The iconic Mary Peters will forever be known for her Olympic heroics in Munich in 1972 but in Commonwealth Games terms the first lady of Northern Ireland sport is also a legend.
Peters won THREE gold medals and one silver competing for her beloved country in the Commonwealths and as a teenager experienced her first major competition when they were called the British Empire and Commonwealth Games.
That was back in 1958 in Cardiff. The 83-year-old has been to every Commonwealth Games since bar one, meaning Birmingham 2022 will be her 16th time at the multi-sports event.
She will be greeted with smiles, respect and awe such is the affection in which Mary is held across the sporting spectrum. This is a woman who has not only been a sporting superstar but after Munich raised enough money to build an athletics track in Belfast and then started a Trust that has financed hundreds of young Northern Ireland athletes for decades. The word inspirational doesn’t do her justice.
As always, Mary is relishing seeing old friends and new stars at the Commonwealth Games, a competition which conjures up many happy memories for her.
In a Belfast Telegraph interview to promote the National Lottery’s funding of sport, Peters recalled: “I competed in the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in 1958 in Cardiff as a teenager which was an amazing experience.
“I was an average shot putter, high jumper and sprinter and used to compete in the Northern Ireland Championships and schools events and then I started doing quite well as a shot putter and went to the Empire Games, sharing a room with javelin thrower Bridget Robinson.
“She and I and Maeve Kyle and Thelma Hopkins, who were international hockey players as well as international athletes, formed a relay team. As I passed the baton to Maeve in the final leg, the England team were breaking the world record at the other end of the track 100 yards away!
“In that Games we went to support our boxers and Terry Milligan won a gold medal. On the way back we sat on the bus singing songs like ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’ and ‘When Irish eyes are smiling’ and the atmosphere was glorious.
“I wanted more so I went to four more Commonwealth Games as a competitor. In 1962 I was in Perth in Australia and was fourth in the shot putt and in 1966 (Kingston, Jamaica) I was second in the shot putt.
“In 1970 they introduced the pentathlon and I won that and the shot in the Edinburgh Games. Then I subsequently won my Olympic gold medal in 1972 and started collecting money for my track, the Mary Peters Track.
“I had collected about £5,000, which in those days was a lot of money, and while I was at the 1974 Commonwealth Games I met John Moore, who owned Littlewoods Football Pools, and he said to me, ‘When you go home write to me and I’ll send you a cheque as I know you are collecting money to build a running track’. He sent me £5,000 which doubled what I had already collected and it gave me motivation to carry on raising money to get the track built.”
The 1974 Games in Christchurch, New Zealand were extremely emotional for Mary because they came after her close friend, coach and mentor Robert ‘Buster’ McShane died following a car crash in 1973.
She said: “I went to one more Commonwealth Games with Mike Bull after Buster, our coach, died. He had encouraged Mike to do the decathlon as well as the pole vault so we made a pact that we would go and win both events, the pentathlon and decathlon, in memory of our coach, which we did.
“That time was enormously emotional. I missed Buster’s support and wise counsel, but I had Mike and others who helped me get back to fitness.
“I was lucky to win in Christchurch because I hadn’t been able to give it the time that was needed, though I had years of training behind me which stood me in good stead.
“There is a seat at our Track in memory of Buster and the citation reads, ‘In memory of Buster McShane, who made an average athlete into an Olympic champion’ and that is true because I was a big, strong girl but I wasn’t very talented and he brought out the best in me.”
Mary does herself a disservice. The lady born in Lancashire, who made Northern Ireland her home after coming here as a young girl, had plenty of talent to go with her tenacity, class along with commitment and ability combined with a wonderful attitude. Best of all, she brought joy to Northern Ireland during a dark period.
“With the Troubles going on it was great to bring some good news home in the 1970s. After winning Commonwealth gold in 1970, people shared my enjoyment of it and that inspired me to go and want to win the Olympic medal because I realised it was important for the people of Northern Ireland as well as me and it changed my life forever,” she said.
In Birmingham, the lives of Northern Ireland’s modern day sports stars could be transformed, many of whom have benefited from National Lottery funding.
“The National Lottery didn’t exist when I was competing but for many sports stars it has changed their lifestyle and their opportunities. The majority of the Northern Ireland athletes in the Commonwealth Games will have received Lottery funding and the team benefits as a whole from it,” said Mary.
“When I was collecting money for the track it was pre-Lottery but when we needed to resurface it, National Lottery came in and helped us at that time.”
On Birmingham 2022, she stated: “The Northern Ireland competitors at the Games are the future of our country and our ambassadors who are vital to inspiring a new generation.
“We punch above our weight in sport and have more successes per capita than most of the counties of England and Scotland and I’m looking forward to seeing Team NI doing really well in Birmingham.
“The greatest joy is being at a venue and hearing our national anthem being played. It’s Danny Boy and everyone rises to sing that. Hopefully with our athletes we will be able to do that on a number of occasions and bring some gold medals back to Northern Ireland.
“We have people like gymnast Rhys McClenaghan, who won at the Commonwealth Games last time around and has had to deal with the trauma of being told he couldn’t defend his title before being allowed to compete. He will do us justice.
“Then there is our fantastic athlete Ciara Mageean, who could flourish at the Games. We can always rely on our boxers and bowlers who have delivered so much for Northern Ireland in the past and others will emerge. Sophie Earley is one to watch in table tennis.
“In the Commonwealth Games there is less pressure than at the Olympics, World or European Championships so it gives young sports stars the chance to experience big stadiums and big crowds and it helps them for the future.”
National Lottery players raise more than £30million a week for good causes including vital funding into sport – from grassroots to elite. Find out how your numbers make amazing happen at: www.lotterygoodcauses.org.uk and get involved by using the hashtag: #TNLAthletes.