Stirling back in Edinburgh as manager of New Zealand's cross-country hopefuls, 38 years after 800m Commonwealth triumph
IT IS 22 years since Rosemary Wright last set foot in Edinburgh. Despite the bitter cold in the capital this week, she feels overwhelmed by the warmth of the reception she has received upon her return to the city where she became a Scottish sporting hero.
"I've never, ever been this cold before, but it's really amazing to be back" she said with a shiver. Now 60, the native New Zealander is excited by her return to the capital where, in 1970, she won gold for Scotland at the Commonwealth Games. She was Rosemary Stirling back then, charging down the finishing straight at Meadowbank Stadium to snatch the 800metres title in a thrilling three-way sprint for the line.
As she breathed in the icy Edinburgh air during a stroll round Holyrood Park yesterday, memories of her greatest moment in athletics came flooding back. At home in Tauranga on New Zealand's north island, where she has lived for more than 25 years, few people know much about her success. But her return to the scene of her triumph this week as manager of the New Zealand team for Sunday's IAAF World Cross Country Championship gives her an opportunity to relive a moment she has cherished all her life.
"This is the first time I've been able to come back, and to share, in a way, my past memories with the three athletes we have with us," says Wright, whose daughter, Jessica Ruthe, was originally in the New Zealand team but has had to pull out due to injury.
"I came back for the Commonwealth Games in 1986, but even then I didn't appreciate the beauty of Edinburgh. I'd have been in my early 30s then. I was all wrapped up in the opening ceremony and I was only here for a couple of days, rehearsing running down the Royal Mile and onto the track with Allan Wells and other Scottish gold medallists."
Wright took time out yesterday to reflect on what she describes as the highlight of a time when she was one of the top middle-distance runners in Britain. Meadowbank Stadium hasn't changed much since the 1970 Games, when Ian Stewart, Lachie Stewart, Rosemary Payne and Wright famously won track-and-field gold for the host nation. As Wright looked down over the main stand from Arthur's Seat, the memories came flooding back.
"I wasn't favourite to win," she recalls of the 800m final. "The favourite was Sheila Carey, but she tripped and fell. I wasn't really aware because I was in front of her, and it wasn't until the finish that I found out who had fallen.
"My most vivid memory is from about 150 metres from the finish, and the piercing screaming and yelling of the crowd ringing in my ears. Pat Low, Cheryl Peasley and myself were going for the finish line, the three of us in a row. When I won, it was quite surreal."
Wright was a member of the British quartet who won gold in the 4x400m at the 1969 European Championships, and after her triumph in Edinburgh a year later she went on to collect 800m bronze at the 1971 European Championships before reaching the final in the same event at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
Her time of 2min 00.15sec at the Munich Games became the longest-standing Scottish record, lasting 30 years until Susan Scott broke it at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester by running 1:59:30. When she was contacted by The Scotsman to ask for her reaction, Wright was unaware her record still stood. The fact that it lasted so long underlines how talented she was.
Had it not been for Ian Stewart, Wright doubts she would ever have ran as fast as she did at her peak. "At the time I was going out with Ian Stewart, and I'd attribute a lot of it to him because he was quite different to me. He was so single-minded. He lived for running, and I became a bit like that."
These days she tries to instil a similar mindset in the athletes she coaches at the girls college where she works as a teacher. Married to Trevor and a mother to two daughters – every member of the family is an athlete – Wright looks back on the heady days of the early 1970s with great fondness and has never regretted the decision to run for the land of her father's birth. Born in Dunfermline, her father was two when his family emigrated to New Zealand. Rosemary was born in Timaru, New Zealand in 1947, and was 14 when her family moved back to Britain and settled in Wolverhampton.
"Back in those days, it was good to come up to the Scottish Championships, so when I was 17 my mum and dad took me up, not necessarily because of my Scottish heritage but because it was a good championship. Although we didn't come with any expectation, I qualified for the team by winning the 400m and got selected the next day to represent Scotland. Because of my dad's heritage I was classed an Anglo-Scot. I accepted straight away, and off I went to Jamaica for the 1966 Commonwealth Games as the baby of the team."
Rosemary met her Sheffield-born husband, Trevor Wright, while competing in Helsinki in 1971, and lived in Wolverhampton until she was 34, when the couple moved to New Zealand. They have been there ever since. Ironically, while Trevor is an Englishman who only ran for New Zealand, Rosemary is a New Zealander who only ran for Scotland.
"You can never, ever take away those years of running for Scotland," she says. "It was the right decision to make. I was really made to feel welcome by the Scots even though I haven't got a Scottish accent. I've always been welcomed back, almost as a hero."