Cathy Freeman: Planting the Olympic gold medal seed

When she crossed the finishing line on to win the gold medal in the 400 metres at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Cathy Freeman felt joy, then disappointment, then relief.

"The thought in my mind as I crossed the line was, 'so this is what it feels like to be an Olympic champion'," she said in Brisbane on Friday, where she had just been announced as the latest ambassador to the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.

"And then I looked across at the time and I actually was a bit disappointed, because I would have loved for it to have been under 49 seconds," she said.

Freeman missed that time by one-tenth of a second. Her fastest official 400 metres time was 48.63 seconds, making her the sixth fastest women of all time.

"My initial thought as I crossed the line was that the time could have been a little bit faster," she said.

"But then I was just so overwhelmed because it was just so surreal and then it was a case of just trying to enjoy myself really."

Seventeen years later, Freeman's voice remains a delight.

She still speaks the way a smile should sound.

Part mischief, part schoolgirl laughs, part determination, part careful listener.

At 44, she is no longer a teenager; now living in Melbourne, married to James, mother of six-year-old Ruby.

Her Cathy Freeman Foundation tries to "bridge the education gap" for 1600 Aboriginal students in four communities in Queensland and Northern Territory.

At next month's Brisbane TimesCity2South, runners can choose to donate their entrance fee to her charity.

In Brisbane on Friday, Freeman relaxes after a hectic media launch in Brisbane where she was announced as the sixth Gold Coast Games ambassador and considers her legacy to Australian athletics.

"I hope it would be the fact that from such humble beginnings you can reach the top of the tree so to speak," she said.

Freeman was born at Slade Point near Mackay in 1973 and, after several schools and towns where she won scores of regional age titles, studied at the Kooralbyn International School and eventually won an athletics scholarship to Toowoomba's Fairholme College.

Her earliest coach was her stepfather Bruce Barber, then Mike Danila who first considered for a Commonwealth Games trials when she ran 11.67 seconds in a 100 metre event in 1989.

The next year, Freeman was chosen for the Australian Commonwealth Games team and she won her first Commonwealth Games gold medal at age 16 as a member of the 4x100 metre relay.

Freeman became the first indigenous Australian to win a Commonwealth Games gold medal; the first of four gold medals at three separate Commonwealth Games in Auckland, Victoria (Canada) and Manchester.

It was the start of a 12-year elite athletics career.

She proudly carried both the indigenous flag and the Australian flag around Sydney's Olympic stadium in 2000.

Today, she says her legacy for indigenous women is the same as her legacy for Australian athletics.

"I think it is probably a bit more personal because of the connected-ness that there is within indigenous communities about perspective, culture and aspirations," she said.

"I have definitely set an example for indigenous women in terms of setting an example of what is possible."

Freeman thinks back to her 10- or 11-year-old self running at regional athletics events in small Queensland towns.

"I was always in the present," she said.

"Because all the small regional towns I was living in there was a lot of quietness. There wasn't a lot of traffic.

"At Mackay on the school oval, or at Hughenden in the outback of Queensland, or Moura, or Moranbah, it was always so quiet and it was my stepfather Bruce Barber who first encouraged me.

"I remember at the age of 10 putting up on my wall a sign which read 'I am the world's greatest athlete' and he was the one teacher in my life who encouraged me to aim for the top.

"So I had the seed planted in my brain at a very early age to reach for the unreachable goal and I just trusted him."

Coaches replaced coaches, who in turn were replaced by newer coaches. Each coach trained a young Freeman towards different things as she grew into a world champion and a young woman in front of the world's eyes.

She distilled three things essential to her successful career.

"First of all I have been very fortunate and number one I had a degree of talent," she told Fairfax Media.

"Then I had the temperament to know what was good for me in terms of the lessons I took from the right teachers in that relationship.

"And then three, making the most of opportunities and not being afraid to do what I loved, which was to run and to race and to compete."

Freeman has, as she said repeatedly on Friday, stopped running from the iconic 'Cathy Freeman Olympic gold medallist' and has returned to the spotlight to help younger athletes.

"I think it is because I recognise that I have a lot of stories to share that are of use and are helpful," she said.

"...It's just so good to be part of something that will bring about a good sense of community and being ambassador for something that promotes healthy outcomes through sport."

This story Cathy Freeman: Planting the Olympic gold medal seed first appeared on The Age.