- Published: 5 March 2007
- ISBN: 9780143302384
- Imprint: Puffin
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 192
- RRP: $17.99
Born to Run
My mother once told me a story about the time before I was born. She told me that her spiritual mother, Muriel, came to bless me while I was still inside her belly. As I lay peacefully in the womb, Muriel put her hands on Mum’s stomach and spoke out loud. She prayed that I would be a ‘fortunate one’.
It’s amazing to hear Mum tell that story now, because when I think about my life, I have been very fortunate. I’ve got a great family and lots of good friends. I’ve travelled all over the world competing for Australia, and at the age of twenty-seven I even won a gold medal at the Olympics.
Sometimes I still wonder how it happened. When I was growing up, I didn’t feel that different to anyone else – I was just a little Aboriginal girl who could run fast. But I’ve learnt that anyone, no matter who they are, can make the most of what they have. I was born with a good body for running, but I also had a dream – the dream to be the very best I could be. For me, running made that dream come true.
My first ever race could have been a complete disaster. I was eight and it was athletics day at St Joseph’s Primary School. I had to represent the Gold House in the 80m sprint, but I almost missed it because I was hiding in the toilets.
‘Catherine! Where are you? Your race is on NOW!’
I could hear my sports teacher, Mrs Bauldry, looking for me. I was supposed to be at the starting line with the other kids, but stage fright had set in. I was feeling shy because a few of the parents had turned up to watch us.
Eventually Mrs Bauldry managed to coax me out of the bathroom. ‘Quickly,’ she said. ‘Hurry or you’ll miss it!’
I rushed towards the oval where the races were being held. I was in such a hurry, I didn’t look where I was going and ran straight into a wire fence.
Ouch! A piece of wire had poked me in the eye. It was stinging, but I knew I didn’t have time to do anything about it. I ran the rest of the way to the oval and made it to the starting line just in time.
‘On your marks . . . get set . . . go!’ yelled one of the teachers.
I took off, pumping my legs as fast as I could. My eye was still hurting so I kept it tightly closed and ran with only one eye open. I’m not sure how I managed to stay in my lane and not bump into the other kids who were running.
It was my first race so I wasn’t expecting much – I just ran. And somehow I ended up winning!
It didn’t take me long to realise that running was something I was good at. Later that year, Mrs Bauldry entered me in the state primary school titles. The titles were held in Brisbane and we were all billeted with different families. Mrs Bauldry had given me a new shirt to wear and also a pair of blue running shoes with spikes. I’d never owned spikes before so I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to wear them in the house. I’ll never forget the look on my host mother’s face when I walked down the hall, ripping out bits of her carpet along the way.
‘Whoa!’ she said. ‘Catherine, love, don’t you think it might be a good idea to take those off while you’re inside?’
I heard a big tearing sound as I lifted my foot one more time and realised what I’d been doing. ‘Um, sure,’ I said.
I won my first gold medal at those titles and when I got home Mum was waiting for me on the front porch. When she found out I’d won she smothered me with hugs and kisses. ‘Ohh, Catherina, I’m so proud of you.’ She said. ‘So proud!’
My family has always been close. I was born in 1973, twelve years after my big brother, Gavin, and seven years after my sister, Anne Marie. My little brother Norman is a year younger than me, and Garth, the baby of the family, is three years younger.
My full name is actually Catherine Astrid Salome Freeman. Mum originally wanted to call me Yasmin, but she changed her mind after I was born. She said that for some reason, as soon as she saw me she just knew I was a Catherine. I get Astrid from an aunt, and Salome was the name of an elderly Torres Strait Islander lady who used to be our neighbour.
‘Make sure you name the baby after me,’ Salome would say whenever she saw my mum. So, of course, my mother did.
The name Catherine is Greek for ‘pure’. My second name, Astrid, is German for ‘star’. Salome is a Hebrew name that means ‘peace’. All my life, to my mother and my whole family, I’ve been known as Catherine – not Cathy. Mum sometimes calls me Catherina, but that’s her only other name for me. It wasn’t until 1990, after winning my first gold medal, that a journalist decided to re-name me Cathy. The name as stuck ever since.
It’s never bothered me, but Mum can’t stand it. ‘If I wanted your name to be Cathy, I would’ve called you Cathy,’ she says.
My cousin Roya feels the same way. ‘Urrrgh! Cathy?’ she says. ‘That’s not you. You’re not Cathy, you’re Catherine!’
That’s our family – always sticking up for each other.
I had so much fun growing up. My younger brothers and I did everything together and I think that’s the way Mum wanted it. We lived in a beautiful sunny place in Queensland called Mackay. I loved the hot weather and used to run around everywhere in bare feet. Even now when I go for a run on really hot days, it reminds me of growing up in Mackay – especially when I’m jogging on grass ovals. I can smell the scent of melaleuca and eucalyptus trees, just like I did when I was young. My face still sweats like it did in tropical Queensland, and my legs still love to run. I still feel as free as I did then.
My parents weren’t rich, but that didn’t matter to us – as long as we could go out and play, we were happy. We lived in a small, three-bedroom house at the bottom of Burston Street. My oldest brother, Gavin, had his own room, but I had to share a bedroom with Norm and Garth. We also didn’t have a car or telephone. I never complained about it, although some days at school I’d see kids buying meat pies and sausage rolls from the tuckshop and wish I could do the same.
‘Mum,’ I said one night, ‘why can’t we buy our lunches from the tuckshop like everyone else? Why do we have to be different?’
‘Because it costs money, Catherine,’ Mum said in her usual direct way. ‘And anyway, it’s bad for you.’
I decided to push my luck a bit further. ‘But why do the other kids get to do it?’
‘Catherine, can you go and get your brothers please? It’s time for dinner.’ This was Mum’s clever way of distracting me so I’d forget to worry about being different. It always worked.
Mum was really fussy about the food we ate. She was born on Palm Island (I call her my island girl!), so she grew up eating natural foods like fruit and fish. Junk food was pretty much a ‘no go’ in our family – there were never any lollies or chips in the cupboards at home. And Mum always made sure our school lunches were something healthy. She’d send us off in the morning with a wholemeal ham-and-cheese sandwich, an apple and a muesli bar packed into a brown paper bag.
Our school was called St Joseph’s, but we called it St Joey’s. Mackay had a fairly big population of Indigenous people so about one-third of the students were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
On my very first day, I couldn’t get over how many kids were crying because they had to leave their mums.
‘Ma, what’s wrong with those kids?’ I asked. ‘Why are they crying so much?’
Even when I was little I wasn’t one to cry in public, and here were all these kids bawling their eyes out. I’d never seen anything like it.
My best friend in kindy was a girl called Sharlene. She had long brown hair that flowed all the way down her back. She also had lots of freckles and a nose that crinkled when she smiled.
One day we were in the toilet block when Sharlene let out the highest of the high-pitched squeals.
‘Sharlene,’ I called out, ‘is everything all right?’
‘There’s a frog!’ she yelled.
I ran into her cubicle to have a look for myself. Sure enough, there in the toilet bowl was a huge green frog. Sharlene and I started giggling. Things like that were always happening in Mackay. My brothers and I would often see frogs, cane toads and lizards around the place.
St Joey’s was Catholic so it had a church as part of the school. The church was fairly new, and had beautiful stained-glass windows that let in the light. It was such a serene place. All the students had to attend regularly so I ended up spending quite a bit of time there. Even now when I’m in Mackay I’m always happy to drop in for a visit, because it makes me feel at peace.
The church was where I celebrated my first communion. All the family were there, including my nanna. It was a bright sunny day, and I wore a beautiful white dress and a veil. I also had theses gloriously white pull-up socks with little frills on the top. The socks matched my oh-so-shiny black shoes that I swear you could see your own reflection in!
Religion meant a lot to our family. Mum was raised Catholic, and then became a Baha’i before I was born. The Baha’i religion teaches that all people, no matter what their race of nationality, are equal. This idea makes sense to Mum. When she was young she went to a church were the white people sat up the front ad the black people sat up the back. ‘I knew it wasn’t right,’ she told me. ‘Faith is meant to be about love and equality.’
Mum taught us two prayers to say every night before we went to sleep. One began like this: ‘Oh God, guide me and protect me, illuminate the lamp of my heart and make me a brilliant star . . .’ The second prayer was about easing the troubles in our lives. Whenever I was worried about something, Mum would tell me to ‘leave it in God’s hands’.
Not that I had too many worries – I was pretty happy and easygoing. Every day after school, my brothers and I would race home to play with the Sabatini kids. The Sabatinis were a Torres Strait Islander family who lived in the house behind ours. I could walk less than five minutes from my front door and find lots of kids with the same background as me. We’d ride our bikes together and play games like chasey, murder in the dark and hide-and-seek. We felt comfortable with each other because we shared the same culture.
On the hill at the top of our street were all the big brick houses with pools – that was where the white rich people lived. I thought that all white people were rich, and that anyone who had a car, a telephone or even carpet must be a millionaire. There was another girl in our street called Catherine and her house was on the hill. She had beautiful blonde hair and blue eyes and went to a private school. I used to watch her walk past to the bus stop and think how different our lives must be. While I was out running around in the dirt with my brothers, she was probably playing with dolls or make-up.
On the weekends we mostly hung out with our cousins. Mum didn’t really like us to spend time outside of school with people who weren’t family. We didn’t care – the sleepovers we had at Nanna’s were the best. Mum and Nanna and the aunties would go and play bingo together, leaving Auntie Karen to look after us. Karen was fairly young, so the boys would just run riot. As soon as she got us to bed – some of us on mattresses on the floor, some of us on the couch – we’d start telling spooky ghost stories. One night I was so scared I wouldn’t even get up to go to the toilet.
On Saturdays we’d have barbecues together down by the harbour. The adults would sit on fold-up chairs or on blankets on the ground, and they’d talk and laugh and share news with one another. Us kids would play chasey in the playground. By the time the adults started serving out the sausages, chops, salads and drinks, we’d be starving.
Afterwards, we’d go back to running around like crazy. Things could get pretty wild when the cousins were all together. Every not and then, someone would fall over and there would be tears. But I never got caught and I never cried once. I was always happy when I was running.
And I was fast!