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Stress Therapy With an ailing husband and facing an ugly lawsuit, Cathy Freeman found escape in a comeback race

Cathy Freeman skipped over to an interviewer last week in
England's Manchester Stadium, pumped up after her first victory
lap in almost two years. "Wasn't it stressful," the television
reporter asked Freeman, the sporting and cultural heroine of the
Sydney Games, "to run the second leg of Australia's 4x400-meter
relay team at the Commonwealth Games following so much time off?"

"Stressful?" Freeman answered. "Not at all. A cherry atop the

Since lighting the cauldron and winning the 400 meters in
Sydney, the 29-year-old Freeman has endured her share of stress:
scrutiny from the Australian tabloids because of her celebrity;
her pending court battle with former manager and boyfriend Nick
Bideau over $2 million in assets; and the diagnosis in May that
her husband, Sandy Bodecker, a 49-year-old Nike executive whom
she married three years ago, is suffering from throat cancer.
"Public approval isn't a priority for me," says Freeman, who
splits her time with Bodecker at their houses in Melbourne and
Portland. "Caring for my husband is."

After Bodecker's illness was discovered, Freeman announced that
she would skip the 2002 season, fueling speculation that she
would retire. While Bodecker began radiation and chemotherapy
treatments in Melbourne, Freeman's friends encouraged her to
train, if only as a diversion. Bodecker then insisted that
Freeman go to Manchester, saying it would be therapeutic to see
her on the track.

Freeman finally agreed, although her time away from the sport
was evident last week. Trailing when she took the baton, Freeman
briefly overcame England's Helen Karagounis only to have
Karagounis pass her on the back straight. Australia's final two
runners, Tamsyn Lewis and Jana Pittman, rallied the team home in
3:25.63, 1.1 seconds ahead of the English. Freeman's 52-second
leg was well off the 49.11 she ran to win the 400 in Sydney.

Despite her sabbatical Freeman remains an icon in the track world.
After the Sydney Games a song by Andy White titled Cos I'm Free,
words that are tattooed on Freeman's right shoulder and signify
her pride in her Aboriginal heritage, became a hit in Australia.
In February, Freeman carried the Olympic flag into Rice-Eccles
Stadium in Salt Lake City with five other world figures, including
John Glenn, Desmond Tutu and Lech Walesa. In Manchester last week
she ate lunch in the athletes' village with Queen Elizabeth,
pronouncing Her Majesty "really cool" and complimenting her
"cheeky smile."

Freeman doesn't smile much when talking about the lawsuit filed
two years ago by Bideau, who claims she owes him a share of the
earnings from deals he negotiated for her. Freeman and Bideau
split after she won a silver medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
With the suit pending, Freeman won't discuss the case, but that
hasn't stopped the Australian media from chasing details about it
and other aspects of her personal life. The scrutiny has worn on
her. She accepted celebrity when it helped empower Aborigines but
sees the recent publicity (including tabloid stories incorrectly
reporting that she was pregnant) as pointless. "I get so bloody
tired of myself," she says. "Can't people focus on others who
need it more than I?"

Freeman says she met needy people last year in Portland when she
volunteered to help at a newspaper about the homeless called
Street Roots. At the office she answered phones and logged sales
of papers. Freeman didn't tell anyone at the newspaper who she
was, but eventually the editor recognized her. She happily agreed
to bring in her gold medal for people around the office to look
at and wear. "Being there made me question all that people have
made of me," said Freeman last week. "So much of what people
worry about is fluff."

Her race over, she was eager to fly home to attend to her husband
and her workouts and leave the fable of Cathy Freeman behind.

COLOR PHOTO: SEAN GARNSWORTHY/GETTY IMAGES IN STRIDE After saying she would skip the 2002 season, Freeman made a golden return in the 400-meter relay at the Commonwealth Games.


News from the Games

Australian swimming star Ian Thorpe won six gold medals and one
silver at the Commonwealth Games and also broke his world record
in the 400-meter freestyle, clocking 3:40.08.... English swimmer
Adrian Turner, who took the bronze in the 400-meter individual
medley, nearly died in January 2000 after suffering from a severe
case of anemia. The 25-year-old needed six blood transfusions
before returning to health.... Australia pulled off the surprise
of cycling when Graeme Brown, Peter Dawson, Mark Renshaw and Luke Roberts combined to set a world record (3:59.58) in the
4,000-meter team pursuit. The four men had never ridden together
before the team was formed three weeks ago.... IOC president
Jacques Rogge said last Saturday that the successful staging of
the Games has enhanced prospects for either Manchester or London
to host a future Olympics.