Cathy Freeman Back In School

Freeman goes back to school
By Brendan Gallagher (Filed: 18/09/2003)

Amee Egerton, aged 15 and bright as a spark, couldn’t be doing with any more diplomatic niceties. She wanted answers. “So what are you going to do with the rest of your life, Cathy? I notice on your website you say you want to be a helicopter pilot.” The definite hint of a raised eyebrow indicated a healthy cynicism from Miss Egerton as the Olympic 400 metres champion, Cathy Freeman, faced the might of the fifth form at Waldegrave School for Girls, Twickenham. St Trinian’s with attitude.
“I know it sounds a silly answer, but to be honest, why not?” replied Freeman. "I was sitting next to an incredible guy at a dinner recently called Dick Smith who was planning to fly around the world in a helicopter, and I just thought what a wonderful project and what a cool way to lead your life.
"It appeals to me and it’s certainly no more daft than aiming to become an Olympic champion. All my athletics life, or at least when I was running well, I had this feeling of flying, of hovering about 18 inches above ground and moving effortlessly. That was the greatest buzz I got out of athletics. It made me free form the rest of the world - from being a teenager or a young Aborigine woman trying to make her way in Australia.
“Replacing that freedom in my life is going to be difficult, perhaps I never will, but projects like Mr Smith’s helicopter flight around the world certainly interest me.”
Amee’s question sparked a chain of thought which Freeman was keen to pursue. She went on: “Right now is the most important and precious time I’ll ever have. I’ve got to decide what to do with the rest of my life, and make the right decision, but I want to do it at my own pace. I’ve spent all my life in the fast lane, but this time I’m not going to rush and chase anybody or anything. I’ve got an open mind.”
Retirement thus far has involved a pleasant summer in Britain and Ireland - “I never knew you had sunshine like this, the sports fields are parched” - as well as a busy round of social and sporting engagements and an enjoyable visit to the World Athletics Championships. Perhaps inspired by Paris, or possibly alarmed by the side-effects of being endlessly wined and dined, Freeman is back running almost every day and is looking fit and energised.
Freeman’s engaging honesty about herself afforded her the priceless ability to connect immediately with 15-year-old schoolgirls, something which, given her profile, she might consider doing more often now that time permits.
Her visit to Waldegrave, Richmond Borough athletics champions this summer, as part of the Daily Telegraph Schools Mentor programme, certainly caused a buzz as the fifth-formers along with teachers with a gap in their timetable, watched a video on Freeman’s career, and then listened to how a young elfin-like Aborigine girl from the humblest of backgrounds in North Queensland became Olympic champion and a national icon. For all its retelling, it remains a remarkable story.
Afterwards there was just time for long-jump practice and a hurdling session - Freeman was once the Australia schools 100 metres hurdles champion and has a soft spot for the event. However, it was her words that made the biggest impression, a crash course in what a schoolgirl and young woman can expect when making her way in athletics.
“I went to my first Commonwealth Games in Auckland 1990 as a 16-year-old, barely older than any of you, and in many ways the experience was nearly too much,” recalled Freeman. "Food everywhere in the athletes’ village so I ate too much and put on weight. Boys everywhere so, of course, I spent too much time chasing them.
"But I did get a gold medal in the 4x100m relay, which was an important stepping stone. At the age of 10 I had told my careers counsellor at school that I was going to win an Olympic gold medal, not just that I was going to be an athlete or compete in the Olympics but that gold was my target. That dream guided my life for the next 20 years or so.
"The year 1997 was a big one for me as a woman, though I still felt like a young girl really. I had major boyfriend problems, if you know what I mean. We had split up after seven years together and I was in pieces most of the summer. You can see from the video of the World Championships in Athens I had shaved all my hair off and had a sort of military crew cut. Yuk. We do strange things sometimes. Romance can really do your head in can’t it?
"At one stage I wasn’t even going to compete, but I did and once I stepped on the track everything faded into the background. I felt very liberated and I came through from lane one in 45 degrees of heat to take my first really big title. It was one of my best runs and proudest moments.
“Athens made me feel strong. As an athlete I felt I was still on course to win that Olympic gold I had always wanted. As a woman I suddenly realised I could deal with everything that life throws at you - men, relationships, upsets, sadness. Set your goals, stick to them and then deal with things as they come along. I probably knew that anyway but Athens confirmed it.”
Freeman went on to explain where her determination came from. “The biggest message I can give you is look for inspiration in your life. It’s all around you. My first inspiration is my mother, who is a fantastically strong individual, followed by my sister, who died of cerebral palsy. Her death made me very aware of using, enjoying and looking after my body. I love being able to do what my body can do. She never had the chance, I did. Life is for living, for heaven’s sake don’t waste it.”
Another inspiration was a Romanian, Mike Danila, who coached her at school. "Mr Danila came from a country and society that has nothing compared with Australia in terms of facilities and quality of living. He always appreciated how lucky he was and made sure we appreciated our good fortune as well. He instilled real discipline in our training, and insisted we aim for the very top. He contacted me recently to say I shouldn’t be retiring and that he reckoned I was still capable of breaking the women’s 400m hurdles record if I switched events. He’s never stopped being ambitious for me.
“As part of a large Aborigine family I travelled around a lot in Queensland before I finally left school. Sport was very important to me because I was incredibly shy. I used to hide in the changing rooms before a race, too frightened to come out, and the PE teacher, Mrs Baldrey, regularly had to come in and get me. I’m so glad she did.”