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Passing the torch: How Northern Ireland women cemented place in Olympic history

Exclusive first person extracts from a new anthology on how our greatest female athletes cemented their place in history

Lady Mary Peters at home
Lady Mary Peters at home
Caroline O'Hanlon
Margaret Johnston MBE
Isabel Woods
Sue Barker

In a new book published tomorrow, some of the most successful sportswomen in the UK and Ireland tell Lady Mary Peters about their motivation, the highs and lows of competing and the camaraderie. Passing the Torch, which has been edited by the Olympic Golden Girl and includes a foreword by HRH The Princess Royal, is a fascinating read and will raise funds for the Mary Peters Trust which supports young athletes. Here, we feature some of the revealing insights from its many contributors.

Caroline O'Hanlon, a Northern Ireland netball international and Gaelic football star

How I first became involved in sport

I was born and reared in rural South Armagh and my father was heavily involved with the local Gaelic Athletic Association club. His idea of babysitting was to take me to the club while he fixed something, took a training session or attended a meeting. So I was engrossed in this environment for as long as I can remember. I came through the club, playing with the boys at underage and then on through the ranks right up until now. At primary school, I had my first exposure to netball. One of the teachers, Tom McGuinness, had spent many years working in England where netball was a big sport even then, and he had a great passion for the game. My mum also taught in the school, so while I was waiting for her to finish work he allowed me to join in training with the older girls. I started when I was seven or eight years old. Tom had a massive influence on me.

I remember him talking about games, and watching videos of matches in which NI were playing, which he had let me borrow. I also remember he had a girl come in who had played for NI and she spoke to us. I remember thinking, 'I want to do that'. When I went on to Sacred Heart School in Newry, I continued to play both sports. Later I studied medicine at Queen's University, Belfast and they were a great support to me over the years, providing bursaries, training/medical and mentoring services.

Inspiration

Growing up, I was heavily influenced by men's Gaelic Football. My parents would have taken me to all the Carrickcruppen and Armagh matches, and through the late 1990s and 2000s the success of the Armagh team was an inspiration to the county. It was amazing to see the influence sport can have on the entire community - the mood was great, people were buoyant, the excitement was palpable, and anything that stood still was painted orange and white. The pride in the team, and how that filtered down to the people in the streets, was amazing.

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There were very few female role models, so iconic figures like Mary Peters and Sonia O'Sullivan were trailblazers. Their achievements have transcended generations. I was lucky enough to have been a recipient of bursaries from the Mary Peters Trust whilst at school and, through that, to hear more of her story. It didn't matter about religion, gender or whatever, her achievements were universally and globally acknowledged, and she did this during some of NI's darkest days. However, what I admire most about Mary is her endless energy and enthusiasm, always a friendly voice with welcome words of support and encouragement. I love that she is continually finding new challenges. There are not too many people approaching their 80th birthday who would abseil down the sides of buildings. Brilliant! She is a true ambassador and inspiration for sport.

Team sport is a special thing - the commitment, the sacrifices, the compromises that have to made for success can be tough. To always have that feeling of accountability and responsibility to so many others can be hard, but equally can bring out the best in you. There is nothing that beats that feeling of having come through tough times together and sharing the success!

Memories

The pinnacle of my netball career to date has been captaining the NI team. Over the last two years, we have had our most successful period in Netball NI's history - silver medalists at European championships, World Cup 2019 qualification and then the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast - finishing 8th. A particular highlight at the latter was being selected as flag-bearer for the opening ceremony. This was a surreal moment for me. I was very shocked as there were other very talented, high-profile athletes in the party, but it really demonstrated for me how highly they valued me as an individual and viewed the sport of netball. When I was asked, I didn't hesitate in accepting. There were a few negative comments on social media re politics and the flag etc, but they were irrelevant to me. I have chosen to represent NI and am very proud every time I do so. I was overwhelmed by the support I received, particularly locally, and it shows how far the country has come. There is still a small minority of negative voices, but by and large we support each other and are proud to see our own doing well. Walking out into the stadium in Brisbane, in front of a full house, is a memory that will live long with me. Leading this group, with my friends and teammates who I have played with for more than 10 years by my side, was a very special moment. It really filled me with confidence going into the tournament.

What I am doing now

Netball: I am currently captain of the NI team, and competed in the World Cup in Liverpool in July 2019. I am also playing semi-professional netball in the UK Vitality Superleague, for the champions, Manchester Thunder. Domestically, I am captain of Larkfield Netball Club and we are top of the league and defending champions in the NI Shield.

Football: I am still playing for Armagh in the National Football League and senior championship. I also play for my local club, Carrickcruppen GFC, and we are current Armagh champions. I recently represented Ulster for a 13th year and we were runners-up in the All-Ireland tournament.

Margaret Johnston MBE, arguably the greatest women's bowls player of all time

How I first became involved in sport

I was always interested in sport at school and played hockey and netball. However, I didn't start bowling until I was 20. I began by playing short mat bowls indoors, but one of the halls in which this took place was extensively damaged during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, when the pub opposite was blown up.

Inspiration

My ex-husband was invited to join an outdoor club in Ballymoney, NI, but I could only go inside the club three times a year because I wasn't a member. When I got fed up with freezing in the car outside, I decided to join. Eventually I entered the Irish Singles and reached the final in 1978 and the semi-final the following year. In 1981, I was selected for an international trial and made the team. I was to enjoy success for another 27 years.

Memories

When I was on the International Indoor team, there was a training weekend for which, curiously, one of the 'fitness' requirements was lying on a towel on a cold hard floor. Some of the team complained about having sore backs as a result, and received no sympathy from me. I thought it was ludicrous, and told them they shouldn't do anything they weren't happy about!

I decided to take a break from indoor international competition. When I was asked why, I told the official that I had no problem with the bowling but the rest - including cold, hard floors - was a waste of time.

I was told I had to and I replied I didn't, and my name was taken off the list. This inevitably attracted the attention of a sports reporter, who rang to ask why I was no longer on the team. Without thinking, I told him: "If I was lying on my back on the floor I would like to think that I was at least enjoying myself."

He kindly asked if he could print that and, of course, I said no when I realised what it implied. However, I relented when he offered me a brandy - and the bowling world thought it was a hoot. Apparently it made the Top 10 quotes of the year.

Isabel Woods, long distance cycling legend with a series of unbroken records

How I first became involved in sport

I was born in 1928, just prior to the years of the Depression. I didn't have a bicycle as a child due to the extreme poverty at that time.

Later, my parents were reluctant to buy me one as I had inherited my father's short-sightedness. I started working in a timber firm at the age of 16, and it took me another two years to save enough money to buy my first bike. We were living in Belfast, and the bicycle enabled me to escape the city. Both my parents came from farming backgrounds, which probably explains my great love of the countryside and my drive to find a way of accessing it. Shortly afterwards, my sister Nan acquired her first bike (at the age of 20) and together we enjoyed the pleasures of touring and hostelling.

Inspiration

We kept fit in the winter by joining the Trinity Harriers Club, where we met Ena McKeown, a very enthusiastic cyclist who was well-known in ladies' racing circles and had been since the mid-1930s. She was canvassing for recruits to enter the Ulster Ladies Road Club novice five mile time trial (this was in 1949) and we agreed to take part. I was second fastest and was encouraged to try again by the club members. I joined the ULRC and competed successfully in all their trials that season. I also bought a new racing bike!

In 1949, I was approached by Bobby McGregor, the highly-respected trainer of Glentoran Football Club, and I agreed to allow him to advise me about training. The following season, I competed in all the club races, set new records and won the best all-rounder cup, thanks in part to his guidance and encouragement.

Memories

In 1953, I accompanied Ena on a cycle tour to the South of France. We agreed that, on our return, we would attempt some of the long distance place-to-place records for which the Belfast Cycling Club was renowned. Ena chose the Derry-to Belfast, I did the Enniskillen-to-Belfast and so began my succession of long distance endeavours. I recall attempting my Ireland 'end-to-end record' from Mizen Head to FairHead.

There was a long climb out of Corkcalled Water Glass Hill, which I reached at dusk, and suddenly became aware ofthe vast journey ahead of me. Suddenly, out of the gloom, a shower of flower petals were strewn in my path - a truly continental gesture, which gave me a great boost just when I needed it. The people responsible were the McCarthy family from Cork. Carl was a well-known, outstanding cyclist who would have been very familiar with this part of the course, and would have known the sections where a little encouragement might be appreciated.

It certainly was. Even 60 years later, this is one of my most treasured memories.

In a new book published tomorrow, some of the most successful sportswomen in the UK and Ireland tell Dame Mary Peters about their motivation, the highs and lows of competing and the camaraderie. Passing the Torch, which has been edited by the Olympic Golden Girl and includes a foreword by HRH The Princess Royal, is a fascinating read and will raise funds for the Mary Peters Trust which supports young athletes. Here, we feature some of the revealing insights from its many contributors

My mum passed away from cancer when I was 16 and, as devastating as this was for the family, I still wanted to carry on with my athletics, for her.

Dad married my godmother within six months of mum's death and that proved a testing time for a young girl. I did sport more to get away from the house, which I saw as a transition of necessity. I did love my stepmother, but found it very difficult to see her being given things that my mother had always wanted, such as a washing machine and a fridge. Even after she had passed away, I wanted to feel that my mother would have been proud of my achievements.

I know my dad was very proud of me too, but he could never put his arms around me and give me a cuddle, which is what I wanted most.

He'd had a rough start in life, and had to work hard for everything, but I think I reminded him of my mum too much.

He could never show any emotion to me I remember that the last time I saw him in Australia, before he died, he said: "The worst day of my life was when my wife Hilda died" and I recall saying, "But you have to remember, dad, that she was my mum too …" The headmaster (Donald Woodman, of Portadown College) was kinder to me because he was more understanding. Dad gave me education and opportunities, but I would have loved him to show me more affection. That's why sharing my success with so many people now means so much to me. I hope I am showing them my love.

Sue Barker, one-time teenage tennis prodigy who won 15 singles titles during a golden era for the women's game

How I first became involved in sport

I came from a sports-mad family - we loved watching sport and playing it. When I was 12, I was spotted by a famous tennis figure in my area, Arthur Roberts, and he remained my coach throughout my career.

Inspiration

Mary Peters knows that she was my idol. I loved the way she competed. You could see that she had an iron will, a champion's mentality and looked like she always enjoyed the challenge. Billie Jean King was inspiring too. I not only admired her tennis but also how driven she was off the court and especially how, during the 1970s and against all the odds, she transformed women's tennis into a global sporting success story. That gave me the opportunity to play my 'hobby' as a career and I loved every minute of it.

Memories

I had always dreamed of playing on Centre Court at Wimbledon, the greatest tournament in the world. When I was competing there as a teenager, I was drawn against a legend and former champion, Maria Bueno, in the 2nd round.

I was staying at the home of my good friend Linda Mottram in Wimbledon, and every morning we would scan the Daily Telegraph, which was the official newspaper for the tournament and the only way to find out the day's order of play. I looked for my name but couldn't find it, so decided to tuck in to a big breakfast before heading off to practise. As I was enjoying my food, Linda said: "Are you nervous about playing on Centre Court?" My jaw dropped and I blurted out: "What??"

I checked the paper again and there I was, second on after Bjorn Borg. Suddenly my appetite was gone and the nerves kicked in. On Centre Court and on television … 'Help!'

After Bjorn demolished his opponent, we were called. I was trembling as I walked out on to the world's most famous court. My knees were shaking so much I barely got up from the curtsy to the Royal Box. However, after a very slow start, I began to enjoy the experience. I won the match in three sets and my love affair with Centre Court was under way.

In the 1990s, I used to host the BBC Wimbledon Highlights show with the former US tennis player, Pam Shriver. Every programme would finish with someone 'counting us down' to the end, by which time we had to have stopped talking. I was still getting used to this, trying to finish my words coherently by the time the count went to zero in my ear, but occasionally I would be rushed.

One night I wanted to give a send-off to Steffi Graf who had announced her retirement, and the words I wanted to finish with were ... "so today we say a sad farewell to Steffi, but at least she leaves Wimbledon with some great memories".

Sadly, I was rushing a little that night, and said instead … "so today we say a sad farewell to Steffi, but at least she leaves Wimbledon with some great mammaries."

Yes, it was very embarrassing and everyone laughed but, as many people pointed out, at least I was factually correct!

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