Michelle Freeman (JAM) (Getty Images) © Copyright
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Michelle Freeman – devastation and tragedy but now happily back on track

When Michelle Freeman took top honours in the 60 metre Hurdles at last weekend’s Sparkassen Cup meeting in Stuttgart, it signaled the return of one of the most competitive and accomplished sprint hurdlers of the past decade. Yet while her 7.98 performance will not in all likelihood be among the ten fastest clockings at the end of the 2005 indoor season, Freeman seemed content. At least for now.

“I felt pretty good, but it could have been better,” Freeman said. “But it was a decent race overall.”

Injury lay-off

It was her first indoor race since 2001, the year the three-time Jamaican Olympian was last seen on the international circuit where she spent much of the previous decade. She sped to a silver medal-winning performance at the World Indoor Championships that year, after winning the title in 1997 and reaching the finals in both 1993 and 1995.

But just five races into her outdoor campaign, things began to slowly unravel. In Lausanne's Athletissima meeting that July, she suffered a compound fracture in her left shin after slamming hard into a barrier, ending her season after that race's sixth hurdle. Spending much of the year on the mend, she didn't compete at all in 2002, hoping instead to return fresh the following year. It was a comeback that very nearly didn’t come to pass.

Car accident tragedy

Early on the morning of December 26, 2002, Freeman was driving a sports utility vehicle on Florida’s Interstate 10, just east of Jacksonville, when it veered out of control, before flipping several times. The accident took the life of her mother, Muriel Wallace, and her close friend Ilrey (Oliver) Sparks, a University of Texas Academic Counsellor and a 1984 Olympian for Jamaica. The university’s head women’s coach and Freeman’s mentor, Bev Kearney, was also seriously injured in the accident. In a few fleeting moments, the joy of a holiday season trip turned into gut-wrenching tragedy.

“It took a little while to come back after something like that,” Freeman said. “When you're involved in something of that magnitude, it’s so difficult. It ripped me apart.”

Drawing comfort and solace

While losing her mother was devastating, Freeman said she found comfort and solace in Kearney’s survival and recovery. “My mother passed away,” she said, “but I got a second mom. Bev Kearney is like my second mom. She's there with me through thick and thin.”

Their relationship began more than a decade earlier at the University of Florida where Kearney coached Freeman until her senior year in 1992. That year, Freeman set a World best for the 55 metre Hurdles, clocking 7.34, still the third fastest performance in the now seldom contested event. She won two NCAA titles that year - the 100 metre Hurdles and as a member of Florida’s 4x400 relay squad - and ended her collegiate career as an eight-time All-American. When Kearney, now among the most celebrated collegiate coaches in NCAA history, accepted her current position at Texas the following year, Freeman followed, and has been based in Austin, and with Kearney, since.

Quick progression to the top

Freeman didn’t take long to make an impact on the global stage. In 1993, she reached the final of the World Championships, finishing seventh. The following year she won the Commonwealth sprint Hurdles title, and two years later, reached the final of the 1996 Olympics where she finished sixth. She also earned a bronze medal in Atlanta in the 400 metre relay. At the 1997 World Championships, she captured the bronze, and took home another from the Goodwill Games the following year.

A new life, a new beginning

Yet those honors seemed a lifetime away after the accident. Finally, more than a year after the tragedy, things became brighter again last January, giving her all the more reason to look forward. Freeman gave birth to her daughter Tamya, and less than six months later, returned to competition for the first time in nearly three years. At a meet in Houston, she finished a distant second to Joanna Hayes, then known primarily as a full-lap hurdler, in 13.22. Nine days later, she finished fourth at the Jamaican Olympic Trials, clocking 13.03.

Finishing one slot away from an Olympic spot was not in the least bit disheartening, Freeman said.

“No, I wasn’t disappointed. I was happy to run. If I made the team it would have been an even greater accomplishment, but I'll take 13.03 coming back after having a baby.”

Indoors, she’s run 7.85 or faster more than a dozen times, while only two others – World record holder Ludmila Engqvist/Narozhilenko and Cornelia Oschkenat - have run faster than her 7.74 national record. Outdoors, she’s run 12.52 twice, in both 1997 and 1998, at the time national records. Despite her three-year absence from competition, Freeman insists that her best is yet to come.

Helsinki gold in her sights

“My goal this year is to win the gold medal at the World Championships,” she said, unhesitant, with a voice radiating not only hope, but sincere confidence as well. “I just have to work on running and competing. In Stuttgart, I felt a little flat, sort of floating off the hurdles. I’m concentrating now on being technically sound.”

Her next test will come at Friday’s Powered by Tyson Invitational in Fayetteville, Arkansas (11 Feb), where she’ll face a strong field that includes reigning World Indoor and outdoor champion Perdita Felicien of Canada and two-time Olympic bronze medallist Melissa Morrison.

Freeman knows that every race matters in order for her to return to the key competitions on the international calendar. “I hope to get myself established on the circuit again. And I hope the win in Stuttgart can begin that. I just need an opportunity to start showing myself a little bit more.”

When she celebrates her 36th birthday in May, Freeman will be among the event’s old guard, something that doesn’t trouble her in the least.

“I don't feel old, I don't look old,” she said, laughing. “Age is just a number.”

Bob Ramsak for the IAAF