Off Season Odyssey – Part 18: Running In Cathy Freeman’s Steps



It’s grey when I get to Canberra. I’ve been to dot-towns all over the country, found teammates and ex-teammates underground and in cities, yet not one of them lives here. Not that I know of. I wonder what that says about us – me and the Grey City?

I have a kick with myself, just to keep things ticking over. This seems another one of those towns split down the middle.


Aussie Rules.

So many lawns aren’t kept. Thousands of them. There are poor suburbs, which surprises me.

I hook in with Caro. We had some adventures together years ago, in South America.

“Why would you bother to be poor in Canberra?” I ask her.

Caro’s trying to adjust after a decade of living in one Spanish speaking country after another; to turn all that energy and fearlessness into becoming a hotshot lawyer. An international one, no doubt.

She’s the original wild child with work ethic. One odyssey after another.

Caro is all Rugby, in easy ways, as happy not talking sport as she is talking it.

“All I know it it’s a city of bureaucrats. Which means bugger all nightlife,” she says. “The surest sign this is our Capital is not many of its residents really want to be here,” she adds. “Most Aussies don’t like this stuff.”

I have no idea. I can’t even spell bureaucrat. I mean, who invented such a difficult word? Probably a bureaucrat. A room full of them.


I mosey on down to the Australian Sports Institute. The place is science fiction. A utopian city of money and right angles. As I’m wandering around, a 6ft3 woman walks along side me. I’ve come straight from the desert, so am looking pretty scruffy. She has legs of muscle and seems pissed off I’m noticing her.

Those legs are some of the strongest, most solid things I have seen in my life. Superb. Oozing genetics and determination, they turn me on and totally intimidate me at the same time.

A small cluster of young boys swim in the other direction. A 6ft7 skinny man strides by. The ground maintenance crew are hulking things, barely squeezing into their work buggies. Swimmers with day jobs. Most of the people behind desks ripple with the energy and confidence, the spit, of former champions.

I feel like I’m on an alien space ship.

I watch them, tall, small, solid, slim, in teams, solo, walking under and around each other. Interacting and ignoring in turn. It seems to me some of them are in love with it all, other resentful they have to endure sharing space with the public.

Only the dunny cleaners look human. Some old, some fat, some ethnic. Only the garbage men aren’t wearing ASI blue uniforms. I wonder how they feel, walking amongst giants?


The man I want to see, one of the heads of bio mechanics, is still in overseas, which bums me out. I was looking forward to it, I’m told he’s a top bloke. Everything else is brush-offs. “Do a tour,” they tell me. It’s a shame. I’m curious if any of their science has filtered down to Tassie bush footy level? If it gets that low, or is waiting on the next level or two up?

I want to know the real stuff.

Are athletes taught how to phsyche-out? Do they use that ability in the way they walk, in how they queue at the canteen? Are they competitive in how they eat? Hoe much of it is hormones? Do pole-vaulters shag long-jumpers? Do sprinters try and nail anything there that moves? Do non-athletic partners get insecure, do they understand? Do any of the athletes here dream of the pasty-almost-good-looking lady stocking the drink machine?  Feel their talent is a curse?

Do they run, jump, fly better



cool and calm?


What do they dream of at night? Does their ambition invade their sleep? How does it warp or solidify their morals, their view of the world? These aliens. What makes them tick?


The athletics stadium is shut. I sneak in to see what Cathy Freeman must have seen. I wonder if she ever returns? If the place smells to like victory to her, or simple, hard, work? Or maybe it smells like nothing. Maybe it’s just a place?

I squint enough to imagine watching her, doing sprints, practising her starts, running laps. Ten thousand laps. Burning off and being pushed by her training partners. I picture the other athletes watching, some jealous, others inspired. Some mates.

Somebody short and fat starts asking me what I’m doing there. As if I’m just another creep. As if they’re not. Strength and discipline by association just don’t cut it in my books. I want to tell her it costs something like $17,000,000 of funding for every Olympic gold we win. That I’m the taxpayer. That it’s all about me.

But she wouldn’t get it. The fact I’m making a joke. We’re a sporting nation, and somehow need this place of dreams and hopes. Or aspiration.

“Lo siento, Sinyorita, pero no Englese para mi,” I say, as I step onto the track.

I stand beside Cathy as she warms up and does her thing. I try to imagine what she was thinking and run a lap in her honour. Give it everything. I’m so unfit it damn near kills me!

For the briefest moment, though, I feel invincible, like nothing can touch me, despite and because of the pain. I push hard.

I step in her steps.





  1. Malby Dangles says

    If nothing else seems like I’m learning more about Australia with each post Matt. Love it!

  2. Well, coming from a jumbled name like your, that’s a rap! Cheers, Malby, that’s the plan.Might take a few off season, though.I dunno. There is so much to learn.

  3. Jamie Simmons says

    Why isn’t this a mini-series? Surely we could go one less cooking based program or the ones with all the crying fat people?

  4. Hi Matt,
    there are few of us here that are not bureaucratically alligned. Next time your in town let me know. I know few folks at the AIS

  5. Matt Zurbo says

    Tony, I have no doubt at all. My own fault for just rocking up. Will do for sure!

    Cheers, Jamie. How funny would that be!?

  6. Shane Kennedy says

    I’m with Jamie. Someone film this man and let him ramble his way off around the country.

    The only proviso is that he must visit one football ground each episode.

  7. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Interesting as always Matt don’t no what it is about Canberra , if it is that most people are imprts and not many are real Cabberreans . Is it that AIS ., sports folk don’t have enough contact with the real world and get in too there own little cocoon ?
    I liked you taking us to the track living the dream !
    Agree with above give us Zrubs outback adventures instead of 99 per cent of the crap on tv any day !

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