PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Harley Windsor was almost 4 when Cathy Freeman won her gold medal at the Sydney Olympics in what became a defining moment for Australia and its aboriginal people.
It was one of those “where-were-you-when?” sports highlights for Aussies, and one Windsor remembers distinctly. It was the inspiration for him to become the first indigenous winter sports athlete to represent Australia at the Olympics.
The 21-year-old figure skater will be at the forefront when the Australian team marches into the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang OIympics on Friday — not as the flag bearer but walking in one of the front-row positions beside the team leader.
“It’s an absolute honor to do that,” Windsor said. “It’s very important. I really want to be a role model to encourage other people that it is possible to do these things. It’s not easy, but it’s definitely doable.”
Freeman was the first indigenous Australian to win an individual Olympic gold medal when she won the 400 meters in a packed stadium in 2000. Windsor, living with his family in nearby western Sydney, has vivid memories of watching it on TV.
“One of my big influences is Cathy Freeman,” he said. “I remember very clearly … such a huge thing. Her being indigenous is a big inspiration for me.”
Windsor has Aboriginal heritage on both sides, with his mother’s family coming from the outback of New South Wales state and his father’s family from the far north of the state.
“I’ve grown up in an Aboriginal community all my life, done Aboriginal dancing since I could walk,” he said. “Always going back to where my family is from. It’s been a big part of my culture. It’s part of me. It’s what has made me what I am today.”
Windsor will be competing in the pairs with Ekaterina Alexandrovskaya, who is trained in the classical Russian technique and has been his partner since 2015.
He fell into the sport almost by accident when he was a young boy — his mother took a wrong turn and drove into the car park of an ice rink in western Sydney.
The youngest of nine children — he’s 16 years younger than his closest sibling — Windsor loved the sport instantly and rose quickly through the Australian ranks in his individual events.
He was already landing triple jumps by the time he was 12, but his coaches believed his future was in pairs. His biggest problem was finding a suitable partner.
Windsor went to Russia in late 2015 in an effort to meet a potential partner after being unable to find the right match at home.
Under the guidance in Australia of the husband and wife coaching team of Andrei and Galina Pachin, they have had to build their routine from scratch, slowly developing their confidence and combinations and gradually adding more difficult elements to their program.
They started competing on the junior international circuit in September 2016 and won their first junior grand prix title later that month in just their second competition.
In March last year, they became the first pair from Australia to win a world title in any figure skating event when they won the world junior championship.
They won their first senior international medal in September when they finished third in the CS Nebelhorn Trophy, becoming the first figure skaters from Australia in 20 years to qualify in pairs for the Olympics.
A month later, Alexandrovskaya was granted Australian citizenship and they were formally named in the Australian team for Pyeongchang.
There’s been so much focus on Russian athletes ahead of Pyeongchang, with dozens already barred and others appealing their exclusion this week in the Court of Arbitration for Sport because of a long-running investigation into doping at the 2014 Olympics.
The IOC expects 168 Russian athletes to compete under the neutral banner of “Olympic Athletes from Russia,” but there could be more late entries depending on rulings from CAS.
The 17-year-old Alexandrovskaya finds herself a long way removed from the distractions.
“I represent Australia now. Russians is Russians. I’m so sorry about it of course,” she said. “But I represent another country.”
Associated Press writer Julian Linden contributed from Sydney, Australia.
For more AP Olympics coverage: http://wintergames.ap.org