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Dame Mary Peters: From the track to the palace

ESPN staff
May 5, 2010
Mary Peters' pentathlon world record of 4801 points still stands today © Getty Images

In 1972, Mary Peters achieved every athlete's dream, becoming Olympic champion and breaking the world record in the process.

Competing in her third Olympics, the 33-year-old knew it was her last chance to achieve her dream. In front of a packed stadium in Munich, she set four personal bests in five events to beat local star Heide Rosendahl by ten points to become the last Olympic pentathlon champion.

"I remember Munich very vividly," she recalls. "It was the most important time of my whole life. I had been competing internationally since 1958 which was when I went to my first Commonwealth Games and I knew at the age of 33 it was going to be my final competition.

"It was just wonderful to win. My world record still exists because they extended the event to the heptathlon two years later so it is really special to have a world record that will always stand."

Peters' victory was made even more poignant when she discovered her father had been in the stadium. He had been instrumental in her early career, making hurdles and providing a long jump pit as a teenager.

"My father had been living in Australia but he turned up to watch," she said. "I had no idea he was there - it was very emotional."

The 1972 Games were overshadowed by the Munich Massacre, the shooting of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian gunmen. Peters had already won her medal when the tragic event happened two days later, but it was an emotional time for the athletes and Peters admitted it put her victory into perspective.

"I felt guilty for many years afterwards," she said. "I had been so full of my own achievements. I went back 20 years later to pay my respects to those who died in Munich and it helped me put things into perspective."

Dame Mary Peters was appointed the Lord Lieutenant of Belfast in 2009 © Getty Images

After an international career spanning nearly two decades, Peters retired after the 1974 Commonwealth Games, but continued to devote her time to the sport. She raised money to refurbish the athletics track in Belfast where she had trained, which was subsequently renamed in her honour.

She recalls: "After winning the Olympic medal I had a phone call from the sports editor of the local paper to say people wanted to commemorate my success in some way - what would I like? I said I wanted a running track because the one I had trained on had potholes.

"They launched the Mary Peters Track Fund but little did I know I was going to spend the next few years raising the money myself!"

In 2000 Peters was honoured by the Queen with a Damehood in recognition of her work for athletics and the community in Northern Ireland, and last year she was appointed the Lord Lieutenant of Belfast by the Queen, acting as the Queen's representative in the city, welcoming heads of state, performing citizenship ceremonies and attending military and religious events.

"It is a great honour to be asked to do the role," she said. "It is historically people of the aristocracy who are asked, so for someone from a sporting background to be given this is very unusual. It takes up a lot of time so I have had to cut back on my charity work and after dinner speaking."

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