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Life has reached a slower pace for an athlete who ran so well . . .

ROSEMARY STIRLING was once the first lady of Scottish athletics. She was the first to win Commonwealth track gold when she took the 800 metres title in Edinburgh in 1970; first to hold UK and Commonwealth records indoors and out; first to win a medal (400m bronze) at the European indoor championships, while 4 x 400m victory at the European outdoors made her the first Scottish woman to win European gold and she was the first to hold a world record in an Olympic event.

Rosemary Stirling, left, was first in the final of the 800m at the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, crossing the line just three hundredths of a second ahead of her rivals but enough to claim the gold medal. Picture: Herald Archive
Rosemary Stirling, left, was first in the final of the 800m at the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, crossing the line just three hundredths of a second ahead of her rivals but enough to claim the gold medal. Picture: Herald Archive

Yet now, to her great regret, she has been forced to give up running. "I wouldn't be surprised if I need a knee replacement," she says. "I'm just trying to hang out - shoes were not nearly as good back then and you just went out on the roads. I don't run at all now - I've so many niggling pains: sore knees, sore ankles, sore shins. It's not through not wanting to. I absolutely hate not being able to run, but I know I can't."

Her husband, former European marathon silver medallist Trevor Wright, is similarly afflicted and already has a replacement. "So we walk all the time," she says, finding solace as a doting grandmother.

The couple have today been supporting their daughter, Jessica, who hoped to get on the podium at the New Zealand Marathon Championships in Rotorua. They have lived in nearby Tauranga since emigrating in the mid 1970s. Rosemary was born in New Zealand, but her father came from Dunfermline. Her mum was homesick, so they returned to the Midlands when Rosemary was 14.

At 17 she went to the Scottish championships at Pitreavie. "We stayed at a B&B in Dunfermline's main street," she recalls. "Trucks were hitting a manhole cover all night and I didn't get much sleep."

Yet she won the 400m and 800m and was selected next day by Scotland. "My grandparents were proud Scots and so was my dad, so I accepted."

The following week, Stirling beat future Olympic silver medallist Lillian Board in a time which was then fifth best by a Brit, and was offered an England vest immediately. "I told them they were too late, that I had already committed to Scotland."

In an accent now profoundly Kiwi, she insists: "I never regretted it. Scotland, with smaller numbers, really looked after you."

Stirling did them proud in return. She was European finalist six times indoors and out, while her Commonwealth 800m record in the Munich Olympic final (2:00.15) beat the UK best of 1964 Olympic champion Ann Packer. This survived as the Scottish best for 30 years until Susan Scott broke it, yet it still remains second fastest. She also held the Scottish 400m record for 12 years with 53.24, a time only three Scots in contention for 2014 have bettered.

Her 1970 Commonwealth victory was hailed as a surprise, though Stirling had earlier set a Commonwealth indoor 800m best at Cosford. She set a Scottish all-comers' best (2:05.4) to take the Scottish title at Meadowbank and a week later helped Britain to a world best in 4 x 800m with Shiela Carey, Pat Lowe and Board.

Rejection of England may have hindered her. Of selection for the European gold-medal relay squad, she says: "There were five in contention and I had a distinct feeling they didn't want me. And before the Munich Olympics, I couldn't get the British Board to send me anywhere. I struggled for races."

But the feisty, 5ft 2ins Stirling could not be overlooked. Her 800m victory (2:06.02) was the closest finish of the Edinburgh Games, by just three hundredths of a second with barely a stride covering the leading three runners. "I knew I'd won but it took a long time for the result to come through. I can still hear the crowd egging me on now."

Stirling and Ian Stewart, who won the 5000m the same day, were pictured hand-in-hand on the track and were soon engaged. "But we broke up early next year. We realised there was not a lot of future in it. We'd both done well, but it was a bit silly . . ."

A big photo of the 1970 finish hangs in the home of her daughter, Jessica. "I still see it most days," says Stirling. Jess, married to New Zealand internationalist Ben Ruthe, was chosen by New Zealand for the World Cross-country Championships. Her best 10k is well inside the Scottish 2014 standard - she would qualify on her mother's nationality as a Scot. Her sister Emma was NZ schools 800m bronze medallist.

Rosemary tried marathons when she quit track and her best of 2:43.29 ranked in the Scottish all-time top 20 until recently. She was twice runner-up in the marathon which her daughter runs today. Mum also managed several Kiwi teams, including Edinburgh at the 2008 World-cross.

"But I am not involved at all now," she says. "My daughters had children very quickly after that. I am still teaching at school, but don't coach any more. I took a decision that I'd help my daughters as much as I could, rather than go off and coach kids."

There were drugs, but no money in her era. She recalls waking in Munich to the reality that people were cheating. "I think I was aware, but never really believed it could be possible," she said. "We marched on to the track from the call room and I remember seeing an injection mark at the top of this girl's leg. That really enlightened me - it does go on.

"And we used to have those sex tests - sometimes saliva from your cheek, or a hair pulled from your head. But in Kiev, at the World Cup, we had an inspection of our private parts by these horrible nurses."

She once received £50 for a BBC interview "but a New Zealand athlete would have to pay to be interviewed today . . . The only money I ever made out of it was probably putting in a false claim for a meal on British Rail. You could claim for lunch if you went to the Coca Cola meeting. I never, ever, ever, won any money."

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