It seems like only yesterday
Fifty years ago, Olympic Gold-medallist Mary Peters was awarded the Churchill Fellowship that made it all possible. Here she reflects on what it led to.
"Fifty years ago, it was my time to win Gold – now I want our athletes of the future to strive for their goals with the very best support." - Lady Mary Peters, Fellow
It seems like only yesterday that I pitched for a Churchill Fellowship and was awarded £800. That was 50 years ago - and £800 was a substantial amount of money back then.
I travelled over to London for the interview and wore a bright emerald green coat. I certainly wanted to stand out. I told the panel it was my time to win, and I was absolutely thrilled when my application was successful.
This enabled me to travel to Pasadena in Los Angeles County (set up by my coach Buster McShane) and benefit from an intensive and memorable six weeks of training and preparation for the 1972 Olympics in Munich. I trained with Bill Pearl, who was Mr Universe at the time, as well as other athletes at the University of Southern California. It was all very exciting and, without the funding award, I simply couldn’t have gone to the States.
It helped me achieve my dream of an Olympic Gold medal in the pentathlon at Munich in September 1972.
After winning Olympic Gold, I embarked upon a campaign to generate funds to create a running track in Belfast. I went everywhere In Northern Ireland and beyond to raise cash and visited so many different workplaces, schools, church groups, factories and sports clubs.
In 1976 we finally opened the Mary Peters Track on the outskirts of Belfast. It launched as a six-lane track but was upgraded to an international standard eight-lane track in 2013, ahead of the Northern Ireland-hosted World Police and Fire Games.
The legacy that I am most proud of is the Mary Peters Trust. Since its inception, the Trust has supported over 4,000 athletes across many different sports and is now Northern Ireland’s leading sporting charity. It helps both disabled and able-bodied young people to achieve their sporting dreams and ambitions.
In fact, at the recent Birmingham-hosted Commonwealth Games, 85 of the almost 100-strong Northern Ireland team were athletes supported by the Mary Peters Trust now or at some point in their careers.
Watching and supporting our athletes in Birmingham was an absolute joy. It was Northern Ireland’s most successful Commonwealth Games ever, with a new record of 18 medals. It was a wonderful moment for me to present Bethany Firth, a Trust-supported para-swimmer, with her gold medal. Ciara Mageean, also helped by my Trust, won a richly deserved Silver to Laura Muir’s Gold in the 1500m. And it was truly fantastic to see Trust athlete Kate O’Connor secure Silver in the Heptathlon – the modern version of my event.
The Mary Peters Trust, chaired by Barry Funston, continues to look to the future, to Paris 2024 and beyond, to help more of our athletes achieve medals on the international sporting stage.
2022 has been an amazing year for me personally, as I marked 50 years since Olympic success in Munich. As a Trust, we’ve organised, supported and attended many interesting fundraising events, from Corporate Games to a running festival and an exhibition at the Ulster Museum. At a special afternoon tea in Belfast’s Europa Hotel, I was honoured to welcome Olympic legends Heide Rosendahl, Ann Packer and Daley Thompson. This celebratory year finished with a flourish on 2 December, with a very special Golden Gala fundraiser, when we were joined by guest of honour HRH The Princess Royal, who is Patron of the Mary Peters Trust.
Recently we presented over 60 young sports people from more than 15 different sports with Mary Peters Trust awards, at a special PWC-hosted Athletes’ Academy. This was our first face-to-face awards ceremony since before the pandemic. It was brilliant to bring everyone together again.
I’ve been privileged to present Churchill Fellowships in London, and funding bursaries such as these and the Mary Peters Trust can significantly benefit young people and contribute to their eventual success and achievements.
Fifty years ago, it was my time to win Gold – now I want our athletes of the future to strive for their goals with the very best support.
For more information visit MaryPetersTrust.org and Mary Peters Trust on Instagram and Facebook.
The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.