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Cathy Freeman: 'If I had known about my parents' struggles, who knows how fast I could have run?'

Maurice Blackburn
Thanks to our brand partner, Maurice Blackburn

Sixteen years ago, Cathy Freeman slowed across the finish line of the 400m Women’s Final ahead of all her competitors. And made history.

To say the nation reacted with joy would be an understatement. Try ‘exhilaration’. Or ‘ecstasy’.

It didn’t feel like it was only her triumph. It was ours.

Now, in a deeply personal story she crafted with The Moth for the podcast Fighting For Fair, Cathy reflects on the family revelation that made her view that run – and her life – through a completely different lens.

You can listen, here:

On that day – Friday, September 22, 2000 – her famous victory lap of the Olympic stadium saw her join the Australian and Aboriginal flags into one powerful statement.

Cathy intertwining the Aboriginal and Australian flags following her victory. Image via Getty.

It was symbolic of her reaching a point where Cathy could represent a nation which, only 40 years before, had robbed her culture of not only their children, but their identity.

"My identity was attached to a negative set of thoughts," she says. It was attached to a childhood of repression. Of anguish.

It wasn't only her victory, it was Australia's. Image via Getty.
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But by the time Cathy crossed the line in 2000, she'd overcome her demons. She'd got there.

Three years later, Cathy retired.

As she tells Fighting For Fair, in the middle of her adjustment to a post-sport world, Cathy was contacted by Who Do You Think You Are? - an Australian television series exploring family ancestry. And she was keen.

Cathy as a child. Image supplied.

Cathy gained exactly what she aimed to from the experience...

"I felt like I was in Alice in Wonderland... where am I going to go? Who am i going to meet today?

"I had Chinese and English heritage, which particularly blew my mind."

One particular moment in filming, however, re-opened a book for Cathy. One she thought she'd closed years earlier.

Cathy with husband James Murch in 2013. Image via Getty.
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On camera, Cathy's Mum, Cecilia, presented her with a letter she'd kept from the mid 1960s...

In the 1960s Aboriginal people were living under 'The Act' - an unaffectionate nickname given to the restrictive laws that were placed upon indigenous communities. 'The Act" governed everything from who indigenous people could marry to where they could work and where they could live.

In the letter, her mother had sought permission - from the Superintendent in charge of Aboriginal activity in rural Queensland - to pay a visit to her sister and mother in another town.

Cathy and her Mum. Image via SBS.

The letter presented to Cathy at the time of filming was the denial of this request. The refusal was based on unsteady grounds: namely, the fact she wasn't married to the father of her children.

Cathy knew about the mistreatment of Indigenous Australians all too well. She lived through it. But this was a violation of freedom of which she'd never been made aware..."I'm sure for other Australians it was a right [to move around freely]."

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A recent pic x. #cathyfreeman

A photo posted by Cathy Freeman (@cathyfreemanofficial) on

"For all the emotions [my Mum] carries, I carry too", Cathy says."Feelings of sadness... which turned to anger... which turned to fury."

Cathy's athletic drive - which brought us our most famous gold medal - stems from the pride she has for her Indigenous roots and from the injustices she lived through.

That time she set? To this day, it remains the sixth fastest 400m time. Ever.

"However... had I known about the struggles of my parents?... Who knows how much faster I could've run."

As for Cathy's Mum? "She still struggles with the memories and still struggles with the oppression. It's all too painful."

To subscribe to Fighting For Fair, a podcast in partnership with Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, go to iTunes, here, or to the Mamamia podcast app.

To see all our podcasts in one place, please go here, where you'll find all of our shows in one place and any books written by the many Mamamia guests.

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