SI Vault
Kenny Moore
May 19, 1975
His years of glory far behind him, the 36-year-old Olympic hero Peter Snell chucks a good job to get the education he passed up in his youth
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May 19, 1975

Better Late Than Never

His years of glory far behind him, the 36-year-old Olympic hero Peter Snell chucks a good job to get the education he passed up in his youth

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The dusty central valley of California first saw Peter Snell back in May of 1963, when the 1960 Olympic 800-meter champion from New Zealand interrupted his honeymoon to oblige America's best middle-distance runner, Jim Beatty, in the matter of a mile. Although Snell had set the world record of 3:54.4 the previous year, when Beatty learned of his coming he spoke earnestly of a high obligation to test this still-novice miler who had somehow managed to chip one-tenth of a second from the redoubtable Herb Elliott's record over a track marked out on grass. It was with this condescending grandness, it seemed to Snell and his bride Sally, that Beatty announced he would alter his schedule and race Snell in Modesto.

Run on a soft and breezy evening, the first three laps of the race each took one minute. Snell, a meaty 5'10�", 170 pounds, his country's black uniform accentuating his bulk, was an oddity among the pack of classically attenuated milers. They strode smoothly. He moved by a series of crashing bounds with the awkward, low arm action characteristic of New Zealand runners, calling to mind the carrying of heavy buckets. It did not, in fact, appear to be a style one could maintain for a mile at a four-minute pace, let alone kick from.

Before the last backstretch Snell moved alongside the diminutive Beatty, who was running third, and hung there waiting for Beatty's kick, which never came. When Snell realized that Beatty was not going to drive as usual, he went after the leaders—Cary Weisiger and Jim Grelle—surging past with the most astounding acceleration yet seen at the end of a mile. By the middle of the final turn he was 15 yards clear of the field, and he won by 20, eased up, in 3:54.9. He ran the last 220 in 24.5 seconds. "He took off so fast," said Grelle, who came in fourth, "it seemed like somebody on a fast horse had lassoed him and jerked him ahead." Beatty was speechless. A week later Snell beat him again in Los Angeles in 3:55.0, again with an overmastering sprint in the last half lap.

Suddenly the ungainly bounding stride was a mark of raw superiority. It became clear that Snell had taken the New Zealand heritage of boldness and stamina that had led the Lovelocks and Halbergs to Olympic gold medals and had added an unanswerable muscular force. After the victories over Beatty, Snell often won by intimidation, other runners conceding him his invincible finish and maneuvering to place second. Often solemn, he himself seemed to reinforce the suspicion that in some indefinable way he was a creature apart from other runners. Acute observers gained the impression that despite the records and championships, his was a life suffused with disquiet. He had sacrificed success in college for a more perfect application to sport, and in a difficult time in his training before the Tokyo Olympics he gave voice to his misgivings. "I've been brought up to believe you can't succeed in life without a profession," he said. "It isn't true, is it?"

Snell easily won the 800 and 1,500 in Tokyo, running six races in eight days to become the first to achieve that Olympic double since England's Albert Hill did it in Antwerp in 1920, when no quarterfinals were required in the 1,500. Late in 1964 Snell brought his world record for the mile down to 3:54.1 and in July 1965 he retired, joining a sports foundation sponsored by a tobacco company. For the next nine years he assisted in supervising the flow of company funds into various New Zealand sporting activities. He jogged for his health. He made speeches extolling the benefits of sport, usually with a disclaimer against going overboard, warning that "Individuals could be so turned on to sport that they will give it too high a priority in their lives at the expense of being better educated and more well-rounded." He and Sally had two daughters and bought a house in a pleasant Auckland suburb.

Often when Snell spoke on the relationship between sport and health he found himself taken to task. "Some doctors in New Zealand thought it necessary to balance out some of my remarks," he says now. He began reading about exercise physiology and spent 12 months in England attending courses at Loughborough on the scientific aspects of sport and human biology. Still, when he returned home he encountered continued resistance to his participation in the physical education community. He says, "There is a condescending attitude by some of the New Zealand lettered Establishment, whereby sentences begin, 'My dear fellow, I'd simply love to agree with you, but the facts of the matter are....' I felt I was permitted to expound only on the most superficial level."

Last June Snell came to the U.S. to find out what it would take to put some academic letters behind his name. On the advice of the American physiologists he had met in his travels he investigated the offerings of the University of California at Davis, 15 miles west of Sacramento. Satisfied that its programs were among the best anywhere, he wired Sally in New Zealand that pending her approval, and that of the children, he was registering for his freshman year. Sally, a direct and capable woman, immediately endorsed the idea, saw to the sale of their house and belongings and brought the children to California in September.

Now 36 and carrying 18 units of calculus, chemistry, biology and psychology, Snell plans to have his bachelor's degree within 2� years and then go on to graduate school. His life seems filled with the relief of a man no longer denied the rites of education. He speaks very softly: "I believe there is a desperation for success in the achiever's personality which is just waiting for direction. I went into sport early because it was an area in which I saw I could be successful. The trouble is if that is done at the expense of professional preparation, your options in making a living almost have to be limited to public relations, advertising, selling. Jesse Owens seems a good example. He's probably brassed off with going to dinners and coming out with his little homilies. I read that he'd have loved to have been in education, but he's locked into public relations because he's Jesse Owens.

"My real motives," says Snell, "are that my parents felt that professional education was terribly important. The emphasis in my family was on physics and mathematics and engineering. I failed calculus in the sixth form of boarding school and after that had the experience of seeing schoolmates who had appropriated their time better and passed their exams sail through to successful careers while I'd already messed it up. The mistakes seemed irretrievable. I could play tennis and rugby and golf and soccer [he was New Zealand Junior quarterfinalist in tennis and plays golf in the low 80s], but what was there to that? So when Arthur Lydiard [his coach in New Zealand] said, 'You've got talent in running; with the right training you can go to the top,' I felt an obligation to get the most out of myself. No one had ever said that to me before. Previously my inadequacies had been emphasized. I always felt inferior about books and academics, but now I know it's like running: results will come through application. And now Mrs. Warren [his Auckland landlady before he was married] has written me, saying, 'At last, something worthwhile.' "

This history comes out as the Snells enjoy a rare evening at a Davis Chinese restaurant. The children, Mandy, eight, and straw-haired Jacqui, six, look on captivated as the waiter brings hot apple slices dripping with boiling sugar glaze, plunges them into a large bowl of ice and water and after a few seconds removes them to plates, on which they clink, like bits of amber glass.

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