Two of Britain’s greatest athletes are sharing anecdotes about their triumphs and tribulations, laughing like old friends despite having only recently met, when Mary Peters tells a story that makes Katarina Johnson‑Thompson gasp.
In the months before the 1972 Munich Olympics Peters was desperate to win a pentathlon gold medal to cap off her career. But there was no track near where she lived in Belfast. So at the height of the Troubles she would get two buses across the city to use a run‑down facility, carrying her starter’s blocks and a heavy shot to practise her putting, while also holding down a job. Sometimes she would hear bombs go off while she trained.
“It was always raining too,” says a chuckling Peters, who turned 80 and had open heart surgery last year but has the restless energy of someone half her age. “And the track was full of potholes. Luckily I got a Churchill scholarship, which allowed me to go to the States for six weeks and train. I didn’t have that much talent – which sounds ridiculous – but I worked really hard at it and it all came together.”
Memories of that pentathlon gold in Munich, where she set a world record – snatching glory in the 200m – come flooding back. “I never thought: ‘What will happen to me if I stand on that rostrum?’ but when it happened it was amazing. It’s over 47 years ago now since I had my success but I am still celebrating – still partying!”
“I want that,” replies Johnson‑Thompson, who will compete in the heptathlon in Tokyo later this year. “I want to go on a 47-year celebration.”
Peters nods, recognising the spirit of a fellow traveller. “Jessica Ennis-Hill set a really high standard and was the face of the 2012 Olympics,” she says, looking Johnson‑Thompson in the eye. “And you are our next champion.”
It feels appropriate that Johnson‑Thompson and Peters are getting to know each other only days before International Women’s Day, given one of its focuses is on celebrating sporting trailblazers and visionaries. Peters was certainly that – and a whole lot more. In the 1960s, when lifting weights was seen as distinctly unladylike, Peters was able to quarter-squat with 825lb (375kg) on her back – roughly the combined weight of four giant pandas – and one-arm jerk press an incredible 160lb (73kg).
For good measure she could also do a vertical jump of 32 inches, which she says was then a world record, and also broke 25 British records during a career that spanned three Olympic Games.
Not only was Peters a walking advert for This Girl Can 50 years before the award-winning campaign was dreamed up but she did it all while holding down a full-time job – first as a teacher and then as a secretary.
Of course there were challenges – plenty of them. While at training college, for instance, Peters had no track to train on, so she used to sprint down corridors after hours. On one occasion the doors ahead of her were suddenly closed and she smashed into them, shattering all the glass.
“I worked as a school teacher but I gave it up because they didn’t like giving me time off to do my sport,” she adds. “So I went to work as my coach’s secretary. I’d work 40 hours a week and train at the end of the day. It wasn’t easy. I would go to the gym at 6am or stay after work at 9pm at night and do some weights.”
At this point Johnson-Thompson, who is listening with a mixture of awe and utter horror, chips in. “I don’t think I could cope under those conditions, I’m not going to lie,” she says. “I just find it crazy that you describe yourself as just a hard worker and not talented when you’re doing those events and jumping those heights in the conditions you had and training facilities you had. You’re obviously putting yourself down.”
“I had to work really hard at everything I did,” Peters says. “But I didn’t find it a chore.”
Back then it was not just people’s attitudes to women in sport that was less sophisticated. The diet was, too. “I ate everything and more,” Peters admits. “I never had any pasta, never drank water, never carried a bottle of water. And we would have a steak dinner before we went out to compete.”
Johnson‑Thompson begins to chuckle before asking Peters whether she has seen a film about Steve Prefontaine, the legendary American distance runner of the 1970s who was killed in a car accident aged 24. “They would have steaks before competition, and beers and cigarettes at every meet,” she says.
Did Peters go that far? “Nearly,” she replies, laughing.
As the conversation continues, the pair find out they also share a deeper bond than an aptitude for multi-events – both hail from Halewood in Liverpool. Peters grew up there before moving to Northern Ireland when she was 11, while Johnson‑Thompson’s mum and nan still live there.
“I remember those days vividly,” says Peters. “I used to get a penny for the bus fare home but I’d run and try to beat it so I could save the penny.”
Neither woman can explain why Liverpool has produced two world-class multi-eventers but Johnson‑Thompson believes it is clear that success breeds success. “I think it’s because you see someone do it,” she explains. “And that falls down to Denise Lewis and then Jess Ennis‑Hill. When you see the way, it makes it easier to believe it’s possible.”
Johnson‑Thompson certainly believes. For years she took her licks and kicks, with her chances of glory at major competitions thwarted by a combination of injury, anxiety or plain bad luck. But at the world championships in Doha last October everything clicked. Not only did she defenestrate the queen of heptathlon, Belgium’s Nafi Thiam, to take gold, she also set four personal bests and beat Ennis-Hill’s British record along the way.
That victory, she admits, has completely changed her sense of self. “Before, when I spoke to kids who had dreams and ambitions, I used to say: ‘Sport is so hard and you might not win,’” she says. “I never used to believe – because I hadn’t won.
“But now I feel like I’m able to tell them that, even through the rough times, keep pushing on. When I’m a role model to kids, I am actually proud now. Not just because I’ve won but because of the journey I had to winning.”
At 27, Johnson‑Thompson believes she is at her peak and primed for Olympic glory. “The past three years have been about Tokyo,” she says. “My move to Montpellier [in late 2016] was about Tokyo. It’s hard not to think about it. This is what it’s all about.”
Her plan for the rest of 2020 – coronavirus permitting – is to do a low-key heptathlon in Atlanta before competing on the Diamond League circuit, including at the Anniversary Games in July. “I really look forward to competing at the London Stadium in front of the British crowd, who are always amazing, not just to me, but in creating a great atmosphere for all athletes to compete,” she says. “And this year the Müller Anniversary Games are just before the Tokyo Olympics, so it will provide a great platform for all athletes to put some finishing touches in place.”
Peters – who also competed in Tokyo, finishing fourth at the 1964 Olympics – will be willing her on. Even now she still regularly goes into schools, trying to inspire the next generation by showing them her medals. “A little boy said one day: ‘Is it full of chocolate?’” she says, smiling. “People never ever ask me to see a Commonwealth medal ever. And yet an Olympic gold medal is something everyone wants a part of. They want to feel it, they want to wear it, they want their picture taken with it. It’s very special.”
Come August, Johnson‑Thompson intends to experience that emotion for herself – by claiming a place in that extraordinary exclusive club of British women who are multi‑event Olympic champions, alongside Peters, Lewis and Ennis‑Hill.
Katarina Johnson-Thompson will compete at the Müller Anniversary Games on 4-5 July at the London Stadium. Tickets are available via www.britishathletics.org.uk