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Mary Peters: I wanted to win more than anything because Northern Ireland was going through terrible trauma and I wanted to bring good news back to Belfast

Olympics hero Lady Mary Peters on winning gold and why she adores NI

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Mary Peters

Mary Peters

Dame Mary Peters during the annual Order of the Garter Service at St George's Chapel, Windsor Castlein 2019. Steve Parsons/PA Wire

Dame Mary Peters during the annual Order of the Garter Service at St George's Chapel, Windsor Castlein 2019. Steve Parsons/PA Wire

Mary Peters of Great Britain sprints away from the blocks in the 200 metres in the Pentathlon event at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. Peters won the gold medal. Mandatory Credit: Tony  Duffy/Allsport

Mary Peters of Great Britain sprints away from the blocks in the 200 metres in the Pentathlon event at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. Peters won the gold medal. Mandatory Credit: Tony Duffy/Allsport

The delight on Mary Peters face as she waves at the thousands of people who lined the length of Royal Avenue to greet Mary and her trainer Buster McShane on her Olympic float.  8/9/1972

The delight on Mary Peters face as she waves at the thousands of people who lined the length of Royal Avenue to greet Mary and her trainer Buster McShane on her Olympic float. 8/9/1972

Mary Peters

Lady Mary Peters has told how she overcame family tragedy and terrorist death threats to become the most successful athlete in Northern Irish history.

In a new BBC documentary about her life, she relives the highs of her career, peaking with winning gold at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and talks frankly about the heartache she experienced along the way.

Mary's parents Arthur and Hilda nurtured their daughter's love of sport after discovering, when she was a teenager, that she had a flair for the pentathlon.

"My dad gave me for my 17th birthday enough cement to lay a shot circle and within quite a short time I was breaking the Northern Ireland record," the now 81-year-old tells the show.

"That's really how my athletic career got very competitive - because I was breaking records."

But her upbringing took a tragic twist with the death of her beloved mum, followed by her dad's decision to remarry - to Mary's godmother, who had been her mum's bridesmaid.

"It was very difficult because they didn't talk about cancer in those days and I hadn't realised how seriously ill she was," the Olympian says.

"We all gathered at my grandmother's house and my dad left to go and meet my godmother, who was my mum's bridesmaid.

"I believe that evening he asked her if she would come and live with us in Northern Ireland as a housekeeper, with a view to marriage.

"That was a difficult time for me because, having loved my mum so much, I couldn't understand how my dad could be interested in somebody else so soon.

"Athletics was very important to me at that stage because it took me away from the home, where I was finding it very stressful."

Having loved my mum so much, I couldn't understand how my dad could be interested in somebody else so soon

After her father remarried, he, his new wife and Mary's brother emigrated to Australia, leaving her alone in Northern Ireland aged 18.

She found solace in sport and was soon making her debut at a major event in the 1958 Commonwealth Games.

"I didn't have any great expectations, I just loved competing. We didn't realise the significance of being selected for our country, I don't think," she recalls.

As her career kicked off, so too did the Troubles. The year she won gold, 1972, was the worst year of the violence, with almost 500 people killed.

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Mary Peters of Great Britain sprints away from the blocks in the 200 metres in the Pentathlon event at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. Peters won the gold medal. Mandatory Credit: Tony  Duffy/Allsport

Mary Peters of Great Britain sprints away from the blocks in the 200 metres in the Pentathlon event at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. Peters won the gold medal. Mandatory Credit: Tony Duffy/Allsport

Mary Peters of Great Britain sprints away from the blocks in the 200 metres in the Pentathlon event at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. Peters won the gold medal. Mandatory Credit: Tony Duffy/Allsport

On her way to Munich Mary was determined to bring back the top prize, seeing it as a chance to show Northern Ireland in a positive light.

"I wanted it more than anything ever because Northern Ireland was going through such terrible traumas and I just hoped that I could bring some good news back to Belfast," she explains.

"I never even thought about the consequences of success while I was training for it, but boy it was good and it's still good to this day."

Lifting Olympic gold made Mary famous, but there would be something else to make her victory even sweeter: a surprise reunion with her dad, who as he embraced her said: "(This is) the greatest day of my life today. I've come round the world to see this."

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The delight on Mary Peters face as she waves at the thousands of people who lined the length of Royal Avenue to greet Mary and her trainer Buster McShane on her Olympic float.  8/9/1972

The delight on Mary Peters face as she waves at the thousands of people who lined the length of Royal Avenue to greet Mary and her trainer Buster McShane on her Olympic float. 8/9/1972

The delight on Mary Peters face as she waves at the thousands of people who lined the length of Royal Avenue to greet Mary and her trainer Buster McShane on her Olympic float. 8/9/1972

The clip of their reunion is one of many moments that feature in BBC Northern Ireland's This Sporting Life, presented by Stephen Watson.

"I had no idea he was there. From behind a screen came my dad, the man who had given me the sand and the cement all those years ago. He was very proud and he was very happy. I'm glad he got to see me compete because my mum never did at that level," she says.

Her joy was short-lived, however, being cut short by a death threat from mindless republican terrorists.

"A phone call came through to the BBC to say that if Mary Peters went home to Belfast she would be shot and her flat would be bombed," she explains.

"The fear was that perhaps I was competing for Britain, not Ireland, but I couldn't because I was English by birth."

Asked in the show if the threat made her more determined to return to Northern Ireland, Mary replies: "Yes, of course, because I love Belfast, I love its people, I love Northern Ireland, I call myself an Ulsterwoman and I'm very proud of all the people who've been successful in Northern Ireland over the years."

A year later Mary would suffer yet more personal tragedy when her friend, coach and mentor Robert 'Buster' McShane died after a car crash.

"The police came to the door early at my friend's house and said that there had been an accident and that Buster had been killed," she recalls.

"I was devastated because Buster had made me an Olympic champion and a world record holder.

"He was also a very good friend and I was a friend of the family.

"I just couldn't believe it... I didn't know how to react. I was absolutely shocked and devastated.

"I couldn't believe that life would continue after Buster's death."

Mary found the strength to overcome her anguish and set out to honour Buster's memory at one final contest, the 1974 Commonwealth Games in New Zealand, where she again won gold.

After quitting, she set about building the profile of her sport at home, revamped Northern Ireland's leading athletics track, now named in her honour, and set up a charitable trust.

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Dame Mary Peters during the annual Order of the Garter Service at St George's Chapel, Windsor Castlein 2019. Steve Parsons/PA Wire

Dame Mary Peters during the annual Order of the Garter Service at St George's Chapel, Windsor Castlein 2019. Steve Parsons/PA Wire

Dame Mary Peters during the annual Order of the Garter Service at St George's Chapel, Windsor Castlein 2019. Steve Parsons/PA Wire

It's a huge legacy for someone who only moved from Liverpool to Northern when she was 11 years old after her dad got a job in Ballymena - a relocation that came as something of a culture shock to a young Mary.

"Ballymena was a strange place to come to because I couldn't understand the language and I used to have somebody sit beside me in class to interpret what the teachers were saying," she remembers.

"It's been extraordinary. From a little girl in Liverpool who was introverted and shy to rise to the levels that I have been in life... it's been wonderful.

"I'm so grateful that I've had opportunities with a lot of help and support from friends.

"Not having had a family here, I feel part of the province - and may it go on and on."

This Sporting Life is on BBC One Northern Ireland on Friday at 7.30pm

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