Distance running pioneer Leather passes away at the age of 85

Diane Leather

Diane Leather lowered the world record in the mile five times between 1953 and 1955

Diane Leather, the first woman in history to break five minutes for the mile, passed away on Thursday at the age of 85.

Leather broke the record for the mile five times in the space of three seasons. Leather clocked 5:02.6 in September 1953 but that mark only stood for a month as Romania’s Edith Treybal improved Leather’s record to 5:00.3 in Timisoara.

Leather eclipsed that mark again in May 1954 with 5:00.2 in Birmingham, just three days before making history on the same cinder track at the Midland Championships with a 4:59.6 clocking - and just 45 minutes after setting a British record in the 880 yards.  

Not only did Leather become the first woman in history to break the five minute-mark for the mile, she brought the record down to 4:45.0. The following year, Leather clocked 4:50.8 on 24 May 1955 before improving by nearly six seconds to 4:45.0, again at the famous White City track in London. That mark stood on the books until December 1962.

Leather also won three individual titles at the International Cross Country Championships between 1954-57 - the precursor to the IAAF World Cross Country Championships - as well as silver medals over 800m at the European Championships in 1954 and 1958.

One of Leather’s greatest triumphs came at the 1957 Great Britain vs. Soviet Union match in London where Leather won the 800m in 2:06.8, defeating the 1954 European champion Nina Otkalenko and Yelizaveta Yermolayeva.

Yermolayeva pipped Leather at the European Championships the following year but improved her British record down to 2:06.8. She also competed in the 800m at the 1960 Olympics in Rome - the first time women were allowed to run more than 200m at the Olympics since 1928 - but exited in the heats.

After retiring from competitive athletics at the age of 27, Leather went on to teach, perform social work and raise four children. 

In 2013, she was inducted into the England Athletics Hall of Fame and her true abilities, achievements and influence on women's running are continuing to be more fully and widely appreciated