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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) _ Olympic champion Cathy Freeman returned to serious competition following the Sydney Games and was beaten Saturday by Australian compatriot Lauren Hewitt in a 200-meter race.

Freeman was timed in 23.73 seconds to finish behind Hewitt, an Olympian, in the Victoria state titles.

``It was really hard, but I really needed it,'' Freeman said. ``I've got to start somewhere. I've been wanting to concentrate on my shorter stuff because that's been a weakness. In my mind I can only improve.''

Freeman lighted the cauldron at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and won the 400-meter title. She wants to come back for the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, England, this year and defend her Olympic title in Athens in 2004.

She also will compete in the 100 meters in the Victoria championships.

``Having Cathy Freeman as a presence in any race is always going to get you a little pumped up for the race,'' Hewitt said.