There was a gravitational pull that brought Robbie Brightwell and Ann Packer together. Like two small satellites spinning around a sun called Athletics, they would meet every now and then over a four or five year period, and appear to get closer and closer…until finally, they were together, spinning in their orbit, in synch.
It was the spring of 1957 and 17-year-old Brightwell was at a six-day athletics training camp in Lilleshall Hall, a national sports center in Shropshire. He saw a girl, “dark haired, curvey and attractive.” As Brightwell wrote in his autobiography, Robbie Brightwell and His Golden Girl, “she stood out a mile.” He made an attempt to talk with her, but he got shooed away by a track judge. And then, he lost her.
In the summer of 1960, Brightwell had become an accomplished sprinter, good enough to make the Olympic Team and represent Great Britain at the Rome Olympics. He was at the English School Championships in Shrewsbury where he was asked to present medals to the 220 yards senior girls’ finalists. And there she was again.
The pretty, dark-haired girl mounting the rostrum for her silver medal had a familiar face. In a few seconds I placed her. She was the girl I’d admired at Southampton three years earlier. Her name was Ann Packer and she hailed from Berkshire.
But again, he was shooed away, this time by the administrator of the athletics course he was attending. Despite attempts to walk her back to her team section, Packer was escorted away as if he were a ne’re do well to be avoided, and not a newly-minted Olympian.
Then, in the Spring the following year, at a training camp at Loughborough Colleges organized by the International Athletics Club, their magnetic forces brought Packer and Brightwell together again.
At the outset, one particular attractive girl caught my eye. Within seconds, I realised it was Ann Packer, whose medals I’d presented at the previous year’s ESAA Championships. Having previously failed to attract her attention I determined to make up for lost time. Waiting until after lunch, I wandered over to her group. Apart from a perfunctory smile, she ignored me.
Packer had many potential suitors and Brightwell’s shyness left him at the outskirts of Packer’s orbit. But as fate would have it, their gravitational pull would send them careening together, coincidentally in the street, on their way to a dance party.
She laughed off my apologies, and I escorted her to the dance hall. When we arrived, the evening’s entertainment was in full swing, and anxious to maintain the initiative, I asked for the first dance. Leaving the floor and anxious to keep her to myself, I steered her to join Barry Jackson and his Melton Mowbray girlfriend, Pat Parker. From time to time, our conversation would be interrupted by others whisking her off, but I held a trump card; guaranteeing her return, I kept a firm grip on her handbag. Encouragingly, she stayed by my side. I felt more and more confident in her presence.
And that, as Bogey said at the end of Casablanca, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Fast forward to October 1964. Ann Packer had won a silver in the 400 meters and a gold in the 800 meters. Robbie Brightwell had come from behind to snag silver for his 4×400 relay team. They left Tokyo as heroes of the 1964 Summer Olympics, and were headed home to England where the Olympic heroes would take center stage in one of the biggest weddings of the year.