Cathy Freeman, Australia’s Iconic Olympian, Pays Matildas a Surprise Visit before Women’s World Cup

AP Photo/Thomas Kienzle, File
In this Sept. 25, 2000, file photo, Australia’s Cathy Freeman celebrates winning the women’s 400 meter race at the Summer Olympics at Olympic Stadium in Sydney.

BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — During a recent team trip to Melbourne, Tony Gustavsson, head coach of Australia’s national women’s soccer team, called a meeting. Instead of leading the Matildas through a tactical discussion, he told the players he had different plans for the evening.

“They played about a three-minute highlight reel on YouTube of the moment of Cathy Freeman’s race,” Matildas defender Aivi Luik recounted Tuesday in Brisbane, where the Matildas are finalizing preparations for the Women’s World Cup. “And by the end of it, there was a lot of emotion going around in the room.

“And when they turned the lights on, we turned around, and there she was.”

If any Australian knows how to handle pressure in the sports arena, it’s Freeman. In 2000, she was heavily favored to win the 400 meters in the Sydney Olympics. She lit the cauldron at the opening ceremony in the days leading up to the most important race of her life.

With the country’s sports-loving public watching in expectation, Freeman made history as the first Indigenous person from Australia to win an individual Olympic gold medal. After the race, Freeman circled the track once more, carrying both the Aboriginal and Australian flags.

She delivered under pressure in front of her home crowd, and cemented her status as Australia’s iconic Olympian.

The Matildas will have to deal with enormous expectations over the next month, as Australia and New Zealand co-host the Women’s World Cup.

Gustavsson, a Swede who was an assistant coach with the U.S. women’s national team before taking over as head coach of the Matildas in 2020, at one point took note that more than half of his players identified Freeman as the athlete who most inspires them.

Luik is a 38-year-old defender from Perth with 43 international caps for Australia. She was 15 when Freeman won gold in Sydney. Star striker Sam Kerr was 7 when she watched that race on TV, and recalls it as one of her biggest inspirations in sport.

“A lot of girls were very emotional,” Luik said of meeting Freeman. “She spoke back to us just like she was a friend, and we got a lot of good insight from that.”

Freeman isn’t known for making many public speeches, but she spoke to the team about handling the pressure of performing in a major event in front of massive home crowds.

The Matildas take on Ireland in a World Cup opening match Thursday at Stadium Australia in Sydney Olympic Park — the same stadium where Freeman ignited the flame and won her race.

A crowd of 82,500 is expected, which would set the Australian attendance record for a women’s soccer match. The Matildas found comfort in Freeman’s words.

“We came away from that feeling a little bit of a weight off our shoulders and just completely inspired,” Luik said.