Cathy Freeman believes hurdler Sally Pearson has the head and shoulders to bear the enormous weight of expectation placed on her as Australia’s athletics standard-bearer and is ready to write her own fairytale at the London Olympics.
Freeman’s emotion-charged dash to win the 400 metres gold at Sydney in 2000 was the crowning moment of a successful hosting of the Games for many Australians and it, of course, remains a fond memory for the retired 39 year old.
The crushing pressure in the lead-up to her triumph was another matter, however, and Freeman, her country’s first Aboriginal athletics champion, still feels “sick” when she remembers the glare of the spotlight.
“I still look back and think ‘Oh my god, how did I manage to keep it together?’ I’m not quite sure”
“When I think of those moments, my immediate reaction is, ‘I’m so glad it’s over!'” she said at Melbourne’s Lakeside Stadium.
“I still look back and think ‘Oh my god, how did I manage to keep it together?’ I’m not quite sure.
“I think the answer is that I loved running and hated losing more so. I think it has to be (the competitive streak).”
Australia’s last champion on the Olympic track, Freeman has acted as an informal mentor to 25-year-old world champion Pearson, who owns the year’s fastest time in the 100m hurdles and will head to London as hot favourite to win gold.
Australian track and field champions have become a rare breed in recent decades and Pearson shoulders the burden of her country’s hopes of an athletics gold at London.
The form struggles of other would-be contenders, including pole vaulter Steve Hooker, Australia’s only athletics champion at the 2008 Beijing Games, has only cranked up the attention.
Pearson has frequently recalled watching transfixed as Freeman stormed home to win gold and has lauded her compatriot as an inspiring role-model in dealing with big-race nerves in the lead-up to London.
Freeman, who will be in London working as a brand ambassador, said she would return the favour as one of Pearson’s loudest cheerleaders, but suggested there was little wisdom she could impart to the runner.
“It would seem so far in her campaign that she’s on track, excuse the pun. She’s got a really good head on her shoulders,” said Freeman.
“She seems to have the makings of that fairytale story ending come London but it all remains to be seen.
“I haven’t had Sally calling me up at one in the morning telling me, ‘Oh my god, I think I’m losing the plot.’
“She’s got such a wonderful ability to focus and really keep her life simple and effective.
Freeman remains a sporting icon in Australia and was mobbed at Lakeside Stadium by schoolchildren too young to have witnessed her gold medal run in Sydney.
Pearson had enjoyed similar attention less than three months earlier at the same venue after clinching the national 100m hurdles title.
Freeman’s Sydney triumph was credited for helping to improve race relations in Australia, where the indigenous population suffer glaring gaps in health and education compared to the mainstream.