Belfast Telegraph

Famous faces out in force to help Dame Mary Peter's race to £1m for future of sport

Peters’ Trust patron Princess Anne just one of the names to join Olympic hero in London fundraiser for athletes of tomorrow

James Nesbitt and Dame Mary Peters
James Nesbitt and Dame Mary Peters
Dame Mary Peters and Princess Anne
Barry Funston, Edward Guinness, fourth Earl of Iveagh, Dame Mary Peters, Lady Iveagh and Eilish Rutherford
The Belfast Telegraph’s Claire Williamson talks to Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson
Karen Barber, Christopher Dean and Sue Barker
Gillian Hetherington, David Humphreys and Princess Anne
James Nesbitt and Jim Dornan
Sue Barker greets Princess Anne
Claire Williamson

By Claire Williamson

It's the race to a million - and last night, Dame Mary Peters was hailed as an "absolute icon" as some of the finest names of film, sport and business gathered in a bid to help her reach her goal.

Dame Mary is aiming to reach the £1m target before her 80th birthday in July.

The money will help support young athletes to achieve their dreams.

Princess Anne, Patron of the Dame Mary Peters' Trust, led tributes to Northern Ireland's Olympics Golden Girl at a fundraising event in London, as she hailed her commitment to sport, "reflected in this race to a million".

Among those gathered last night were actor James Nesbitt, Olympic skating hero Christopher Dean and tennis star and broadcaster Sue Barker.

They were there to support the national treasure, whose career pinnacle was a gold medal in the pentathlon at the Munich Olympics in 1972.

Dame Mary also represented Northern Ireland at every Commonwealth Games between 1958 and 1974, winning two gold medals for the pentathlon plus a gold and silver medal for the shot put.

She created the Mary Peter's Trust in 1975 to help aspiring young athletes realise their potential.

Dame Mary was back to her busy self last night after revealing in November that she had undergone heart surgery.

She said she was delighted as she paid tribute to the support she continues to receive.

"It's amazing, we get a lot of support at home but to have major bankers and business people supporting us is just wonderful," she said.

"And I'm so grateful to everybody for coming along this evening, and because our patron is here, it makes such a difference and it's lovely to have our sports people here too.

"The money encourages our young people to get involved in sport and develop their sports."

She added: "I want it to go on for a long, long time.

"I set myself the target of raising a million before I reach my 80th birthday and we are two thirds of the way there and this is the final push."

Thankfully she says she is feeling "healthy and enjoying being back on the road again" after her recent surgery.

She says her legacy now will be the futures of the young people that the funding helps.

She said: "The legacy will be the funding, because we will be able to spend the interest of the million and always be able to generate more money to make sure no young person is deprived of the opportunity of realising their dreams."

She added: "To get so much support - it's very special"

Stars from the world of showbiz and sport lined up to pay tribute to Dame Mary.

Among them was Sue Barker, who said she grew up "idolising" the Northern Ireland hero.

She said: "I've got a picture of her in my lounge. I told her many years ago she was my hero growing up. I used to sit and watch her.

"I remember my mum said to me, 'I'd love you to be like Mary'.

"Because she had this glint in her eye - she was ruthlessly competitive but doing it in such a nice way, with such a big smile and doing sport for all the right reasons.

"She was getting the success, getting the gold medal, but also just being an unbelievably nice person.

"And those are the values that I just admire so much in her."

She continued: "When they asked me to come along tonight, I said, 'You know I'll be there and here I am'."

Actor James Nesbitt, who also gave a speech during the event, said Dame Mary was a "beacon of light" during Northern Ireland's darkest days.

He said: "I've worked with Mary for a long time and we have become close friends.

"I am of that generation who instinctively and easily is very, very proud of what she achieved in Northern Ireland.

"It's so important to remember, apart from all the money she's raised to help young people realise their sporting dreams, she was very important at a time, I would say more important than anyone else, for being a beacon of light in Northern Ireland through very dark times.

"She has shone a light on excellence in Northern Ireland and throughout that time she crossed the sectarian divide more than anyone.

"And the fact that she still has such an appetite, such a hunger, such charm and so much selflessness is wonderful and something that makes us all very proud to come from there."

He added: "I love her and I'd do anything for her."

Olympic skating star Christopher Dean - one half of the UK's most celebrated figure skating team alongside Jayne Torvill - said: "Dame Mary Peters is such an iconic person and we've known her for 30 years now.

He added: "Over the years we've got to know her really well, so when she has an event happening we always try to support it. It's a great worthy cause getting kids into sport.

"She is an Olympic gold medallist and she kind of did it by herself and that's the great thing, if we can support and aid the youth and children today so that they feel supported, and can go out and perform the best."

Dame Tanni-Grey Thompson, one of Britain's greatest Paralympic athletes, said Dame Mary is an "amazing woman".

She said: "I first met her when I was 19 or 20 and she was so warm and lovely and kind and interested. Her interest in young athletes has always been amazing.

"She has put so much back into sport and for me as a young athlete and watching how she won, growing up watching her dignity, and I think for me that's how you always hope you could be when you are competing, but it's also how you hope you could be off the track as well."

Also in attendance was actor Jamie Dornan's dad, Professor Jim Dornan.

He said Dame Mary was one of Northern Ireland's "biggest heroes".

He said: "Over the years I've kept in touch with sport and she is the beacon to young people on how to live your life and what to do with it.

"She's leaving such a legacy," he added.

Former rugby star David Humphreys said Dame Mary was a huge support to him early in his career.

He said: "Anybody who grew up in Northern Ireland following sport, Mary was one of the biggest names that came from the province.

"We are all very proud of anyone who comes from here, and I've been very fortunate to know Mary for a long time now.

"She's very encouraging and supportive of anything I've done and I know she has the same influence and impact on everyone she comes into contact with back at home."

Rowing star Dame Katherine Grainger added: "I've been in sport a long time and she is an absolute icon for all athletes, across all disciplines in all different countries.

"The energy she still has now and the passion she has for sport and the inspiration she is for all new generations is something truly special."

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