In 1971-72, Peter Snell attended the legendary Loughborough Colleges Physical Education Department as a Scholarship student from New Zealand. He joined our teaching group made up of 20 to 21 year-olds and embarked on a year of study as a precursor to what became a distinguished academic career.
It was only seven years since the Tokyo Olympiad and we were all initially somewhat in awe of Peter. But at that time, Loughborough – arguably one the world’s pre-eminent physical education institutions – was awash with international athletes across many sports such as Bill Tancred (discus), Steve Chappell (pole vault), Dave Kidner (decathlon), the England rugby front row and many others. Peter, however, was nothing if not humble and he would regularly join us on our Sunday running sessions on the Charnwood Forest pine needle tracks, or around the huge Loughborough campus, or on the famous Ashby Road cinder track. Whether in class or on the training track, he was simply one of the students.
It was in June 1972, however, that we got a real sense of the Snell magic. Every year, Loughborough track and field, past and present, formed a team to compete against a British representative team – the ‘AAAs match’. Loughborough students made up a sizeable percentage of the UK Tokyo squad. This was the season highlight.
The match organising committee (made up of student athletes) invited Peter to run an exhibition 400m during the evening. Ever modest, he was uncertain, but we talked him into it. Halfway through the evening’s programme, the announcer, tutor - 400m relay silver medalist Robbie Brightwell, drew the large crowd’s attention to a lone figure on the start line.
Under starter’s orders, Peter leaned forward. At the gun, he strode smoothly away into the first bend - a cinder track like Tokyo. The three thousand-strong crowd circling the Ashby Road stadium roared. Snell’s smooth power and rhythm was striking. As Brightwell and other Tokyo and Rome veterans observed, it was an eerie moment taking them back to the same 300m point where Snell started his Olympic gold medal surge. Peter powered round the final bend into the home straight. The exhibition lap finished - 52 seconds flat; no particular preparation and a light warm up. Peter walked off the track and melted into the student body as the modest man he was.
We caught up the following February in 1973. I had been recruited to a teaching job in New Zealand and he was back as part of the Rothman’s Foundation. We reunited at Newtown Park in Wellington before one of the Pan-Am invitation events. We didn’t see each other again until 2017 when he returned to New Zealand and donated his personal collection to Te Papa.
He was a unique athlete and a fine man. I was privileged to know him and to have seen that elegant 400m metre stride-out on the cinder track in 1972. No gold medal, but we could all imagine.
(Photo source: Runnersworld)