With the controversial Rio Olympics kicking off on Friday 5th August, we checked in with one of our most esteemed Olympic champions. We speak with Cathy Freeman, nearly 16 years after her historic win at the 2000 Olympic Games about her days as a champion, her new life as a mother to four-year-old Ruby and her battles with health issues.

Nearly 16 years ago, Australia fell in love with this champion in that memorable green, yellow and silver bodysuit (to honour Australia) with her red, yellow and black springing shoes (to honour her Aboriginal heritage). When Cathy Freeman ran the women’s 400 metre race in lane 6 at the Olympics in 2000, it was just after 8pm on Monday 25th September.

We applauded her as she won and did a victory lap of the oval with both the Australian and the Aboriginal flag. Cathy Freeman ran straight into our history books. This champion has said, ”I was running since I was 10. Since grade one at school people looked at me and thought, oh gosh she can really run, she's a natural.”

Cathy’s personal best time of 48.63 for the 400 metres to this day, ranks her as the sixth fastest woman on the planet for this race – an amazing achievement.

Where is Cathy now?
Cathy retired from athletics in 2003. These days, a lot of Cathy’s time is taken up being the mother of four-year-old daughter, Ruby, and wife to stockbroker husband, James Murch.

But alongside her family, she has used her high profile to promote a number of charities including the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation and Cottage by the Sea, a charity which helps children in need.

In 2007, she founded the Cathy Freeman Foundation – an organisation which works with Indigenous communities to help them realise their potential.

For more than a year she has also been an ambassador for the Lung Foundation Australia.

Did you watch Cathy's historic victory live in 2000?

And Ruby makes three…
“Since retiring I got married to my husband James and four years ago we had a little girl Ruby,” says Cathy. “I now juggle motherhood with community advocacy and oversee The Cathy Freeman Foundation which helps Indigenous children and their families recognise the power of education and achieve their goals and dreams.”

“I’m passionate about helping others because I see myself in other people – I don’t feel I’m any different to anyone else. I want all Australians to experience a journey as well. Where there’s a will there’s a way and where there’s a way there’s a will,” she laughs.

What keeps Cathy going…
“I’m a big believer in self-belief,” Cathy adds. “But I’m also a big believer in drawing strength from others. By the time I ran my first race as a small girl my mum was a single parent of four. When I turned 10, she remarried and it was my stepdad who really championed my running potential. He saw in me the future. He taught me ambition and planted the seed.”

“I was always surrounded by expectation from the very first race I ran as a 5-year-old.” 

“By the time I was in high school my running career was already taking flight. However when I was 18 something happened that left me with an uneasy feeling. I had my first asthma attack,” she says.

Cathy -freeman -hero -crop
Cathy works to improve Indigenous children's futures through the Cathy Freeman Foundation (Image: Facebook/Cathy Freeman Foundation)

“At the time I was training in Darwin. One day I just couldn’t stop wheezing. Looking back I think the grass pollen triggered it, but I just put it out of my mind.”

Cathy says over the years, her asthma worsened and it all culminated in a stressful meet at the 1997 World Championships in Athens. “It was polluted and unbearably hot – up to 45 degrees Celsius every day,” she says. “I was struggling just to breathe. It was so scary. Even after comfortable runs I was just gasping. I knew I wasn’t unfit and that things had gotten really bad.”

“I was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma which is triggered by vigorous physical exertion. I was prescribed preventative puffers and Ventolin and from then on made sure that my puffers were on hand after every race,” she says.

“Twenty seconds before a race, there's absolute focus. The key thing is to achieve relaxation, but at the same to have absolute total control. You've got to find the balance between being totally ready to go and being really at peace with yourself as well.”

“Even after I won the 400m gold medal at the Sydney 2000 Olympics I was breathing quite heavily, trying to gulp in as much air as possible. Nine years ago I was diagnosed with full blown asthma,” she adds.

Cathy’s personal lung health battle
For most Australians it comes as a bit of a surprise to learn that someone as fit and healthy as Cathy Freeman has asthma. At 43, Cathy says she is finally coming to terms with the fact she does have asthma.

One of Australia's most revered athletes now runs a foundation for helping Indigenous children through education (Image: Cathy Freeman Foundation)

“Australian adults rarely think about the health of their lungs,” she says. “But they need to. It’s time we started to take the issue a lot more seriously.”

Cathy encourages all Australians to do the lung health check at because it’s so easy to do and only takes a few minutes. Once you’ve done the test, you’ll know if you’re at risk, she adds.

Cathy stresses it’s a good idea to exercise and maintain a healthy lifestyle by monitoring your weight and nutrition: “We also need to stay away from triggers such as dust and smoke and have good hand hygiene.”

Lung disease often goes overlooked
Whilst most people think they have no lung issues, according to the CEO of Lung Foundation Australia, Heather Allan, at least one in 10 Australians have a lung condition – whether it be asthma, cancer, bronchiectasis or pulmonary disease. Allan said because the symptoms of lung disease tend to creep up on you slowly, people are often able to adjust to their symptoms, rather than seek help.

“You got to try and reach for the stars or try and achieve the unreachable.”

“What’s more, it is a fact that Indigenous people die of lung disease at a rate three times higher than non-Indigenous Australians,” she adds.

It can be easy to be in denial
Despite her amazing success on the track, for more than 20 years, Cathy says she hid her debilitating asthma condition.

“I just didn’t want to admit I had asthma,” she says. “It didn’t sit well with me – that was my own little stubborn way. It was only earlier this year that I finally came to terms with my condition, when the penny dropped, and I realised I needed to take positive action against my lung condition. Up until then I had ignored my symptoms – I hadn’t wanted to admit I had a lung disease.”

However, Cathy says she’s now proud to be able to say that she does have asthma.

“By sharing my own story, I hope to encourage Australians to start talking about their own lung health. As an athlete, I know the importance of lung health, and I know how poor health can affect your life. I’m passionate about the lung health of Australians, particularly Indigenous Australians who are even more likely to have a lung disease,” she adds.

“Australians are a fantastic bunch of people but the attention can be overwhelming for someone like me.”

“When you have a profile it allows you to get across important messages,” she says. “That’s my passion. People need to realise their full potential so they can be the best they can be – including health-wise.”

Australian Olympic champion Sally Pearson on Cathy Freeman's inspiration

Keeping fit and healthy
Cathy says these days she’s still very interested in keeping fit and healthy. She says one of the best ways she keeps fit is looking after little Ruby. “She’s an active, outgoing kid,” Cathy says. “She throws her full weight into everything – she does tennis, Taekwando, gymnastics and swimming. I don’t like her to sit around and not use her brain, I don’t encourage a sedentary lifestyle. I like her to use her imagination and body. Lately she’s just preferred to play with toys and word games rather than watch TV which is great!”

Another great keep-fit exercise which both Cathy and Ruby love is swimming. “We swim together and practice holding our breath which is good for me. I’m not the greatest swimmer but I recently managed to swim 5km in the pool, although I had to keep stopping!” +

Cathy knows how important it is to control your breathing and keep calm – even on the days when being a mum goes pear-shaped. “I think the key is to follow your common sense and gut instinct. I tend not to hesitate to reach out for extra help when I need it,” she says. “Being a mum is interesting, topsy turvy, turbulent, full of twists, drama and frustration. But it’s also full of laughter, light, love and joy. At the end of the day it’s the greatest thing ever.”

Facts from Lung Foundation Australia

  • More than 1 in 3 of us are experiencing a symptom or share a risk factor 
  • More than 1 in 4 Australians has a chronic respiratory disease 
  • 1 in 7 deaths in Australia is related to lung disease 
  • Lung cancer is still the biggest cancer killer in Australia
  • More women die of lung cancer than of breast and ovarian cancer combined
  • Indigenous people die of lung disease at a rate about 2.5 times higher than non-indigenous Australians

Do you remember watching Cathy Freeman's Olympic win live? Share your memories below.

(Feature image: Facebook/Cathy Freeman Foundation)