I’ll never forget the first time I saw Cathy Freeman run.
It wasn’t live and I had no idea who she was, but I do remember.
It was the 1996 Stawell Gift where she came from off the screen to win the 400m handicapped race with her last step.
She came home like a bullet shot out of a cannon who made everyone else in the race look like they were trapped in quicksand.
“Who even is this?!”, I remember thinking to myself.
I was seven years old and didn’t even really know what it meant to be to be Aboriginal, let alone how amazing her achievements already were.
I remember it was some time between watching that race and the Sydney Olympics that it clicked that we were both Aboriginal.
Pride swelled in my chest when it hit me that I was like her.
I felt this amazing connection with her, even pretending to be her when running 200s and 400s in Little Athletics.
Through her, anything was possible, regardless of your skin colour, privilege or lack thereof.
I would follow her results religiously, devastation taking over when she didn’t compete in the 1998 Commonwealth Games due to injury.
I was a storm cloud throughout that competition.
Compare that with the bliss and pride that was worn on me when she won the 1999 World Championship.
She didn’t drop a 400m race that year and it was the talk of the nation leading into the 2000 Olympics that she was going to win gold in Sydney.
The build-up to the Games was electric. Mum and I lived in Sydney at the time and there was almost a sense of mania in the air as September rolled around.
I had only just started playing football, so at this time athletics was my favourite sport and Cathy was my idol.
There was a moment when former Australian female Olympic champions and medallists revealed that Cathy would light the cauldron. She must have known even then that she would become one of them.
Such a perfect convergence of my favourite athlete and sport was almost a bit much for my brain to handle.
Then the famous walk to light the cauldron. We all remember it.
I don’t think Mum or I breathed through the whole process, you could cut the nervous energy with a knife.
Up the long flight of stairs she went and lit the cauldron. But of course there was a malfunction.
The thing that stuck out to me, and how I knew she was going to win, was how serene she was in that moment.
An athlete so sure of herself that even a monumental glitch, in something she had no control over, couldn’t phase her. Not my Cathy.
She breezed through the early stages of qualifying like a dream, and despite her calmness, I could not have been more scared that she would trip at the final hurdle.
Watching on from home, I remember being a nervous wreck all day. And then the moment came, and I was standing in front of the couch as the athletes were announced and came out.
The camera quickly found Cathy and she was in the green, gold and silver spacesuit. I had shivers running down my spine, there was no way she was losing.
The tension was palpable, my hairs were on their end. I was somehow cold and hot at the same time.
You knew she would win, no-one was beating my Cathy.
The starter gun went, and she was away.
Bruce McAvaney’s brilliant call as she came around the back straight was overridden by my screaming and jumping with glee.
She was home and my hero had done the unthinkable, an athletics gold in Sydney with the weight of a nation on her shoulders. Elation overwhelmed us.
What she did afterwards has always stuck with me.
For her to run around for her victory lap draped in both the Aboriginal and Australian flags, when the Aboriginal flag isn’t recognised by the IOC, was an incredible act of pride for her people.
Despite all the obstacles Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders face, how stacked against her the odds were, how good she had to be and how well she dealt with the pressure, this was a moment where she brought Australia together.
She decided to wear both flags in a symbol of unity and togetherness, and in doing so became a hero to so many.
The Sydney Olympics were 20 years ago, but despite this she remains one of our biggest stars and is responsible for our greatest athletic moment in an Olympic Games.