs to 1,600 Indigenous children across four remote communities: Palm Island, Woorabinda, Wurrumiyanga and Galiwin’ku.
“The focus for me is with children, our future,” she said.
‘We’re in a very strong position, especially in terms of governance, leadership within our organisation.
“We’ve still got a lot of work to do but this is not a 400m run, this is a marathon.
“Temperament is really important and relationships are critical.”
CFF chief executive Jade Colgan said it was a thrill to work with one of her heroes.
“We’ll often walk into a schoolground … and you often hear, ‘Cathy! Cathy Freeman!’ and it’s really beautiful, because we’re certainly welcomed into community,” she said.
“One of our real strengths is that we have local Aboriginal people working for us in our communities, so they’re there day in, day out, going into classrooms weekly and working with students.”
The foundation also promotes camps to the city for students to understand what the world has to offer them.
“We want young people to stay in their communities if that’s what they want to do,” Ms Colgan said.
“But if it is about going and chasing dreams elsewhere, we want the young people to know that that’s an opportunity that’s there for them as well.”
Program co-ordinators in Woorabinda say the programs are making a difference.
“We find it inspirational,” Ivy Yoren said.
“Every time when they ask us questions about who would you look up to and who’s an Indigenous role model, I would say Cathy Freeman.”
What does the future hold?
Freeman says it has been a privilege to be accepted by the communities.
Thirteen years ago the foundation started small, focusing on Palm Island (her mother’s community) and Woorabinda (her father’s), before expanding to Wurrumiyanga and Galiwin’ku.
“I’m really passionate about these kids. Certainly I, as a child, wouldn’t have realised my Olympic dream without support from those around me,” Freeman said.
“For me, it started in my family, then support from my primary school and even through to high school.”
Now, two decades after that famous Olympics, what does the future hold for Freeman?
“The question of what’s next is always right there in the centre of our lives, outside of family life,” she said.
“I absolutely am very proud to represent Indigenous exceptionalism I guess, in a sense, but I’m one of many.
“And I represent a possibility for all kids, but certainly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids in particular.
“It’s a role that I take quite seriously. I’m quite aware of the impact that it generates. I’m not one for resting on my laurels. Lot of work ahead.”
A quick look back, then on with the job.
Australia’s champion of champions.
Watch Freeman on Sunday, September 13 at 7:40pm on ABC + iview.