Image: Mary Peters relaxing at home Photo: Kevin Cooper
Olympic gold medal winner Mary Peters talks to VIEW editor Brian Pelan about loneliness and why we need to try and care for each other more
Mary Peters, Olympic gold medal winner and an ambassador for sports and numerous charity initiatives, would be a regular front-runner if there was a yearly award for being charming and gracious.
In 1972, the year she won her gold medal at the Munich Olympics, I was 16 years of age. I can recall the fevered atmosphere in Belfast as Mary, aboard a vehicle, was driven down Royal Avenue. I thought it was an open top bus, but Mary swiftly corrected me, with an infectious laugh, to remind me that it was a lorry.
The front room of her house is bedecked with numerous images, including one of her meeting the late South African leader Nelson Mandela.
Mary offered me a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit, saying that “men can’t resist them”. She was right.
The first question I put to her was: “What do you think now when you hear the phrase, ‘golden girl’ to describe your Olympic gold medal success.”
“I still get a little glow,” she replied. “It never goes away unless you are a cheat. Because Northern Ireland was going through such a bad time in 1972 it brought some good news and I’m still celebrating it 44 years on.”
I wondered did she think about growing older and what life might be like for her during those exhilarating days?
“I don’t think you ever do,” said Mary. “It’s like I never imagined what life would be like if I won an Olympic gold medal. It only hits you when it happens to you. Old age comes on more quickly than you ever imagined it will.
“I don’t feel old but I know I am. I’m 77 years of age. When I hit my 77th birthday, I said ‘wow’. But I still feel as if I’m 21 although I can’t do the things now that I could when I was that age.”
I was interested in her views on loneliness given that’s it’s an issue that impacts on a lot of older people.
Mary was forthright and honest in her reply. “I think it more pertinent at this time of year as we head towards Christmas. My family are all in Australia. I’ve no relatives in Ireland because my dad brought us here when I was 11 years of age. So it can be a very lonely time because you are far away from family and you are never a part of anyone else’s family no matter how kind or generous that people are.
“I tend to run away at Christmas and stay with friends outside of Northern Ireland because it would be lonely home alone.
“I’m also conscious of other people who might be lonely. I always take my phone book with me so I can ring people around Christmas.
“I don’t ever really feel lonely because I know there are friends at the end of a phone. Although you can be lonely even though you are busy. You’re in the buzz of all the exciting things you do and then you come home and you’ve nobody to tell the story to. I’m also sad because my mum died around Christmas time. It’s a long, long time ago but I still have memories of her.”
I was interested to hear Mary’s view on the broader issue of loneliness and social isolation.
“I always have a positive attitude. I meet people and say ‘let’s have a chat’. I would never say to them: ‘Are you lonely?’ I know that some people I meet may be lonely but I would never raise it is as a subject.
“Is that because there is a bit of a stigma attached to loneliness,” I asked.
“No,” said Mary. “I just think that some people don’t want to realise how lonely they are.
“There was a story I told at a Silver Line conference (the service provides a befriending service to older people). “There was a lady in a health club I was at. As I passed her I touched her arm and said ‘how are you today?’ She started to cry and it was like the advert on television which said ‘Nobody asked me how I was’.
“She said: ‘It’s a sad day but you don’t need to know about it. And I said; ‘Oh, I do’. She told me that 12 years ago that her husband had died and she wanted to go to his grave but had nobody to go with.
“I said: ‘Get your coat’ and we went.
“I also realised that she was very depressed and I got her to go and speak to a counsellor. She came into the gym sometime later and she was smiling. I hadn’t seen her smiling in a long time.
“We all need to tell people that we love them and we are proud of them. My advice to people who feel lonely is to join a club whether it’s dancing, swimming, talking or reading. Anything that gets them to communicate with other people.”
“I think that’s why organisations like Age NI are so important in helping older people. We have all got to learn to care more about each other.”
Throughout the entire interview, Mary was relaxed and charming. I left her house with a ‘little glow”. I think she has that impact on everyone she meets. We are fortunate to have her.
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