Peter Snell: From Olympiad to Scientist.

Michele Hewitson

Peter Snell has a book out, his third, and after he sees me he is going to launch it at a lunch. Will he be giving a reading? I asked. He thought this was very silly and he laughed at me. "It's not poetry."

Still, I suggest page 227 might make for lively reading. This page shows a flowchart describing "the organisation for major clinical trials starting with screening candidates, baseline testing, randomisation and follow up". He looked at this as though he'd never seen it before in his life. He said, "I don't know why I put that in", and he laughed again, at himself.

His book (co-written with Garth Gilmour) is called Peter Snell: From Olympiad to Scientist. He says he wrote it because "it's a big message, I think. That it's not too late to turn your life around and start over, which is essentially what I did." When I ask, "Who's this book for?" he looks a bit startled, then he says, "Umm, well, it's probably for me".

He is really quite funny, although nothing I have read about him, and little in his book, suggests that he will be. I think the difficulty is that he is hard to get down on paper and he obviously found it a bit tricky, too. That's what happens when you write a book where the aim is not to give too much away.

I thought he'd be prickly and asked if he could be. He said, no, he wasn't, which is what anyone would say. But it wasn't an accusation. He makes it quite clear to me (and in the book) that being a legend wasn't all it was cracked up to be, so who wouldn't have got a bit huffy?

Anyway, I wondered what it was like being a legend, whatever that might actually mean. "I'm not sure either. It has a good ring to it. Ha. And if you are, then it's good to be living somewhere else."

He has lived in the States for 35 years now and, whenever he comes back, annoying people like me ask if he's ever going to come home to live.

He once said, in response to this: "Well, no one asked for my resume." He says he meant it flippantly but you can see how it looks on the page. So, he tried being flippant and came across as prickly instead? "No. No, I don't think so. Umm, prickly, as in I deserved more than I got? That sort of idea? Yeah, well I've got to admit, Michele, I did go through a period of feeling a little bit resentful and it bothers me that I felt that, but I did."

I thought being asked over and over whether he's ever coming back might make him resentful. If it did, it doesn't now. "Well, the answer is no. But it's nice that people would want to feel that I might be back. And it's probably a bad idea because I think the expectations of what I could do would be high."

Does he also mean that the weight of expectation would be overwhelming? "Well, I don't know. I mean, I could alter that expectation pretty easily."

He certainly loves coming home and feels a great warmth when he does, which might be a reflection of his state of mind.

He is very happy these days. He loves his job and his second wife, Miki, and their home in Dallas with the diabetic cat, the two chinchillas and the Southern flying squirrel which hides acorns and nuts all over the house. In 2000, he told a journalist that he had no friends in Dallas and no emotional connection to the place.

I read this back to him and it sounded rather bleak. He's too busy to make friends, he says, and he made his friends during his youth in New Zealand when he did have time. "I have lots of acquaintances and there may be a reason for that. It might be that it's because I'm not putting the effort out to make friends. And my wife is my friend and she likes doing things with me. So I don't go out with the boys or anything like that. She wants my time when I'm not at work."

On the cover of his book, he has a nice friendly big smile. He looks like a healthy, happy 68-year-old. It's a picture of Peter Snell, a scientist who lives in Dallas - not a picture of the young man who won three gold medals.

Snell had an idea about a substitute subtitle: After the Cheering Stops. Would he like that as a subtitle to his life? "Well, I could have had it if I'd wanted it. No, this - From Olympian to Scientist - is my suggestion because my first book, No Bugles, No Drums was a bit stupid actually."

I say I'm not sure what that title actually meant and he laughs and says: "Yeah, people have speculated about what it means. They think it's something to do with modesty."

And does it? "No. Hell no. That's my wife's angle. She says, 'You know, you've cultivated this image and I know it's not true.' She claims that people think I'm modest and I don't know that I am. I recognise you don't get anywhere by trumpeting your own stuff. And her view is that the reason I'm so esteemed in this country is that I'm not around to screw it up."

Of course when he's here, we want to talk about those brief, blazing years, from 1960 until his retirement five years later, and he is good about this. He didn't once show any irritation about the focus on this tiny part of his life and he might, given that half of his book is given over to his career as a university professor in the cardiology division at the University of Texas. His wife, he says, is the one who gets miffed. "She said, 'You know, it's about time New Zealanders realised you've been doing something else with your life' for whatever it is, 30 or 40 years."

I wanted to know what he thought his public image was here, and he related a recent description: the relentlessly sane Peter Snell. "I'm trying to figure it out. My original thought was: Am I boring?"

I don't know yet; I've just met him. Perhaps he could tell me? "Hope not."

I think he doesn't really mind being thought boring. God forbid he'd do anything as flamboyant as a book reading. But he won three gold medals; you'd think he might have been tempted to get a bit excited. I asked him whether being a sports star went to his head and he said, very sensibly: "How would you know?"

He had no choice but to go on being sensible. He still went to work at the quantity surveyor's office, on the bus, and paid his two pounds 10 shillings board, which was half his wage packet, and he waited for opportunities that never came, which is what he came to resent. "People said, 'Oh, you know, it'd be nice if you could have a sports shop'. That sort of thing - and it was sort of insulting." He could have opened a nice little sports shop and had a nice little life. "Yeah, that's right, and call it Olympics Sports Shop or something like that. Yeah, right."

You can see why he found this insulting. And you can see why he might have had that reputation for being a bit grumpy.

Now, I just think he was in what he calls "a somewhat crummy situation", wasn't very happy and not very good at hiding it.

I can't quite reconcile the man in the book with the man sitting in this room with me. He is candid and thoughtful and, as I've said, possesses a nice, dry sense of humour. The best thing seems to get him to have a go. How does he think he comes across in the book?

"Well, actually, in the first book when I stood back and looked, I said, 'This is pretty self-centred.' But then I thought, 'Well, that's okay, because this is what it took to achieve'. To get those achievements, you had to be thinking about yourself a lot. So then it became okay. This one? I don't know. I haven't read it yet."

Of course he has; he proofread it. I asked whether he thought it revealed much about him. "No. No, I don't really. Yeah, I'm holding back, quite a lot. Well, it's private, it's personal."

But it is a book about him and I read aloud this: "The fifth decade challenge to translate seven years of formal education into a satisfying career saw the end of my marriage and took me to meet my second wife, Miki."

"Ha, ha, ha. Okay. Well, I don't want to go into it. Don't I say a bit more about it? Well, I don't know how to handle it. I mean, it's apparent that it says very little on the emotional level, if you like."

Which might, actually, inadvertently, reveal quite a bit about him? "Yeah, it probably does." At which point the publicist knocks on the door and he says to her, "Well, this is perfect timing because she's getting me to squirm a little." Then, to me, "Did you have a further question?"

I do, as it happens. He wore a money belt during the interview, which seemed eccentric. Did he think I might rob him mid-interview? "No. It's not a money belt. It's because I leave stuff lying about and this is how I keep track of things. There's no money in here. It's my glasses and my Palm Pilot and some pens. It's keeping track of stuff."

Is this relentlessly sane? I can't make up my mind. But I do know the bloke wearing what is not a money belt is not a bit boring.

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