Cathy Freeman’s daughter was one of the most anticipated babies to be born this year, because Cathy is not only one of our greatest athletes, but also one of our most loved. Australia has been blessed with more than its fair share of fast runners, but Cathy did more than run fast – she has that charisma that draws people to her, and a smile that can light up, not just a room, but an entire stadium.
Her sporting achievements are well-known and add up to a stellar career. She began running aged five, won her first gold medal at the age of eight in Brisbane, and was encouraged by her family to pursue her dream of becoming an Olympic athlete. She won her first international gold medal for the women’s relay at the Commonwealth Games in Auckland, 1990; this made her not only the first Aboriginal gold medal winner at a Commonwealth Games, but also the youngest, as she was only 16. To commemorate her achievement, she was awarded Young Australian of the Year in 1990. In her acceptance speech, she said that she ran for all Australians, but particularly for Aboriginal Australians, whom she hoped to inspire to reach their own goals.
Cathy’s childhood dream came true in 1992, when she became the first Aboriginal Australian to compete at an Olympics Games, in Barcelona. She won double gold at the 1994 Commonwealth Games, and in 1996 received her first Olympic medal when she won silver in the 400 metres in Atlanta. Three subsequent Grand Prix victories and her taking first place at the 1997 World Track and Field Championships in Athens confirmed her status as world champion over 400 metres. In 1998, she received the Australian of the Year Award for her athletic achievements. To date, she is the only person who has ever been awarded both Young Australian of the Year and Australian of the Year.
The 2000 Olympics in Sydney were expected to be the jewel in her crown, and she was chosen to light the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony. Cathy didn’t disappoint, as she won her first Olympic gold medal for the 400 metres, and after the race, did her victory lap carrying both the Australian and Aboriginal flags as a symbol of national reconciliation. This had to gain the special permission of the International Olympic Committee, because although the Aboriginal flag is officially recognised in Australia, it isn’t a national flag, and isn’t recognised by the IOC. Cathy later explained that the carrying of both flags was the culmination of a promise that she had made to herself when she was 16, and just beginning her international career.
Further honours came her way: she received the Olympic Order, the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, the Laureus Sportswoman of the Year Award, and the Order of Australia Medal all in the same year, 2001. After her retirement, she devoted herself to many charitable causes, most notably the Cathy Freeman Foundation, which encourages indigenous children to stay in school and succeed academically.
Catherine Astrid Salome Freeman had become not just an athlete, not just an Olympian, not just a gold medallist, but also a spokesperson, a community leader, a role model, an icon, an inspiration, a star. Her success was beyond the wildest dreams of the little girl who had won primary school sports day races in Queensland.
A couple of years ago I watched an episode of genealogy show, Who Do You Think You Are?, featuring Cathy Freeman. She already knew that her grandfather, Frank Fisher, was a famous rugby league player from an Aboriginal mission, known for being a fast sprinter and a fierce competitor on the field, but was surprised to find her great-grandfather, Frank Fisher senior, served in World War I as a member of the Light Horse. She discovered that she had both English and Chinese ancestry on her mother’s side, and that her mother’s family had been sent to a Palm Island penal settlement for being too independent. They were to remain there for four generations – a place so strictly controlled that Cathy’s mother Cecelia was not allowed to visit family members for Christmas; this was in 1963.
As Cathy read the documents connected with her family history, she shed tears of rage and frustration on behalf of her ancestors. She said that if she had known all this when she was an athlete, she would have run even faster, and her running would have been fuelled by anger. Cathy has a tattoo on one bicep that reads Cos I’m Free, and she realised that her freedom was a historically recent thing.
Despite her magnificent public success, her private life was filled with drama, turmoil and even scandal. But as Cathy explained in an interview: “I might be a champion athlete but that doesn’t make me a champion person. Why shouldn’t my personal life be just as difficult and troublesome as any other woman’s? God, the mistakes I have made and the tears I’ve shed . . . Apart from a certain God-given talent I firmly believe the reason I achieved so much is that running was my escape from a chaotic personal life. Athletics was my refuge, something I could lose myself in.”
Fortunately, her chaotic love life got a lot happier and more stable when she met fund manager James Murch at a charity ball – a man that Cathy describes as “fantastic, fabulous, sexy, beautiful, gorgeous”, and also her best friend. In April 2009, Cathy and James were married in a Ba’hai wedding ceremony that included traditional indigenous elements. They were very open about wanting children as soon as possible, and said they were willing to adopt if necessary.
Cathy dropped a hint that she might be pregnant in September last year, during a ceremony to mark the tenth anniversary of the Sydney Olympic Games. She made a comment about her memory living on through her “unborn children and their children”. After she was questioned what she meant by that, her thought was, “Oh dear, what have I said?”. Pictures of her looking plumper, and a suddenly cancelled charity run across Sydney Harbour Bridge only fuelled speculation.
The pregnancy was officially announced in February, and it was also revealed that pregnancy had triggered gestational diabetes, which is said to run in Cathy’s family, and which Aboriginal women have a higher risk of getting. She had to inject herself with insulin four times a day, and after always being so fit and healthy, it was hard for her to adjust to the idea of her body failing her. In fact, in photos taken during the last few months of her pregnancy, Cathy looks noticeably tired and unwell, although she was able to continue going to the gym.
Her daughter Ruby Anne Susie was born on July 8, and we are told that the delivery went smoothly and both mother and baby were healthy. On July 11, she posted photos of Ruby on her website, and said on Twitter that she was recovering well and loving being a new mum. By the end of July, she was back at work promoting children’s sport.
Ruby was the #1 name last year in Victoria, where the Murch family live, and Cathy and James may well have picked it simply because they love it. However, this pretty gemstone has historically been often used as a name in the indigenous community, and there are several famous Aboriginal women called Ruby, including singer-songwriter, Ruby Hunter; political activist Ruby Langford Ginibi; and Ruby Hammond, the first Aboriginal woman political candidate in South Australia.
I think the middle name Anne may be in tribute to Cathy’s older sister, Anne-Marie, who was born with severe cerebral palsy and spent most of her life in a home for the disabled. Cathy always said that she had to run so fast because Anne-Marie couldn’t move her hands and feet at all, and that Anne-Marie has been a constant inspiration in her life – not just the wind beneath her wings, but a tornado. Anne-Marie died when Cathy was sixteen. The second middle name, Susie, is after James’ mother, who sadly passed away before she could ever meet Cathy.
I must confess that I admire Cathy Freeman a great deal, and basically I would have loved any name she chose for her daughter. I think Ruby Anne Susie is a bright, smiley, sunshiney name that’s cute as a button and also honours loved ones – two completely biased thumbs up!
(Photo from Cathy’s Freeman’s website)