Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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Interviews - SPORTING LEGENDS OF IRELAND

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OLYMPIC RECORD

Munich 1972: Pentathlon (Gold)

Mexico City 1968: Pentathlon (9th)

Tokyo 1964: Pentathlon (4th)

COMMONWEALTH GAMES

1966: Shot Putt (Silver).

1970: Pentathlon (Gold).

1970: Shot Putt (Gold).

1974: Pentathlon (Gold).

AWARDS & HONOURS

1972: BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

1973: MBE

1973-1993: Member of the Northern
Ireland Sports Council.

1990: CBE.

1997: Texaco Hall of Fame.

2000: Dame Commander of the British Empire.

2001: Patron of Revive charity at the
Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast.

2001: Lifetime Achievement Award at The
Sunday Times Sportswoman of the Year Awards.

Patron of Springhill Hospice in Rochdale, Lancashire.

President of the Mary Peters Trust.

2010 Lord Lieutenant of
County Borough of Belfast

DAME MARY PETERS, DBE, LL
PENTATHLETE & SHOT PUTT CHAMPION

Two tons of sand is possibly not every girls ideal 16th birthday present. Nor for that matter is a shot putt circle, complete with stop block. But when Arthur Peters presented them to his only daughter Mary, he could be confident that such gifts would be greatly appreciated. And many years later, he would be rewarded for his foresight when he embraced her amid the bright lights of Munich shortly after she had won an Gold medal at the 1972 Olympics.

Robert Henry Peters, Mary’s grandfather was a builder and stonemason based in the once affluent village of Woolton near Liverpool. His wife Mary[i] grew up on a farm near Sedbergh in Yorkshire. Family lore recalls how she single-handedly escorted a cow by train all the way from Sedbergh to her brothers’ dairy in Woolton. She evidently impressed Mr. Peters and the couple were married in Woolton’s Methodist chapel in the spring of 1900.

Seven children followed, of whom Mary’s father Arthur was the third. In his youth, he developed a tremendous passion for working with animals, initially breeding rabbits and mice for Liverpool’s laboratories, and later working in a fish and poultry shop. During the 1930s, he became an insurance agent with the Liverpool Victoria Friendly Society, rising to become manager.

In his spare time, Arthur was leading violinist with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and, prior to his marriage, he reputedly practiced for eight hours a day. His daughter dutifully had a stab at playing the violin herself. ‘I never found it comfortable holding it under my chin’, says Mary. ‘So I ended up holding a shot putt under my chin instead’.

Mary’s mother Hilda Ellison was the only daughter in a threshing family from what was then the small agricultural village of Speke, near the present day John Lennon Airport in Liverpool. While England reeled from the effects of the economic recession in the 1930s, Hilda helped her mother run the family home while her father and three brothers threshed on surrounding farms.

In 1935, she met and married Arthur Peters and the couple settled in the Liverpudlian suburb of Halewood where their son John was born in 1936. Mary was born on 6th July 1939.

Although they were not particularly sporty themselves, Arthur and Hilda encouraged their children to spend as much time outdoors as possible. ‘Our childhood was basically set against the backdrop of the Second World War’, says Mary. ‘My parents told us to get outside as much as we could, so that we could benefit from the vitamins of the sunshine and enjoy ourselves playing in the fields’. Naturally she began to compete with her brother, running, sprinting and even wrestling. ‘That’s what made me strong’, she says.

In the late 1940s, Arthur was assigned to serve as a part-time inspector in the LV office in Belfast. For the next two years, his children only saw him every second weekend. However, things changed in 1950 when Arthur became manager of the LV's district office in Ballymena. Hilda, 14-year-old John and 11-year-old Mary soon made the journey across to their new homeland in Antrim.

John began enthusiastically experimenting with what appears to have been every track and field event on offer at his school in Ballymena, as well as playing on the rugby team. Meanwhile, Mary had also developed an extraordinary passion for athletics at Ballymena. Later on, at Portadown College, the signs of her Olympic destiny quickly manifested themselves as she became house captain, captain of hockey and athletics and then head girl.

Impressed by her athletic prowess, her headmaster Donald Woodman introduced her to a past pupil called Kenneth McClelland who was by them a PE trainer. It was at about this time that her father poured two tons of sand into a field at the back of the house, whereon she could practice her long jump and high jump.

But Arthur knew his daughter’s talents stretched considerably wider than mere jumping. ‘My strongest event at that time was the shot putt’, says Mary. And so, alongside the sands came the shot putt circle. ‘I started to break the Northern Irish record but it turned out the shots I was using were not the correct weight so the record didn’t count. My father went to the foundry to get an accurate shot made and I soon broke the record properly. It held for something like 42 years.’

By now it was clear that Mary’s forte was the pentathlon, comprising of the 100m hurdles, shot putt, high jump, long jump and a 200m sprint. The pentathlon was invented by Jason, he of the Argonauts and Golden Fleece fame. Jason’s friend Peleus, father of Achilles, was the first man to win the event. Another early enthusiast was the Greek hero Perseus who inadvertently fulfilled the Oracle of Delphi’s prophesy when, competing in a pentathlon, he misthrew a discus and killed his wicked grandfather. And amongst those who enjoyed watching the sport was Aristotle who remarked that pentathletes required ‘a body capable of enduring all efforts, either of the racecourse or of bodily strength ... This is why the athletes in the pentathlon are most beautiful’.

By the age of 16, Mr. McClelland had trained Mary sufficiently for her to compete in her first pentathlon at the 1956 Northern Irish Championships. The event was won by Thelma Hopkins, who broke the world high jump record that same year. Silver went to Irish Olympian Maeve Kyle, of whom we treat on page [page number?]. And the bronze went to a 16-year-old schoolgirl from Portadown called Mary Peters. Later that year, she went one better at the British Championships in Birmingham and came home with a silver.

She started work as a domestic science teacher, graduating from Belfast Tech to teach at Graymount Girls Secondary School. In 1958, she was on the Northern Irish team who went to the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff. She remained on the team for every Commonwealth Games until 1974, winning two gold medals for the pentathlon, as well as a gold and a silver for the shot putt.

Her coach Buster McShane was convinced that Olympic glory awaited Mary and, under his careful supervision, she went to both the 1964 and 1968 Olympics, coming 4th and 9th respectively in the pentathlon. During the latter contest she was team captain and she believes her performance suffered simply because she took her responsibilities too seriously.

As she edged into her fourth decade in 1970, one might have expected Mary to bow out gracefully. Not a bit of it.

‘Oh yes, there was a steel there’, she says. ‘There has to be! It is not easy winning a gold medal and it is the one that matters. No one remembers who won the silver medals’.[ii]

Mary competed in the Pentathlon again at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, giving the most jaw-dropping performance of her career. When the final points were calculated, Mary and Buster were informed that not only had she amassed a world record 4,801 points, with personal bests in all five events, but she had also won an Olympic Gold medal. Her world-beating record score still stands to this day.

Belfast erupted with delight as the victorious duo returned from Munich, an event somewhat overshadowed by Buster’s tragic death in a car crash six months later.

On the night that she won her gold medal, a journalist from the Belfast Telegraph asked Mary how she would like to be commemorated. She replied that she would like to see a purpose-built racetrack opened up in Belfast. Shortly after 'The Mary Peters Track' opened, the six-lane track was given a massive publicity boost in 1974 when Mary, aged 35, won a third gold at the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Mary maintained a strong link to Britain’s Olympic team, managing the women’s athletes from 1979 to 1984, during which time they won one gold, two silver and fifteen bronze medals at the 1980 and 1984 Olympics.

Since her retirement, she has continued to be a power-house for the promotion of both sport and community development across Ulster, as well as patron of innumerable charities. Not surprisingly the honours have come thick and fast. An MBE in 1973, a CBE in 1990 and, in 2000, she was appointed Dame Commander of the British Empire. She also established the Ulster Sports Trust, now re-launched as the Mary Peters Trust, which seeks to develop sporting prowess across the province. In January 2010, Dame Mary Peters took office as Lord Lieutenant of the County Borough of Belfast. She’s come a long way since Liverpool.

FOOTNOTES

[i] Nee MARY ELIZABETH METCALFE.

[ii] The silver medal at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich was won by the heavily fancied West German athlete Heide Rosendahl.

 

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Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.