Legendary Olympian Dame Mary Peters joined some of this year’s heroic batch for a celebratory event at the Open University on Friday.
Dame Mary gave an inspirational and at times rousing speech to a packed gallery of students, university staff and press as part of the event, which honoured those Olympians who also study through the OU.
Dame Mary herself received an honorary degree from the university, based in Walton Hall, earlier this year in Belfast for public services.
Her athletics career spanned 16 years, competing for Great Britain at three Olympics and Northern Ireland in five Commonwealth Games.
She won a gold medal in the Pentathlon at the Munich Olympics in 1972 with a world record score – a record which still stands to this day, as after 1972 the event was changed.
On Friday, Dame Mary said: “1972 was the worst year of the troubles in Northern Ireland, and often I had to get two buses to training, hearing the bombs going off. I often wondered why I didn’t turn around and go home, but it was because I had a dream.
“No-one in Britain expected me to be successful, but I had that dream.
“I once sat with journalists one night before and event, drinking my gin and, I’m ashamed to say, smoking a cigarette, and they asked me what I expected to do.
“I told them I was going to go for gold. I wasn’t the best athlete in the world, but I became the best because I believed I was going to be.”
Dame Mary also spoke of her experiences of taking a young 16-year-old South African runner called Zola Budd under her wing, and of the death threats Budd received after a collision with Mary Decker in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics 3,000 metre final.
And speaking about this year’s London Olympics, Dame Mary said: “To me London was about pride – pride of being British, and of the volunteers who I applaud for making such a special games.”
Also present at the question and answer event, which saw an unveiling of a special plaque to commemorate the Olympians, was Bedford’s canoeing gold medallist Etienne Stott, who is currently studying for a degree in psychology.
He said: “For me sports and study are very much linked. It’s good to know I have a life outside sport and knowing you have a future outside of sport is another way of reducing the pressure. Studying can take your mind off things when you need to.”
Other Olympians at the event included rowing bronze medallist Alan Campbell, and women’s hockey bronze medallists Alex Danson and Helen Richardson.
Helen, who is also studying psychology, said: “There are comparisons to study and doing sport at an elite level. I’m used to goal setting in hockey and giving myself weekly targets so that comes in useful when I have to study. The determination I have in sport is also another great asset getting down to study.”