Three Commonwealth Games gold medals and a silver, an Olympic gold medal and beating England’s World Cup winning goalkeeper Gordon Banks to the BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 1972, are just some of Mary Peters achievements. 
Away from athletics, the Portadown College former pupil has left a lasting legacy, the Mary Peters Athletics Track in Belfast. 
A charitable trust that bears her name has helped sports stars such as Rory McIlroy, Bethany Firth, Paddy Barnes and Kelly Gallagher. 
Peters has received an MBE, a CBE and a Dame Commander. She was awarded as Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour and in 2019 was appointed a Lady Companion of the Order of the Garter. 
Peters competed at every Commonwealth Games from 1958 to 1974 and has been at every Games since, bar Delhi in 2010. 
Peters sporting journey began at school. 
“I just used to run and jump. That is all we had on school’s sports day - the 100 yards, 220 yards, long jump and high jump and I used to win everything.” 
“My headmaster introduced me to a past pupil who was at Stranmillis training college, Kenneth McClelland, and he started helping and coaching me. I was 15 or 16.” 
“He asked me would I like to try Pentathlon. I’d never heard of it because it wasn’t on the Commonwealth Games or Olympic programme until the 1970’s and this was the 50’s.” 
Pentathlon derived from Greek combining the words pente (five) and -athlon (competition) and consists of 100m hurdles, shot putt, high jump, long jump and 200m. 
“I had to learn to putt the shot and the hurdles, which were events I’d never done before.” 
“I started competing in those events and very soon I was breaking the Northern Ireland record for the shot putt.” 
“Every time I broke the record the shot weighted marginally light so it couldn’t be ratified.” 
“We were living in Portadown at the time and my father went to a local foundry and got a shot made which was an accurate weight. Then I broke the Northern Ireland record officially.” 
“The first Pentathlon I did was against Maeve Kyle who was a sprinter and Irish hockey player and Thelma Hopkins who was a high jumper, long jumper and also played hockey for Ireland.” 
“It was held in Ballymena and I came third. That’s how I became a pentathlete.” 
Peters’ first Commonwealth Games were in Cardiff in 1958. 
“I did the high jump. I think I was eighth out of nine and in the shot putt I was ninth out of 10. 
“Thelma, Maeve and a girl called Bridget Robinson who was a javelin thrower and I made up a relay.” 
“As I passed the baton to Maeve the England team were breaking the World Record at the other end of the track, they were 100 yards ahead of us.” 
“We stayed in an RAF camp outside Cardiff called St Athan’s. Bridget and I shared a Nissan Hut and we had metal lockers to hang our clothes in, not that we had many clothes.” 
“It was just wonderful queuing up for breakfast with people who had maybe the previous day won a gold medal and meeting people from all over the Commonwealth mixing happily together.” 
“When Terry Milligan won his gold medal in the boxing, we were all on the bus with him on the way back from the stadium singing Irish songs and it made me realise how wonderful it was to be involved in sport.” 
Four later year Peters competed in the Commonwealth Games at Perth, Australia. 
“My brother had emigrated to Sydney the previous year, so it was an opportunity to go and see him after I competed.” 
“I think I was fourth in the shot putt. Perth was a new city and they had built new houses that were going to be sold off privately afterwards and there were millions of flies because of the ground.” 
“We had a wonderful time there. To go to the heat and the sunshine when it was freezing cold here and you really enjoyed the opportunity of competing there.” 
“The day I competed in the shot the stadium had been built as a bowl and it was 120 degrees. You had to deal with the heat but it was difficult.” 
Peters first Olympics was Tokyo 1964, the same Games that future heavyweight world boxing champion ‘Smokin’ Joe Frazier won a gold medal.” 
“It was the first time the Pentathlon had been included in the Olympic programme and I was in the British team with Mary Rand who had great potential to win.” 
“There was a Russian athlete (Irina Press) who was very aggressive and was different from our style of athletics. Mary got second and I got fourth behind another Russian athlete Galina Bystrova.” 
Peters’ first podium finish at a major game came in 1966 at the Kingston Commonwealth Games. 
“My coach had persuaded me as there was still no pentathlon to do the shot putt and to go and win the gold medal.” 
“I had broken the Commonwealth record at a small meeting the week before my competition but there was a New Zealand athlete called Val Young who had come out of retirement.” 
“The night of our competition it was delayed by an hour because the javelin in the men’s decathlon run up was beside the shot circle and it would have been too dangerous for us to compete.” 
“The night of our competition it was delayed by an hour because the javelin in the men’s decathlon run up was beside the shot circle and it would have been too dangerous for us to compete.” 
“We were delayed, and I just lost the adrenaline and ended up being beaten into the silver medal. My coach wasn’t best pleased because he had persuaded me to gain two stone so I could go and win the shot putt. He stormed out of the stadium and wouldn’t speak to me until the team manager brought him back a few days later.” 
There was no mistake at the next games in 1970 as Peters won gold in the shot and became the first ever winner of the Pentathlon at a Commonwealth Games which was held at Edinburgh’s Meadowbank Stadium. 
“I was the only athlete in the UK to win two gold medals. It was the first time the pentathlon was in the Commonwealth programme, and it was unusual to combine those two events.” 
“Most pentathletes aren’t able to put the shot very well and that was my strongest event.” 
There was more gold for Peters two years later at the 1972 Munich Olympics. 
“Because I had won those two gold medals, I had almost been afraid of success prior to that, I realised that people wanted to share my success with me and were very happy for me so I decided I would have one more Olympics and go to Munich.” 
“I dedicated myself for every minute of everyday for a full year, eating, sleeping, training to go and win the Munich gold medal.” 
“I knew I was up against Heide Rosendahl who was the local girl from Germany and Burglinde Pollak who had won the European Championships and was from East Germany" 
“When I arrived in Munich I went round the village, I knew Heide quite well, but I didn’t know Burglinde, to try and find her. When I encountered her I said to my coach I can beat her because she didn’t look as home as I felt she should have been.” 
“I went into the competition with on thing in mind and that was to win the gold.” 
Peters credits her success to something she learned at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. 
“The thing that changed me totally was the high jump, which was Dick Fosbury inventing his style of jumping at the previous Olympics.” 
“The day I tried it I jumped higher that I had ever jumped before and that is what made me better than everybody else.” 
“I jumped nearly six feet on the night of the competition and my previous best had been 5ft 10.” 
Peters still recalls her thoughts standing on the podium. 
“I had so much pride. Belfast and Northern Ireland were going through the worst years of the troubles at that time, and I was thinking I’m taking some good news back to Belfast.” 
“The reception was amazing, there was a band at the airport playing congratulations as I came off the plane but unfortunately because of the situation Northern Ireland was in they were afraid as there had been a threat to my life.” 
“The took me in a gold Rolls Royce on a route that I wasn’t familiar with because they were afraid some one might be hiding in the bushes.” 
“We got into Belfast eventually and went to my coach Buster McShane’s gym and we had a reception there and then to the Belfast Telegraph where the managing director Jim Willis and Malcolm Brodie gave me another reception.” 
“I was then put on a lorry and taken down Royal Avenue to meet the Lord Mayor at the other end at the City Hall. It was amazing the people that came out, throwing confetti to welcome me home." 
Northern Ireland’s golden girl won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 1972. 
“I was a wee girl from Belfast and I never though of myself winning certain accolades. It was presented to me by Princess Anne who had won it the previous year for winning the European Three-Day Eventing Championship. 
“I said when she handed me the trophy ‘Hasn’t she kept it clean.’” 
Peters put off retirement to go to the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch and struck gold once again. 
“I had not intended to continue after Munich, but my coach was killed in a car accident six months after my success, so I had lost heart in training and anyway I was 33 when I won my medal which was quite mature for a women athlete.” 
“Because I had started collecting money to build a running track which is now the Mary Peters track, I felt I needed to continue in sport to keep the profile so I could raise more money to build the track.” 
“So, I decided I would go to Christchurch in 74 as my final swansong. I had tremendous support from other athletes who came out to support me in my training especially Mike Bull who was training to do the decathlon and the pole vault.” 
“Buster had trained him in the later part of his career so we decided we would go to Christchurch and win the pentathlon and the decathlon as a tribute to Buster which we managed to do.” 
“I had a wonderful life in sport. The friendships you make through sport are vital in life. We had an Australian came and competed in Northern Ireland before the Commonwealth Games in 1958 and I still keep in touch with some of the Australians. 
Peters name will be forever etched in sporting history due to the track being named in her honour. 
“I spent three years of my life collecting that money. The athletes of today have no idea of the challenge of raising money in those years were.” 
“We didn’t have the glamour companies in Northern Ireland to be able to ask them to help and support us. I went all over the UK collecting money for the track.” 
“It’s funny when I go to the track, as quite often there is always somebody getting their photo taken beside my statue. The whole area is going to be changed next for the 50th anniversary of me winning in Munich.” 
Peters is delighted to get the younger generation a helping hand through her Trust. 
“It was a man called John Moore from Coleraine who approached me about setting up the fund. At the time he wanted to call it the Mary Peters Trust but at that time because I was collecting for the track you couldn’t have two charities collecting for the same thing, so he called it the Ulster Sports Trust.” 
“For many years we were able to help young athletes compete at the higher level through bursaries.” 
“As time went on and I completed the track we decided it would be better to call it the Mary Peters Trust so people would realise it is a charity and that we don’t get any support at all from the government or Sport NI.” 
“We have helped over 4,000 young people realise their dreams and we continue to do so. 27 of the 30 athletes than went to Tokyo this time around were supported by the trust whether they we able bodied or disabled.” 
Peters has received many personal accolades over the years. 
“You never seek honours they are bestowed upon you. I feel very privileged to have been honoured so many times by Her Majesty the Queen.” 
“I like to be called Mary P despite the fact that I’ve been a Dame and now a Lady. I like being Mary P because that brings you down to the level of the people you are dealing with. People are nervous if you have a title, they think you are different.” 
Our site uses cookies. For more information, see our cookie policy. Accept cookies and close
Reject cookies Manage settings