No name is more synonymous with female success in sport in Northern Ireland than Lady Mary Peters, not only for her personal achievements but for her passion in encouraging –and through her charity, The Mary Peters Trust, supporting –the next generation of sporting stars. Despite recovering from open heart surgery in 2018, and celebrating her 80thbirthday this July, her ambition to enthuse young people – especially young women –into sport continues and is now the inspiration behind a new collection of short stories from established sportswomen which gives a lively insight into their motivation and the highs and lows of competing at the highest level…

Interview by Nadia Duncan

Q) In addition to the foreword by HRH The Princess Royal, the book contains interviews with many female sporting legends including Dame Kelly Holmes, Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill, Sally Gunnell, Paula Radcliffe… the list is long. Which particular aspects of their careers and memories did you ask them to share with the reader?

We chose to name the book Passing the Torchas it is not only the symbol for the Mary Peters Trust, but also because I was privileged to be invited to pass on the Olympic Torch to the next generation of young athletes in London in 2012, and that’s what I’m still trying to do with these inspirational stories from wonderful women I admire. I asked them questions such as; ‘How did you get involved in sport?’; ‘Who was your inspiration?’; ‘What results did you have?’ and also if they have any funny anecdotes or special memories along the way. Dame Kelly Holmes reveals that as a shy young girl sport made her feel good about herself at school and Maria Costello, MBE, said that racing opened so many unexpected doors in her life, including being a rider double for Reese Witherspoon in a movie and becoming a published author! Along with the highlights, all of us have had a few embarrassing moments we would rather forget about along the way too. One story that really made me giggle was from Ann Packer who won a gold medal and a silver medal at the 1964 Summer Tokyo Olympics. Thinking she would look better on the track with a bit of a tan (fake tan was just starting to become available around then) she decided to put some on the night before her competition but woke up the next morning resembling a brown and white stripped beach towel. She confessed that she was so mortified she ran the fastest time of her life just to get off the track and out of sight! And Paula Radcliffe had a marriage proposal at mile 17 of the Chicago Marathon –she didn’t accept of course.

“Dame Kelly Holmes reveals that as a shy young girl sport made her feel good about herself at school.”

Q) One thing that you also all have in common is that, in any discipline, success requires a huge amount of dedication and that remains the same for young people today. What are your memories of the journey to becoming an Olympic Champion?

It certainly wasn’t easy. I worked full time and didn’t have a running track to train on because the track that is now the Mary Peters Track was owned then by Queens University and was full of potholes. For the 1972 Summer Olympics I actually did most of my training indoors in the Queen’s University gym where I would practise hurdling, shot putt, weight training and high jump. After I won the gold medal in Munich I was asked what I would most like to commemorate my success and the answer was easy –a decent track. I spent the next three years campaigning to fundraise the money to build it but it was worth it.

Q) Holding your nerve and never giving up are also common requirements to become a gold medal winner and for you in Munich it came down to the very last race. How did you feel once you knew you had achieved what must have seemed at the time the impossible?

It’s was just simply an amazing but also a strange time. I was 33, which is quite mature for a female athlete and I was competing against a local German athlete who obviously had the full support of the home crowd of spectators so yes, it did feel like a huge achievement. In Northern Ireland the Troubles were at their height and had had claimed the lives of hundreds of people that year. At first my family and friends were very concerned about me coming back to Belfast as I had received threats to my life, but I was determined and when I did I received the greatest welcome home. People still say to me now all these years later that they remember where they were on that day and it’s wonderful to have those very special memories.

“It’s been a wonderful life for me and I want all children to realise the amazing opportunities that come with sport.”

Q) Northern Ireland certainly punches above its weight when it comes to talent, but are we doing enough to ensure that those who have the ambition also have the support they need to compete with the best in the world?

Through the Trust we certainly recognise the significant number of young people here who are dedicating their lives to be successful, such as Commonwealth Champion gymnast Rhys McClenaghan. There are so many young people just like Rhys who are striving to succeed and that’s why my ambition was to fundraise £1 million by this year, so that we can continue to help them for many years to come and for long after I am gone. It’s very expensive for young sports people and sometimes a family could have maybe two or three children to support in their chosen sport.

We had a young athlete who desperately wanted to go to the Olympics but had to travel the World to qualify and her parents re-mortgaged their house to give her that chance. When she got there she was put out in the first round. However, jump forward two years later to the Commonwealth Games she had a podium finish. Her legacy is knowing that she is a medallist and that she did everything she possibly could to achieve her dream –something she will never forget as long as she lives. We currently have tennis players training over in Florida and others in the swimming pool every day from 5am, or out on the track when it’s pouring with rain. These young people are so dedicated to their sport and I hope that parents, teachers and young people themselves will read this book and will be inspired to try any sport they fancy.

It’s been a wonderful life for me and I want all children to realise the amazing opportunities that come with sport, not only the health benefits, friendships, team camaraderie, travel and not to mention the possible opportunities once you retire from that sport. Only a very small percentage of women take part in sport compared to men, but if you never try you will never know just how good you could be.

Passing The Torch – Sportswomen Who Inspire edited by Mary Peters is out now published by Gateway Publishing Ltd, PB £12.99. Available from all good bookshops and online at cap-ox.com

Nadia Duncan

Author: Nadia Duncan

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