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Michael Wilbon

Freeman's Moment Runs On

By Michael Wilbon
Sunday, August 15, 2004; Page E13

ATHENS

She jokes that she spends her days doing things too mundane to mention, "like popping a couple of pimples and plucking my eyebrows.

"My concentration needs to be questioned, I'm so relaxed."

_____ Day Two _____
 Olympics
Michael Phelps wins his first gold medal in the 400-meter individual medley.
Ian Thorpe wins gold in the 400-meter freestyle Saturday.
Abby Wambach and Mia Hamm lead the U.S. women's soccer team over Brazil, 2-0.
Two athletes considered national icons in Greece face have been pulled off the team.
Jennie Finch leads the U.S. softball team to a 7-0 win over Italy.
The U.S. women's basketball team gets out to a slow start but comes back to dominate New Zealand.
Despite a fall by Blaine Wilson the U.S. men's gymnastics team advances.
The top U.S. saber fencers fall in the round of 16.
Italy's Paolo Bettini wins the cycling road race.
Li Du of China wins the first gold medal of the Games.

_____ More From The Post _____
Michael Wilbon: Australian Cathy Freeman is a credit to her country.
Sally Jenkins: Michael Phelps's talent in the pool will make him an international star.
When Phelps and Thorpe face off in the next couple of days it will be a clash of swimming gods.

_____ On Our Site _____
Athens Snippets: U.S. swimmers looking to dominate.

_____ Saturday's Results _____
Swimming
Men's 400 individual medley
Men's 400 freestyle
Women's 400 individual medley
Women's 4x100 free relay
Synchronized Diving
Men's 10m platform
Women's 3m springboard
Cycling
Men's road race
Shooting
Women's 10m air rifle

Complete results

_____ Photos _____
Day 2
Opening Ceremonies

_____ Live Online _____
The Chat House from Athens with Michael Wilbon, 11 a.m. Monday.
Submit questions.
Triple jumper Tiombe Hurd will take questions at 2 p.m. Monday.
Submit questions.

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And while Cathy Freeman's depth would never allow her to disengage, she is remarkably free of pressing responsibility today, relative to four years ago. It was at the last Summer Games, in Sydney, that she lit the Olympic cauldron, won gold in the 400 meters, and healed so many of her nation's wounds along the way, she brought honor not only to the Aborigines but to all of Australia in a way no ambassador in or out of sport ever had.

Four years later, she's not running for Australia, she's not running for anybody. She ran her last race in April 2002, in Portland, Ore. All at once, what had felt "like breathing to me" didn't matter anymore. "I just didn't care," she said of running. "And it frightened me. I didn't want to accept it at the time. But I'd go to the track and couldn't bring myself to put my spike shoes on. I just lost the killer instinct."

So she has been working with companies who sponsored her, like Samsung, and with her Sydney-based, youth-focused foundation named "Inspire," which she says "completes the void that came about now that running is out of my life."

She looks like she could fit into that white jumpsuit she wore the night she lit the cauldron, or the white-and-green suit she wore in the 400, the one with the hood that covered her head and made us focus, as if we weren't already, on the soft features of her face that is so subtly expressive, whether she's on the track or sitting in a little room talking about a wide range of topics.

It was in the Olympic stadium Friday night, watching the Opening Ceremonies, that her own personal flame might have flickered. "Last night," she said, "I began to think, 'I should be there. I really should be there.' " And by there she clearly meant with the Australian team, on the infield, in uniform, marching into the stadium and not in the stands. So the question begged to be asked: Is she thinking about coming back to the track? "I'm not ready to come to any conclusions," she said. "I don't want it to turn out that I think, 'Freeman, you idiot.' I'm going to see how I react to these Games, in my own time and space. I'll see how I will react to the [400-meter] race."

She is in that netherworld most great athletes have to negotiate sooner or later, especially the ones who author the unforgettable moments of sports. "I haven't yet found my next big gold medal dream," Freeman said. "I don't have that next burning desire. I suppose that as a child I should have dreamt of more than one gold medal."

It was worth so much more than that, however, if not in gold then in patriotism. And if not to Freeman then to her country, which she brilliantly confronted by braiding the Aboriginal and Australian flags together and carrying them as one in her victory laps. It was stunningly simple and highly effective. Freeman, saying nary a word, had led a fuller discussion of the history of exclusion and mistreatment of Australia's indigenous people than had ever been had, according to most accounts. The morning of the race, the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald ran only one headline and it read, "The Race of Our Lives" over a tight shot of Freeman's face. And the opening paragraph read in part, "There has been no single occasion where more has been expected of an Australian sports person."

And that was the backdrop that September Monday night when she won The Race, when 110,000 people of various colors and nationalities stood and saluted her, many of them clapping and screaming through tears.

On Saturday morning here in Athens, I told Freeman her performance that night is the most emotional, most powerful and inspired performance I've ever seen in 24 years of covering sports.

She hears that sort of comment occasionally and reacts with visible emotion. "I hear these stories," she said, "and it's such powerful stuff. You're going to make me cry. The irony is, all I ever set out to do was run a race, run fast, and win. It's such a selfish act when you're out to win a gold medal. From 1994 until 2000, I was very businesslike, machinelike. I compartmentalized to the point where I estranged myself. I only wanted one thing: that chunk of medal. I don't like looking in mirrors or reading newspaper [articles about herself]. My cousin said that when I sat down on the track [after winning the 400] he could look at my face and he knew that was it for me. Of course, I didn't sense that. The three things for me were my family and loved ones, my cats, and running. I never saw it coming.

"Now, I feel like I've rejoined the world. It became okay to connect with everybody. And when I did, my senses were overwhelmed. It was like, 'Okay, what has happened here?' It felt like an out of body experience. So, now I hear these stories, people's reactions and it really is powerful stuff. I think I need a scotch."

And so she worries, "I'm never going to find such moments again" and because she left running in her physical prime, "I didn't fulfill my potential as an athlete."

Of course, it's the consuming pursuit of those ultimate moments that led Freeman to achieve all that she has in the first place. But what replaces the high of competition, of winning that chunk of medal? Already she is anticipating a potential meeting, through her charitable work, with Nelson Mandela. "I want to beg him," she said, " 'Can I follow you around all day?' "

The greatest competitors, the ones who've heard the loudest applause and done the most difficult and the worthiest things, have the most difficult time finding moments that excite them after the athletic life is laid to rest. I'm betting that Freeman, after this period of searching, will in time find a new kind of fulfillment, the way Arthur Ashe did, the way Earvin Johnson has.

"I'm really not political, if you can believe that," she said, laughing at the irony. "I know there are sophisticated approaches for dealing with confrontation, boycotts and protests, and there are extreme cases like fighting apartheid where they are so necessary. I'd rather focus on finding the real energy that comes from people's hearts. I believe it's possible my race inspired a new generation of strong leaders from my community. Hopefully, I set a good example."


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