It’s a bright but chilly day in Brighton. Catherine Freeman arrives at Brighton Baths right on time for our interview and photo shoot. Windswept and devoid of make-up, she looks fit, healthy and every inch the focused marathon runner.
“Is this going to be OK? I don’t worry about my hair and make-up or putting a lot of effort into what I wear. These days it’s what’s available, and what’s clean?” she says, laughing.
For the past six months Freeman has had her mind on other things. She has rediscovered the passion she had when she won the 400 metres gold medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
She has rediscovered her love of running and is busy juggling caring for the toddler who has changed her life with six hours or so of rigorous training every week. Freeman has become a familiar tracksuited figure around the beachside suburbs she calls home and she recently completed her longest ever run of 30 kilometres.
On November 4, Freeman will be one of thousands of runners under starter’s orders at the New York Marathon.
Not a bad effort for a woman who gained 20 kilograms during her pregnancy, who has asthma and was more recently diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, and who had her first child only 15 months ago.
“It was a personal thing – triggered by the loss of loved ones in my family. When my stepfather passed away in April this year, well, there’s the process of grief,” she says quietly.
“And I think at times like that, it’s important to be aware of what makes you happy, to try and empower yourself with positive things like eating well, exercise, surrounding yourself with people who want to help you.
“And a marathon has been on my bucket list since I was a 12-year-old wee lass in my parents’ lounge room in Mackay watching Rob de Castella. I remember being that little girl watching him win the 1982 Commonwealth Games marathon and seeing how tough and tenacious he was. That memory has always been in my head. He was a superhero to me.”
But it has been hard work for Freeman, 39, to rediscover her fitness after retiring from competitive sport in 2003.
“I had gotten out of the habit of exercising and my food plan wasn’t fantastic. In fact, there wasn’t really any plan,” she says, laughing.
“But at the same time I needed to step away from running then. I knew nothing else and I needed to know what life was like for the normal Joe Blow. I wanted to know what it was like to not have to be so disciplined, to not run every day.
“Looking back, I should’ve retired straight after the Olympics in 2000. It wasn’t until three years later though that I realised my heart wasn’t in it. I no longer had the desire to win, or to even try to win any more.
“But I definitely struggled after retiring. Oh my God! All of a sudden you wake up after 17 years of this pattern … all my life I was surrounded by people who expected me to run, and I felt safe with that, comfortable with that. And then all of a sudden – what are the expectations?
“You really don’t know who you are any more. You still have your name and your family but you are sorting out other relationships around you because people react to your successes, and you wonder if they are reacting to you or to the success you’ve achieved. So you’re figuring out who’s who in the zoo. My family was a constant but when you move out of the only life you’ve known, it’s tricky.”
Her family helped Freeman make that transition, along with her husband, James Murch. The couple married in April 2009 and their happiness was capped by the arrival of Ruby, now 15 months old. Her husband and daughter are flying to New York to support her and to fit in a family holiday.
“At first, my husband thought it was strange that I set such a monumental task quite soon after having our baby. But he’s been my biggest cheerleader. When I’m training, my husband is usually minding our little girl,” she says.
“I’m feeling a little nervous but I’m excited to be a part of the marathon more than anything. It’s the fear of the unknown that gets to me the most. Attempting anything new can be a little daunting.”
What will be going through her mind as she’s on the starting line? In her mind’s eye, she says, she’ll visualise the broad smiles of more than 600 children on Palm Island, Queensland.
Freeman is running to raise money for the Cathy Freeman Foundation, which supports the education of indigenous children on Palm Island. She hopes to raise $50,000 to provide literacy packs for the kids.
“My mother was always telling me ‘don’t ever forget where you are from’, and she was born on Palm Island. So I travelled there a lot, but, as a kid, I didn’t realise that Palm Island was the fourth-most disadvantaged community in Australia. It was just where my family lived,” she says.
“I’ve always been mindful not to forget where my roots are. I got to the Olympics and enjoyed the success that comes with that, but it’s important to me to feel grounded and attached to my roots. And I just believe all kids should be able to travel a similar journey to me and to have an education and opportunities.”
What will she do after she crosses the finishing line?
“I’ll be looking for my family,” says Freeman, her face smiling widely at the mere thought of her little girl.
“And then I’ll definitely be needing a massage, definitely. I think my husband will be the main caregiver for Ruby that day because I won’t be able to walk.”
Twelve years after she lit the Olympic torch in Sydney, Freeman’s instantly recognisable face still attracts attention. Away from the corporate events and the camera she’s quiet and modest and she’s genuinely surprised when asked how she feels being an inspiration to other kids. Just as de Castella left a lasting impression on her as a 12-year-old in Mackay, Freeman is an icon to many other young Australians.
“Geez, d’you think? That’s a really good way to look at it. That makes me feel really good about myself,” she says. “It’s hard for me to imagine that.”
Once the marathon is behind her, Freeman is looking forward to a return to the routine family life she relishes – shopping, heading to the beach on a sunny day, going to cafés, fitting in the odd pedicure and updating her baby diary, interspersed with business meetings and corporate events.
“When the sun’s shining, my husband, daughter and I head to the beach. I like an early night and I like cooking new recipes because I never know what the results are going to be,” she says, laughing.
Then she takes a quick look at her watch. It’s lunchtime and Freeman’s got an important date – with a little girl who has stolen the Olympian’s heart.
» Cathy Freeman’s fund-raising page is at http://personalchallenge.gofundraise.com.au/page/cathyfreeman