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Snell’s close ties with region

Wairarapa College students took on Peter Snell [sixth from left, back row] and Murray Halberg [sixth from right, back row] in Pahiatua 1963. PHOTOS/SUPPLIED

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News of the death of triple Olympic gold medallist middle distance runner Sir Peter Snell late last week, has spurred memories for Wairarapa people.

In 1963 Michael Wall, then aged 22 years, was a middle-distance runner who was invited to be the pace-setter for Snell and other luminaries including future Olympic bronze medallist John Davies and Australian running great Ron Clarke at the Queen Elizabeth Park Golden Mile event.

Wall, who now lives in Masterton, recalled on Sunday that he had beaten Snell in an 800 metres race in Napier previously, and was at the time of the Masterton race, the 800-metre national champion.

Masterton man Michael Wall running out in front in the Golden Mile event at Queen Elizabeth Park in 1963.

Wall did his job, leading for much of the race before being run down. Snell, who was in a conditioning phase, only came in third.

It was just another race, but Wall remembers much about Snell, who was later named as New Zealand’s Sportsman of the 20th century.

“He was a powerhouse, more powerful than the others,” Wall said. “He was completely different than the scrawny guys that used to run the longer distances.

“When the starter’s gun went off, instead of conserving energy like other runners, Snell didn’t hold back at all.

“He was an extraordinary athlete. He rewrote the book in a sense because of the faster pace to start off. He was like a bull. Peter would speed out, and then just run enough to keep ahead of us.”

Wall recalls that he was out running in Masterton warming up for the Golden Mile, when he saw Snell with a fellow athlete doing the same.

“As they crossed the road a driver yelled out: Who do you think you are? Peter Snell? I found that very funny.

“But seriously I feel he retired too early – he had a lot more in him then.”

Clarise McDonald was out playing cards on Sunday when she was told her first cousin Peter Snell had died.

Snell’s mother was born in Carterton and his father in Eketahuna.

“It was a real shock – actually it completely floored me because we were very close,” the 89-year-old resident at Masterton’s Masonic Village said.

She said the Snell families were always close. Her mother Lillian Snell from Eketahuna was Peter’s father, George’s older sister.

“I saw Peter grow up and saw him get married. We always got together when in cooee of each other,” she said.

Snell went to ANZAC Memorial bridge, Kaiparoro for a commemoration a few years ago to honour his Uncle Jack who died in World War I.

Malcolm Ballantine, now living in Napier, remembers both Snell and Murray Halberg coming to Tararua College in Pahiatua, to race against six College teams in a 4×1500 metre relay. Ballantine was running for Wairarapa College.

“Peter and Murray did the full race, each covering the 6000 metres.

“Of course they won but what a thrill to compete against and get to meet the Olympic champions in person. You don’t forget those special days.”

Another former Wairarapa resident, Hawke’s Bay Today journalist Doug Laing said Snell made several visits to Masterton in his role with the Rothmans Sports Foundation, with other sporting greats including former All Black fullback Don Clarke and test cricketer Bert Sutcliffe.

“I remember them coming to both Masterton Intermediate when I was there in 1967-68, and Wairarapa College in the next year or so.”

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