Olympic gold medalist, Lady Mary Peters, talks about training in The Troubles, her rise to the pinnacle of her sport at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich and inspiring and funding the next generation through the Mary Peters Trust.
1972 was one of the worst years for The Troubles. Over 500 people were murdered that year. To train, I had to get a bus from the Antrim Road in Belfast into the city, then get another bus out to the training track. I could hear bombs go off in the city as we went along. I never stopped. I never turned back. I kept going with my shot putt and my starting blocks weighing heavy in my bag.
There must have been terrible fear for people not knowing where a bomb might go off, but I was able to do that trip for six months of the year. In rain, hail or snow I just did it, driven by the determination to win an Olympic gold medal.
I was born in the outskirts of Liverpool in a house with fields and woodland, so I was always running around and climbing trees; much to my parents’ disgust. I had an older brother so everything he did, I tried to do better. I’d always be shouting, “please wait for me!” as we ran across the field.
My mum would hold sports days out on the fields every summer when we were children, and I would always win a penny for coming first in the race. I guess you could say I was a professional, even from an early age.
I came to live in Ballymena when I was 11. The move was very difficult for me, I didn’t know anybody and found the accent quite difficult to understand. As the only English girl, I was a bit of an outsider, and there was another girl who was the only Catholic girl in the school, so we gravitated towards one another. We created a great bond and relied on one another. We are still friends to this day, almost 70 years on.
At school, they had an ‘all-rounders’ competition. I won enough events to win the shield for the best all-rounder. It gave me a little bit of a status in the school because I was ‘the English girl’ up until then, but after I won that shield, I became known as ‘the sporty girl’.
Winning the all-rounders shield gave me a big drive to do well in sport, so I began to practice at home. There was a small piece of land beside our home that was quite long and about three yards wide. I dug a pit out of the soil so that I could run up and long jump into it. I had never seen any long jump on television, so I have no idea why I did that, it was something instinctive.
My father got promoted, so the family ended up moving to Portadown in County Armagh. In the school there, the headmaster noticed I wasn’t playing cricket very well and brought me into where the boys were doing athletics. I was beating some of the boys in the disciplines and races and beating them well. The school coach soon noticed how good I was at a few events and asked if I had any interest in taking part in the pentathlon.
“What’s the pentathlon?” I said. I was 16 at the time, and I hadn’t heard of it. It wasn’t in any Olympic or Commonwealth Games that I had seen.
This was a time before we had what is known as the heptathlon. The events were 80-meter hurdles, shot putt, high jump, long jump, and 200 metres.
I was enjoying sport so much at the time that I gave it a go. The competition I entered was the first Northern Ireland Championships for the pentathlon, so I had to learn the shot putt and to jump the hurdles.
”Within weeks of training, I ended up breaking the Northern Ireland record for the shot putt.
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After leaving school I trained as a Domestic Science teacher.
I was selected to go to the 1964 Olympics with Mary Rand, who was the ‘Golden Girl’ of British Athletics at the time. I shared a room with her and Ann Packer, both of whom won medals at those games in Tokyo.
I didn’t expect to do well at all so finishing fourth in the world sat well with me. I was happy to share in the success of Mary and Ann. I remember thinking, “if they can enjoy the notability in their success, maybe that is something I can enjoy in the future.”
There were certain events I was stronger at than others, as it is with all multi-eventers. The high jump was the one event that I needed to improve.
A year to the day ahead of my competition at the Munich Olympics, my coach took me to Crystal Palace in London because Dick Fosbury had developed this new style of going over the high jump bar backwards – now known as the Fosbury Flop. We brought a camera with us to record his style so we could practice. After everyone had packed up and left the stadium, my coach said to me “go on and give the high jump a try Mary.” It was such an unorthodox style; I didn’t know where to begin.
I gave it a go and jumped higher than I ever had before. The high jump was very quickly my strongest event alongside the shot.
There were countless evenings of hard work that spectators don’t see.
One winter evening after training alone I was putting the equipment away it began to snow. My hands were so cold I couldn’t pull the cover over the high jump. It was like a steel garage door, and I couldn’t get it closed. I had to run two miles to the caretaker’s house to get his help to close it. Nobody saw the work put in on that evening and many evenings like it, all they saw was me standing on the podium receiving my gold medal.
I was fortunate enough to get a Churchill Scholarship to go to California and train for six weeks. It was wonderful because I didn’t have to work full time, which I had been doing, there was sunshine every day, and every school and college over there had a synthetic track, so it was helpful to my training.
I did my weight training in a health club there also. I feel I was ahead of my time doing weight training, it was a massive part of my preparation. There were mirrors in the gym, so I could see all the men peaking in to see what I was doing. Not many women lifted those kinds of weights.
”They were so impressed, I heard one man say “Oh my god, look at this bitch. Look what she’s lifting!”
The Olympic Games in 1972 were an incredible event to be a part of and was the most memorable moment from my athletics career. To stand on top of the podium as the Olympic Champion is a moment I cherish, and will never forget.
For many, however, the 1972 games will be remembered for the terrorist attack on members of the Israeli team.
We didn’t have computers in those days, and we didn’t have local radio, so I was almost sheltered from the terror attack that occurred. I had already competed when Black September took over the headquarters of the Israeli team. I was bringing my friend on a shopping trip in Munich City. On our return, we could see dozens of the military vehicles surrounding the village. We had no idea what was happening.
When I got back to the village that evening, I met a Bulgarian female athlete, and I asked her what the trucks and commotion was about. She said, “It’s okay, it’s all over, everything is fine, and nobody was hurt.” I slept soundly that night. It was only the next day I learned the full extent of the massacre.
I always felt guilty that I never went to the memorial service for the murdered athletes and coaches, even years later. So, I decided that on the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Olympics I should go to Munich and pay tribute to those who lost their lives.
I also got to reunite with some familiar faces from those games. I met with my closest competitor from the ‘72 Olympics, Heidi Rosendahl. Heidi and I battled over those two days of competition and split by a hair when it came to the final result.
I never realised she was Jewish, and she too had death threats made against her and had to move out of the Olympic village while competing due to concerns for her safety.
”I was also the subject of death threats.
After my Olympic win, a phone call came to BBC saying that if I was to come home to Belfast that I would be shot and my flat would be bombed. My dad wanted me to go back with him to Australia where he was living but I firmly said, “No, I’m going home to Belfast.”
I’m glad I did because I was in a position to bring joy to the people of Belfast, especially after the hard times they had suffered during The Troubles.
When I got off the plane in Belfast, there was a band playing ‘Congratulations’. This man tapped me on the shoulder and said, “We’re detectives and we have followed you all the way from Munich.” They saw all the people in the airport who had come to welcome me home and said, “We’ll say goodbye to you now, you’re safe here.”
A businessman, John Moore, approached me after my success in Munich and said he would like to set up a trust in my name to help young athletes in Northern Ireland, like The Churchill Fellowship that had helped me.
It started off in a small way with a young swimmer called Ian Corry. We probably only handed out 10 awards that year, but 45 years later, we are helping more than 120 young athletes from a variety of sports every year.
We get such pleasure out of seeing these young people travelling the world, competing in European and World Championships and Olympic Games.
We get to meet these athletes and see first-hand the difference we are helping to make. I’m regularly in contact with these athletes myself. I sent a card to Ciara Mageean, who was a finalist in the World Athletics Championships, she is an athlete we have been helping since she was very young.
Our aim was to raise a million pounds, and our goal was that if I raised that amount, there would be enough funds to look after athletes when I’m gone. That’s the legacy I want to leave behind.
We have helped over four thousand young athletes in Northern Ireland. You can’t buy the pleasure and success that a medal from an Olympic Games or World Championships brings to these people. If we can give them a lift to the next stage of their career, then we are incredibly happy.
The idea is that these athletes can then inspire the next generation of athletes. This is the same idea when I was writing my book ‘Passing The Torch: Women Who Inspire’.
I called a bookshop to ask if they had any books on sportswomen. They had four. I asked that same question about books of sportsmen. They had over 100. It said to me that young girls needed to be inspired by the incredible women that have gone before them.
There are also the great Olympic Champions like Paula Radcliffe, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Kelly Holmes who inspire. I was the first to congratulate Denise Lewis after she won the gold medal in Sydney. There was a documentary made about my life several years ago, and Denise narrated it.
Martine Wright was injured and lost both legs in the London train bombing and could have been very bitter and sad, but she took up seated volleyball and competed at the 2012 London Paralympics and has brought such joy to other people by her success.
You don’t have to be a world champion to be inspired by these athletes you just have to enjoy the journey. My hope is that teachers will have this book in their school library and that grandmothers will buy it for their granddaughters.
”I met Nelson Mandela at a reception in London, and that encounter changed my life.
I found him so impressive. How he could spend all those years imprisoned on Robin Island and have no hate in his heart. Even touching his hand sent a feeling through my body that I wanted to help people in South Africa.
I was given the opportunity by the British Council to go out and do some work in the townships in Capetown and Pretoria.
There were very few girls doing sport in those areas, so I was trying to encourage young girls to get involved. I also raised £10,000 for a school that had very few facilities.
It changed my life, and I hope it changed theirs too.
Looking back, there isn’t a lot that I would change, I have been very happy with my lot in life.
I was privileged to be named Lord Lieutenant of the City of Belfast as a representative of Her Majesty the Queen. In 2015, I was awarded as Member of the Companion of Honour for services to sport and the community in Northern Ireland. The other athletes were Lord Seb Coe, Lord Menzies Campbell and Sir Roger Bannister. Last summer, I was appointed a Lady Companion of the Order of the Garter.
Never in a million years would I have thought these honours would have come my way.
To help young athletes and particularly female athletes to participate and chase their dreams in sport, for that to be part of my legacy is a privilege.
If you enjoyed Lady Mary’s piece you might like to read Chloe Watkins’ – “High Hopes“.
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