Remembering Cathy Freeman's incredible run - by those who were there

"This is where Cathy exploded in Atlanta ... Graham is in front of her, Freeman has work to do here. There's about 150 to go, Guevara and Merry right up ... it's going to be a big finish. Into the straight, Graham leads, Freeman runs up to her, Merry inside, Cathy lifting, goes up to Graham, takes the lead, looks a winner, draws away from Graham and Merry. This is a famous victory, a magnificent performance. What a legend ... what a champion."

Those famous words from commentator Bruce McAvaney were spoken 20 years ago today as the entire nation of Australia turned its attention to Cathy Freeman and the women's 400-meter final at the Sydney Olympics.

From the archives: How ESPN reported Freeman's victory in 2000

As she defied the pressure to cross the finish line first and become the first Aboriginal person to win Olympic gold in an individual event, the stadium and lounge rooms and bars across the nation erupted.

It's a moment most Australians, and many around the world, can still remember like it was yesterday. Here's how those there on the night recall the experience two decades later.

Donna Fraser (British competitor in the 400m final, finishing fourth in a personal-best time, and former training partner of Freeman's)

"I trained with Cathy that summer in the U.K., so we had a journey leading into Sydney, and it was an amazing friendship, a year I'll never forget, how we connected. It was my second Games -- I'd done it before, but, of course, having my training partner there, almost like my sister, was quite relaxing. God knows how she coped [with the pressure] -- during that summer when we trained together, we didn't really talk about the Games at all, it was just all training. The lead-up was something I hold dear to my heart because I probably wouldn't have got to the final without training with the best, and she was the best.

"She's a reserved athlete -- we did exchange the odd nod [pre-race], but I respected how she was, and if she's in her zone, just leave her alone. She was so focused. Most athletes are, but I knew her mannerisms and she was extremely calm.

"[After the race,] it was a bittersweet feeling -- I was over the moon for her, but I was gutted for myself because coming fourth, you don't get a medal. It was a roller coaster of emotions.

"[When we embraced after the race] -- all the pressure in the months and years had been lifted, and she was in a bit of disbelief and relief I guess, and all I said was, 'You did it! You did it!' ... that's all I remember saying. I was so proud of her, what she did in those circumstances. I knew how much it meant to her.

"I know how much her heritage and culture means to her, and for her to do that [carry both the Aboriginal and Australian flags in celebration] speaks volumes. And that sent such a huge message to her community, and she couldn't have done it any other way."

Heide Seyerling (South African competitor in the 400m final, finishing sixth with a national record)

"I can remember it as if it was yesterday -- just the whole warm-up, preparation -- everything, even the race pattern, running in the race lane. The thing that really stands out is the atmosphere. Obviously, Cathy was the local girl, but just the atmosphere in the stadium was electric. It was awesome.

"I think there was a lot more pressure on her, but for me, the whole experience was just awesome.

"She is [one of the best athletes I ever competed against] ... I mean, at the Olympics, I did feel for her, because there was a lot of pressure on her, being the local girl. Running into the Olympics, she was the favourite, as well, so I think that comes with a lot of pressure, as well.

"It's tough when you run at home and you're the favourite, because anything can happen on the day."

Falilat Ogunkoya (Nigerian competitor in the 400m final, finishing seventh)

"I tried to shut out all of that frenzy and just focus on my own race. But for her, to be in her country and everybody rooting for her to win, it was very surreal. The atmosphere, when we were walking in, was very different from my other Olympics. You could barely hear anything. It was such an electric feeling that even if you wanted to be in your zone, you could not help but feel it and get some goose pimples. Everybody loved her, and I would say that the 400m was the icing on the cake for her.

"I think I had a problem with my leg at the time, so just making it to the final was a big deal for me. Everybody in that race was a great athlete -- to make it to the Olympic final is not easy. I just wanted to do my best in that race, and I am sure it was the same thing for everybody else.

"For Cathy, to win in her own country with everybody behind her and all of that pressure, was a massive achievement for her, and I think it was very special."

Patrick Johnson (retired Indigenous sprinter and holder of the Australian and Oceania men's 100m record of 9.93 seconds)

"I was in the stadium. I had chosen to stay around as I knew how important it was for Cathy; she was so focused on what she needed to do. I'd had competitions overseas with her, and we all understood the pressure, but at the end of the day, it's her race. So I just wanted to be in the stadium, to will her on so to speak, and the rest of the country was willing her on, as well.

"But I think the big feeling was just relief and celebration, of course, to see her cross the line in first place having known what she'd gone through. I didn't get to talk to her after the race, but a couple of years later, we caught up.

"But that was her moment and everyone was just happy that she was able to run the race she wanted and win gold. I think it just showcased the Indigenous talent that is out there, although Cathy was a one-of-a-kind athlete.

"We want to see more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders representing Australia, but also people from different nationalities and backgrounds to believe that anything is possible. We want to show them that if you have the heart, the mind, the will and the belief, you can achieve anything."

Dave Culbert (commentator, ex-Olympian and former teammate and housemate of Freeman's)

"I was part of the Channel 7 commentary team, doing the field events -- I was commentating the triple jump that night.

"A lot of the field events were live and uninterrupted from start to finish on the pay channel -- that night, the pole vault and triple jump were, so we were live and nonstop. I can't remember who was on the runway, but the roar was enormous when Cathy came out, and ... I kept on commentating, but I said at one point just before they went to the blocks, 'There's silence in the stadium -- we all know why, and like everyone else in Australia, I'm now going to be watching that,' and then I didn't speak! And I was pretty confident that no-one else in the control room or anywhere else was watching anything other than Freeman's race. I love my triple jump, but not quite that much at that moment.

"Cathy came up to the commentary box, and Bruce [McAvaney, fellow commentator] interviewed her virtually straight after the medal ceremony -- but again, it's just: she appears, interview happens, say your congratulations, you're still working and that's it.

"When you're working at the Games ... to a degree it was just another session, as the morning sessions flow into the night sessions, which flow into the next morning ... it goes on and on for 17 days. It was obviously exciting, and there was an elevated element of 'it was Cathy's night,'

"At the Olympics, every five minutes there's another historic moment -- you go from one to the next, and it's not until the end of the night that you sit back and go, 'Wow' ... Michael Johnson's race was next! It was always, 'What's next?'

"I still had four or five days of the athletics to go -- it was like [being] midway through a marathon. But the enormity of all she achieved sinks in now than it did immediately afterwards."

Bill Dwyre (longtime sports editor at the Los Angeles Times, Olympic coverage pioneer and historian)

"The press loves a good, uncomplicated story. That was clearly what this one was. She was not a white girl from suburban Melbourne taking on other suburban white girls from other countries, or taking on the powerhouse crew from Jamaica. She was homegrown, loved and could make Australia feel good about itself as an inclusive, open-to-all-to-represent country, which it probably is.

"As it got closer to the race, there was some building of pressure. I remember the local papers overdoing it, just as we overdid everything local in the LA Times during the '84 Olympics. That's human -- and local-paper -- nature.

"The night of the race, my memory was that -- both from the newspapers and media that had hyped the hell out of this for so long, to the general fan who had bought into it -- everybody seemed uptight. What if she failed? What if she choked? Would that be an international-sports blemish on Australia? I remember remarking to one of my reporters that all the hoopla and anxiety seemed a bit misplaced because, looking at all the results and her career coming into this race, she was the best runner and would win. That was the first and last time my prediction on sports of any kind has been correct.

"In the end, it was a nice story that fulfilled expectations and let us all revel a little longer in the warmth and tears of joy that the Olympics promote and to which we, in the media, click our heels, salute and fall right into line."