Lives remembered: Diane Leather, 1933 – 2018
Coming as it did just 23 days after Roger Bannister’s highly-publicised first ever sub four-minute mile, Leather’s own achievement did not draw the same attention.
While Bannister was whisked to London for TV appearances and rewarded with a knighthood, Leather went for a quiet celebratory drink with her coach.
Her feat was never ratified and speaking in 2014 she told Athletics Weekly: “I wasn’t surprised. It’s just the way it was.”
However her world record was made ever the more extraordinary as, unlike Bannister, Leather raced without pacemakers and led from beginning to end.
Diane Susan Leather was born in Streetly, Staffordshire. One of six children, she was the only daughter of James, a surgeon, and his wife Mabel.
As a child she enjoyed sport, playing netball and lacrosse at Harrogate Ladies’ College. Later, Leather enrolled at Birmingham College of Technology (now Aston University) to study chemistry.
Inspired by the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Leather joined her local athletics club, Birchfield Harriers.
She soon made her mark, as part of a team that broke the world record for the 3×880 yard relay in her first year at the club.
Her coach, Dorette Nelson Neal insisted she train for the mile – at the time not recognised as a suitable distance for women by international athletics governing bodies – and she set the women’s best time with 5 minutes and 2 seconds in 1953.
The following year she made history, running a mile in 4 minutes and 59 seconds. Over the course of her career she went on to take a further 15 seconds off her time, holding on to the world record for eight years. In 1959 she married Peter Charles, an engineer she met at university.
The next year she competed at the Olympics in Rome before retiring from competitive running at 27. In 2008 she was named second in a list of all-time great 1,500m runners by Athletics Weekly, behind Dame Kelly Holmes.
Her husband predeceased her in 2017. She is survived by sons Matthew, Hamish and Rufus and daughter Lindsey.
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