|Subject: Peter Snell, three-time Olympic champion runner
He was 80
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Date Posted: Friday, December 13, 07:47:11pm
Peter Snell, a three-time Olympic gold medalist for New Zealand who later became a leading sports scientist, died at his home in Dallas on December 12. He was 80.
Snell was one of the greatest middle distance runners of all time. His friend and teammate Barry Magee, who finished third at the 1960 Olympic Marathon, said, “Peter Snell was to running what Sir Edmund Hillary was to mountaineering.”
Born in the tiny New Zealand beach township of Opunake, Snell dominated the track world in the 800 meters, 1500 meters, and mile in the years from the 1960 Olympics through the next Games in 1964. In addition to the three Olympic golds, his portfolio includes two Olympic records, two Commonwealth Games golds, and seven world records. Even that list does not adequately define the supremacy that made one journalist cry, as Snell powered to his second victory at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, “This is a god, not a man!”
As another measure, in 1962, on a grass New Zealand cricket field, Snell ran an 800-meter world record of 1:44.3 that would have won most subsequent Olympics, including 2000, 2004, and 2008, despite running on lumpy grass in leather spikes.
Snell emerged dramatically, a total unknown at the Rome Olympics in 1960. A 21-year-old who had never before been out of New Zealand and was ranked 25th globally, he charged through the 800-meter field on the final stretch to snatch the win from the world record holder and favorite, Roger Moens of Belgium.
Snell took his first double (880 yards and the mile) on successive days at the Commonwealth Games in 1962 in Perth. At the Olympics, no one had won that double (800 meters and 1500 meters) since Mel Sheppard of the United States in 1908, long before the demanding total of six world-class races (including heats and finals) that Snell had to run in Tokyo in 1964. Badly positioned with 200 meters to go in the 800-meter final, he accelerated around the whole field on the final curve, and won by 0.5 seconds.
He took the 1500 meters by a huge 1.5 seconds, as if in a race of his own. Photographs captured his calm control well ahead of the frantic scramble for places behind him.
In an era with no world championships or Diamond League, when the fastest tracks were of crushed cinders and the sport was still amateur, Snell nevertheless produced many memorable races outside the major Games.
There was a legendary week in New Zealand in 1962, when Snell, chased by invited international fields, ran a world record mile of 3:54.4 on a non-standard (4.5 laps to the mile) grass track at Whanganui, and then 800-meter and 880-yard world records, again on grass, at Christchurch, in 1:44.3 and 1:45.1, breaking the old world records by 1.4 seconds and 1.7 seconds.
America was enjoying a vintage era of milers, and Snell took on Jim Beatty, Cary Weisiger, Dyrol Burleson, Jim Grelle, and others in several races in 1962 and 1963, mostly in California, winning in times like 3:54.9 and 3:55.0. At the Compton Relays Mile in 1963, he led six men to break four minutes in one race for the first time.
Snell’s other world records were in the 4 x 1-mile relay, indoor 1,000 yards (2:06.0), indoor 880 yards (1:49.9), 1,000 meters (2:16.6), and one mile (3:54.1).
In 2012, Snell was one of 24 inaugural inductees into the IAAF’s Hall of Fame.
Powerfully built and 5-foot-10, Snell as a teenager was an outstanding all-around talent. He was a national junior quarter finalist in tennis and showed similar promise at rugby, field hockey, badminton, golf, and cricket. He also won school races from 440 yards to cross country. The secret of his later success was the conjunction of that natural power, coordination, and competitiveness, with the endurance gained from the structured 100-mile weeks of training advocated by coach Arthur Lydiard.
Their partnership began in 1957, after Snell moved to Auckland for work. Soon came Snell’s first attempt at Lydiard’s weekly 22-mile circuit in the Waitakere Ranges west of Auckland, a Sunday run that has become urban legend. It ended, by Snell’s own account, with the future world record-breaker collapsed in tears on Lydiard’s sofa.
Snell’s persistence and perfectionism later carried him to a successful career in scientific research that no one would have predicted when he left high school without the qualification to enter university. Weary of touring, frustrated by his uneven race performances after the 1964 Games, and always ambivalent about sporting fame, Snell retired from running in late 1965.
After some years in public relations, essentially living off his sports reputation, he took a course in human biology at the Loughborough University of Technology in the United Kingdom that sparked an academic interest. That led him to a B.S. in human performance from the University of California, Davis, and a Ph.D. in exercise physiology from Washington State University, Pullman.
Those were not easy years. His first marriage ended, and he lived, in his late 30s, far from home, alone apart from a much-loved cat, striving to reinvent himself as something other than a sports giant.
He achieved that with appointment as a research fellow to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas in 1983, rising to associate professor and director of the Human Performance Center. He became a member of the American College of Sports Medicine and a well-published research scientist, with his work mainly focused on the kind of extreme performance he had personally achieved.
“I really wanted to know what made athletes tick...[and] try to understand why Arthur Lydiard’s training methods worked so well,” he wrote in Peter Snell: From Olympian to Scientist in 2007 with his coauthor, Garth Gilmour.
He also founded and led a collaborative program with Massey University in New Zealand to study the effects of exercise in treating arthritis and diabetes.
In Dallas, he met his second wife, Miki Hervey Snell, an American age-group record holder at 400 meters and 800 meters. He had two daughters, Amanda and Jacqueline, from his first marriage.
Snell’s sporting versatility proved useful when he did well in ABC’s televised “Superstars” contest, in which celebrities from various sports competed over seven different events. The prize money enabled “an aging undergraduate to make a living.” He and his wife later became successful triathletes and orienteers, both winning several U.S. age-group orienteering championships, and competing internationally. He was also a vigorous cyclist. In his late 60s, cardiac arrhythmia restricted this activity, and he was fitted with a pacemaker and defibrillator.
Snell became a U.S. citizen in 1994, but he was always idolized in New Zealand. He was elevated to Sir Peter Snell in 2009, was voted New Zealand’s Sportsman of the Twentieth Century, is commemorated by two statues, and much else. The recognition he valued most was the degree of Honorary Doctor of Science from Massey University in 2007, because, he wrote, “I felt they were acknowledging the fact that I had accomplished some important scientific goals.”
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