Former AW editor Mel Watman pays tribute to one of Britain’s greatest middle and long distance runners, Rita Ridley, who died from cancer this week
One of the shining lights of British athletics has sadly been extinguished with the death of Rita Ridley. Her blonde, smiling presence lit up the sport during her heyday in the 1960s and 1970s.
It was my pleasure to report for Athletics Weekly on dozens of her races and I was captivated both by her determination on the track and her beaming demeanour off it.
Back in 1965 the Lincoln twins (Rita and Iris) of Essex Ladies were featured in AW’s “Who’s Who” series and Rita explained how she started in athletics three years earlier. “Whilst waiting to compete in a hurdle race for my school I watched a boys’ half mile race and felt that I could run this distance. From this time onwards I realised that this was the event for me.”
As Tony Maxwell, who was a member of Rita’s training group under the guidance of Tony Elder, remembers: “Rita and her twin sister Iris were always cheerful, full of vitality.
“Despite being a star on the world stage Rita supported her club, Essex Ladies, as often as possible, and was a backbone of most of her club’s early successes.
“Rita had been ill for 2-3 years and despite undergoing a great deal of treatment she continued to be very active, walking 9-10 miles most days. Sadly her health deteriorated very quickly over this past week.”
Success came quickly for Rita and in 1965, still only 18, she finished second to Joyce Smith in both the Southern mile in 4:54.8 and at the WAAA Championships (4:56.9). She won the WAAA mile in a championship record of 4:47.9 the following year and Rita would go on to retain the national mile title in 1967 and claim the newly instituted 1500m in 1968, 1970 and 1971 as well as being the first British finisher in 1969.
She was also a prolific champion at cross country, winning the National four times running (1969-1972) plus 1974, the year in which she was bronze medallist in the World Championships and led England to team victory.
Rita made her international track championship debut in 1969, placing seventh in the inaugural European 1500m in a British record time of 4:15.9, and she would improve that record to 4:15.4 in 1970 and 4:14.3 and 4:12.65 in 1971, on the latter occasion finishing fourth in the European Championships. She was also a UK record-breaker at 3000m, having the distinction of being the first Briton to break 10 minutes with 9:59.6 in December 1968 and 9:22.6 in somewhat warmer conditions in August 1972.
Her greatest achievement came in 1970 when, in dramatic circumstances, she was crowned 1500m champion at the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games. After two slow laps Rita bolted into a ten metre lead, covering the 300m up to the bell (3:11.5) in a very fast 46.6, but by 1200m she had been caught and it was anybody’s race. Entering the final straight Joan Page (later Allison) was just ahead of Rita and New Zealand’s Sylvia Potts.
There was an almighty three-way battle along the finishing straight and with just ten metres to run Sylvia was fractionally in front, when her legs buckled and she fell headlong, her body slithering to a halt less than a metre short of the line. Rita prevailed in 4:18.8, 0.2 sec ahead of Joan.
Rita’s fastest times followed in 1971 when she clocked 2:05.5 for her first love event, the 800m, the aforementioned 4:12.65 for 1500m and 4:37.4 for the mile, just missing Anne Smith’s UK and former world record of 4:37.0. Her last notable track performance was a personal best 3000m time of 9:13.6 in 1973, second only to Joyce Smith on the all-time list.