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Cathy Freeman opens up about discrimination during her career

Posted by on 02/05/2019

She’s the athlete that sprinted into the nation’s hearts when at age 16 she became the first ever Aboriginal Commonwealth Games gold medallist.

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But the moment she is best remembered for is that 400m sprint in the 2000 Olympic Games.

“I really didn’t feel like my feet were touching the ground such was the atmosphere in the stadium,” she says.

“It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. I was so happy. I mean to be a winner is one thing but to feel like a champion is nice, especially to be the best in the world.”

“What did upset me at time was my parent’s reaction; they were more upset than me.”

But the Olympic sprinter says the road to success had its moments of downright discrimination.

She recalls the first time became aware her race was an issue was in primary school Mackay Far North Queensland.

The young runner kept winning races, but never received a trophy, instead watching non-Indigenous girls who came after her receive the glory.

“I think at the time I didn’t really know what was going on,” she says. “Goodness gracious I didn’t really need to get a gold medal or a trophy because to me, all that mattered was that I crossed the line first.”

“What did upset me at time was my parent’s reaction; they were more upset than me.”

Her experiences of racism are a roadblock that she has continually risen above, even when it came from within her own team. 

“But I was never ever going to let it compromise my focus because in order to let that stuff into my mind…. it was going to distract me,” she says.

Her then training partner and now Northern Territory Senator Nova Peris recalls both her and Cathy receiving hate mail.

“The position that both Cathy and I were in as Australia’s two elite indigenous athletes – we certainly had our moment where we received mail and that wasn’t nice it wasn’t pleasant,” she says.

“You know at the end of the day both Cathy and myself, we ran for all Australians and to receive racist hate mail was something that was absolutely disgusting.”

Cathy says much of her drive to succeed stems from the passing of her older sister back in 1990, who lived with cerebral palsy.

Ann Marie Freeman died from an asthma attack, three days after Cathy won her first gold medal at the Auckland Commonwealth games.

“It’s always going to be probably the most special and probably the most significant source of inspiration for me,” Cathy says.

“Just purely based on what she taught me in terms of the kind of person who I wanted to be. Her story is very much part of my story. Her story absolutely defines my character.”

“Even though she might not be alive today, in my heart and in my mind she’s very much alive.”

Now, more than 10 years after she hung up that famous suit, the 41-year-old is moving on to a new stage in her life that includes motherhood and building her very own foundation.

The Cathy Freeman Foundation supports more than 600 kids each year in Palm Island and the Wurrumiyanga community on Bathurst Island in the Northern Territory, striving to close the gap in Indigenous education.

“For the things that I’ve learnt about my own human potential – I want other people especially the Indigenous children to experience their own potential and their own greatness,” she says.

It’s a lofty goal but one that’s fitting for the sprinter that inspired a generation.

Watch the full interview with Cathy Freeman on Living Black on SBS ONE at 5pm on Monday October 20th

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