By John Haughey
Ballymena & Antrim's 50th anniversary brings back some wonderful memories for the athletic club's founder members, Maeve and Sean Kyle.
Knowing them, the seventy-somethings will to be too busy officiating in Saturday's Antrim Games to let their emotions get the better of them at the Forum.
But while they play down their efforts, everyone in Irish athletics, indeed many further afield, know the splendid service they have given their beloved sport over the past 50 years.
Sitting in the front room in their welcoming Ballymena household, Maeve laughs that the club started after she had "a blind date with a fella" - and she points in the direction of the opposite armchair when Sean is sitting.
Kilkenny native Maeve had been selected in the Irish women's squad for the World Hockey Cup in the USA and she was keen to improve her fitness ahead of the competition.
"Sean thought he would be able to help me get fit so in that summer of 1955, I came up to Ballymena and the club was born soon afterwards," says Maeve.
The outfit, initially set-up as a women's club, only had six members in their opening year.
"There was five other girls, I could show you the picture of us in our hockey skirts in that first year. Deirdre Carson, Majorie Holt, Kate McCurdy, Gene Holt, Grace McCaughey and myself," recalls Maeve.
However, the women-only status lasted only a year with the men coming on board in 1956.
By that stage, a certain 16-year-old schoolgirl living in Portadown called Mary Peters had joined the club, encouraged by her friend Kate McCurdy.
Out on the track in those days, the women had to content themselves with sprints as 200m was the longest distance that the fairer sex were allowed to run.
"The powers-that-be felt that a woman would have required resuscitation after running any further," says Maeve with a chuckle.
While the men were linking up with the new club in 1956, Maeve was getting ready for a marathon journey to Melbourne for her first Olympics where she was to run the 100m and 200m.
Incredible as it now seems, she had had to raise £200 herself, a huge sum of money in those days, just to be able to get to Australia.
"I got the letter from the OCI saying they were very pleased to congratulate me on my selection and they would be even more pleased if I could send them a cheque for £200!
"All the athletes were expected to make a contribution to Ireland's Olympic fund.
"Our house had cost £2000 and I was being asked to come up with a figure one-tenth of that. The late Brendan O'Reilly, who many will remember from his work as an RTE sports presenter, was unable to go because he couldn't raise the money," recalls Maeve.
The trip to Melbourne took over two weeks with stop-offs in New York, San Francisco and Fiji before the Irish party arrived to an amazing and unexpected welcome Down Under.
"En route, we spent a week in San Francisco and we met up with Ronnie Delaney at Berkeley University before resuming our journey.
"When we got to Melbourne, we were met by what seemed to be thousands of Irish people at the airport.
Sean Kyle has been part of a remarkable athletics double-act
"It was only years later, that I was able to work out that they were Irish people who had emigrated or been sent to Australia in the late 1930s.
"Many of them were orphans who had been in the Industrial Schools in Ireland. I also particularly remember a priest who had come down all the way down, thousands of miles, from the Northern Territories, just to meet us.
"They were all just Irish folk who just wanted to meet people from back home and they had heard about our arrival in some of the local newspapers and media in Australia."
Emotions were running just as high when the Irish team landed back home with five medals, including Ronnie Delaney's 1500m gold.
Maeve went on to compete in the Rome and Tokyo Olympiads and she claimed a precious major medal of her own in 1966 when she took bronze in the 400m at the European Indoor Championships in Dortmund.
Inspite of their trips aboard during Maeve's competitive days, both Kyles ensured that the club did more than merely tick along.
Throughout all six decades, club members have represented both Great Britain and Ireland at senior international level.
At his last count, Sean reckoned on 35 British senior internationals while over 200 Irish singlets in all the various grades have been worn by club members.
But while the big names such as Mary Peters, Ray Knox, CJ Kirkpatrick, Sharon McPeake, Janet Boyle, Mark Kirk, Sean O'Neill, Mark Forsythe and latterly James McIlroy and Paul Brizzel made the headlines, the Kyles have always derived their main pleasure from the relationship that they have maintained with their local community.
In actual fact, the Ballymena & Antrim community has been spread throughout Northern Ireland, across the border and even further afield.
"We've always had been support from south Derry and we've had athletes coming here from Craigavon and even further and we've always had a group of athletes from other clubs who have come to train with us even though they've remained as members of their own clubs."
The outward looking mentality of Ballymena & Antrim was never more evident that in the 1970s when the club was instrumental in setting up the Top Town meetings when towns such as Strabane, Coleraine, Derry, Magherafelt, Cookstown, Limavady, Coalisland and even Ballybofey in Donegal competed.
"It was as much a social thing as an athletes competition and went on for around six years, during some of the darkest days of the troubles.
"One of the greatest tributes we got was, I think it was 1974, when we held a Top Town meeting in Derry at St Columb's College and when we got there, the mayor of Derry was there to thank us for being there, because that was a time when sports teams were staying away from the city," recalls Maeve.
Sean even remembers a young Liz McColgan even competing for Strabane on one occasion when she happened to be over visiting her in-laws in the Tyrone town.
"We had a meeting at the GAA ground in Ballybofey and our other venues included the cricket ground in Cookstown," says Maeve.
"It let you see that sport could gel people. Individual sports have a hell of a mix which maybe team sports don't have."
Maeve is proud to see that such cross-community is still alive in athletics more than 30 years on.
"Take Last Saturday at the Ulster Schools, kids from every one of the nine counties were there and there wasn't a problem.
"That's the way, it always is with athletics in Antrim. Those kids have the greatest of respect for each other."
Such in the esteem that Ballymena & Antrim, and in particular the Kyles are held in, that a decent turn-out must be on the cards at the Forum on Saturday.
The club's babies, as Maeve calls the younger members, will be in action from at 1200 BST with the top names, including the likes of Paul Hession and Paul Brizzel, taking to the track from around 1430.