Pipped by Freeman on the line: Shanie reflects on a wonder-run

It's time for Australia’s richest foot race, the Stawell Gift. Luke Horton speaks to a teacher who took part in one of the Gift’s most memorable moments.

Cathy Freeman wins the women's 400-metre race by a whisker from Shanie Singleton at the 1996 Stawell Gift. The Stawell Gift is on the Easter long weekend.

Shanie Singleton clearly remembers crossing the finish line.

Leading into the final steps of the 400m women’s handicap at the 1996 Stawell Gift, an utterly spent Singleton glanced across to see her main rival stride over the line to take the victory.

“I remember thinking she was much taller than me. I think it’s probably because as we came over the finishing line, I was just spent and she was running so high - and yet in reality I think she’s about three inches shorter than me,” Singleton said.

“I just remember thinking ‘wow’ she’s gone past with such spring in her legs.”

So ended one of the most extraordinary races in Australian track and field history.

The athlete who pipped Singleton at the death was none other than Cathy Freeman, and that victory was just another step in a journey that would culminate with an Olympic gold medal in Sydney four years later.

It was Easter Monday, and Freeman had started the 400-metre event from ‘scratch’, 30 metres behind the next nearest runner – Shanie Singleton (then known as Shanie Coutts).

For the 10,000 people trackside, victory for Cathy seemed an impossible feat.

Freeman already had a significant profile, having won gold medals in the 200m and 400m track events at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Canada.

At the Commonwealth Games all the athletes are on an even keel, but at Stawell, Cathy was chasing some of the best athletes in the country, who had a head start of at least 30 metres. One runner would start the race an incredible 54 metres in front of Freeman.

The starter’s gun fired and the athletes quickly got into their stride.

Freeman looked superb from her very first step, but there were some strong athletes in the field and she had a long, long way to make up.

Meanwhile, Shanie Singleton, the second-back marker, was quickly working her way through the field. She knew her main rival would come from behind.

“I knew that she was certainly going to be my danger and I knew the tenacity of her," Singleton said.

“I just knew I would have her coming at me. My plan was just to try and run her off her legs a little bit and get her to put a good chase on.”

Halfway through the race and Singleton had caught the main pack and surged into the lead. Freeman was gaining, but still had a mountain to climb.

Into the final corner and Freeman seemed to have wings on her feet. She had made up most of the ground and caught those runners at the back of the pack.

Cathy started to surge past the main group of runners. Singleton still led, and comfortably, but was visibly starting to tire. If she could hold on for another 70 metres, the win would be hers.

With about 50 metres to go, Freeman suddenly brushed another of the runners. The two athletes bumped shoulders and Freeman seemed to be thrown off balance.

But it was only a momentary set-back. Freeman barely broke stride and continued to surge towards the line.

With metres to go Singleton stretched and tried to will herself over the finish line. But Cathy was there. She surged into the lead and took the win.

The clock stopped at 50.48 seconds, a world-class 400-metre time in any circumstances.

But this was on grass - a much slower surface - with runners forced to go wide around the outside to overtake other athletes.

To put it into some context, just a year earlier Freeman had also won the Stawell Gift from scratch, but the clock stopped almost three full seconds slower at 53.24 seconds.

“I pushed her to a world record grass time and that was phenomenal. She ran 50.48 on a grass track, being knocked by another runner - it just shows how damn good she was,” Singleton said.

A runner on a track. A runner on a track.
Image: Shanie Singleton in her competitive running days.

Shanie Singleton has been teaching in NSW public schools for nearly 30 years.

When she first started casual teaching in the mid-1990s, she was at the peak of her running career.

An English-History teacher, she started working casually at what was then known as Umina High School (now Brisbane Water Secondary College) and later had permanent roles at Berkley Vale High and Gorokan High. She remains the substantive Deputy Principal at Gorokan High today.

Pro running, or gifts, allow athletes of all ages and abilities to race in a fun and competitive environment.

Singleton loves the atmosphere, the camaraderie of the runners, and the competition.

After Stawell, she would go on to win the prestigious Tasmanian Women’s Gift in Devonport.

“It really is a fantastic sport, and one that caters for all abilities,” Singleton said.

“When I first started teaching, I trained a lot of the kids and I also convened the athletics for the Sports Unit.

“We’d try and get as many kids as we could to participate in the gifts and on the pro circuit.”

In recent years, the number of students from NSW public schools competing at pro races such as Stawell has dropped away.

However, with a renewed push by the NSW Athletics League to promote events such as the Macksville and Newcastle gifts, Singleton is hopeful more young athletes will start participating again.

“The great thing about pro running is you’re running to your potential,” she said.

“If you’re off whatever mark, in theory, you’re a chance of winning the race.

“It’s healthy for learning, for winning and losing. It teaches discipline and encourages athletes to train hard and compete to their ability.”

And how does Singleton reflect on that famous 1996 run by Cathy Freeman, and the fact the video of the race is still doing the rounds on YouTube nearly three decades later?

“I feel lucky to have played a part in such a memorable sporting event,” she said.

“If I had beaten her on that day, the video wouldn't do what it’s done. I still get a kick out of it because she was just an awesome athlete.

“As I’ve said many times since then, good things can come from being a loser sometimes.”

A man and a woman holding certificates standing with another man A man and a woman holding certificates standing with another man
Image: Shanie Singleton, centre, with Relieving Director Learning School Strategy, Des Crawford, and NSW Department of Education Secretary, Murat Dizdar.
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