Dead swimmer's heartbroken wife: 'I've lost my best friend'

By Brittany Keogh, Neil Reid

Laura McLeod and Leslie Gelberger with their children. Photo / Supplied
Laura McLeod and Leslie Gelberger with their children. Photo / Supplied

The heartbroken widow of an ocean swimmer who died while out swimming, likely after being struck by a boat near a popular North Shore beach, describes him as "my best friend" and the "best father" to the couple's young sons.

Leslie Gelberger was reported missing after failing to return from a swim at Narrow Neck Beach on Thursday.

His body, missing a leg, was discovered on Friday afternoon by a passing commuter ferry. Police are investigating whether Gelberger - from Canada and a teacher at Westlake Girls High School - was struck by a Ports of Auckland pilot boat while swimming.

Gelberger's devastated widow, Laura McLeod, last night told the Herald on Sunday her husband was "the world" to the couple's sons, 7 and 5.

"They are absolutely devastated and struggling to come to terms with what has happened," McLeod said.

"I have lost my best friend, the best father to my boys and the most amazing, kindest, positive and adventurous person I have ever known.

"I didn't believe that Hollywood romance was real until I met him. He was the yin to my yang and I really don't know how we are going to cope without him."

She said her husband was "the epitome of kindness and unrelentingly positivity".

Safety played a big part in anything that he was involved in.

"For every sport or adventure he dove into, he researched and tried to make as safe as possible. He even made the kids wear safety glasses while we set off fireworks on Guy Fawkes."

The family was being supported by friends and other loved ones, including some who have set up a Givealittle fundraising page.

Leslie Gelberger (rear) with his family and partner Laura.
Leslie Gelberger (rear) with his family and partner Laura.

The couple moved here from Canada about three years ago and were in the process of making New Zealand their "permanent home" when tragedy struck.

"We fell in love with the land and its amazingly friendly people," McLeod said.

"The outdoor lifestyle suited him to a T. If he wasn't in the ocean he was in the bush hiking with his boys in tow."

The Givealittle fundraiser states Gelberger died "while out enjoying his favourite pastime, swimming".

According to Ocean Swim New Zealand's website Gelberger had completed at least four ocean swims since October last year, competing in the class for 40 to 44-year-old men.

McLeod said along with family and the Kiwi outdoors, swimming was very much a "passion" for her husband.

"He was a strong swimmer and an enthusiastic if not particularly proficient surfer," she said.

"He loved having the ocean in his backyard."

Colleagues at Westlake Girls High School and friends also paid tribute to the much-loved father of two last night.

The school's board chair Joy Bradfield said Gelberger had taught maths and science since the beginning of this year at the school and the school community was "shocked and saddened" by the news of his death.

"In his brief time at the school he has built up a reputation as an excellent teacher and was greatly respected by staff and students."

The school would support staff and students through the tragedy over the coming weeks, Bradfield said.

A friend who paid tribute to Gelberger on Facebook remembered him as "incredibly intelligent, a great conversationalist and very sporty".

Leslie Gelberger was killed while swimming in Auckland harbour. Photo / Supplied
Leslie Gelberger was killed while swimming in Auckland harbour. Photo / Supplied

His death was a "heartbreaking loss", the friend wrote.

"Laura and the boys need financial support during this trying time as Leslie's teaching job was their only source of income," the page states.

"It is hard at times of tragedy to think beyond the pain, however Laura and her boys need all your support at this time. The funds will go to Laura to help her continue to raise their boys during this tragic time."

Meanwhile, Ports of Auckland chief executive Tony Gibson yesterday confirmed one of its pilot boats was under investigation in relation to the death.

Gibson said Ports of Auckland was co-operating with police to help them determine what happened.

"I am extremely upset that one of our pilot boats may have been involved in the death of a swimmer. I offer the family and friends of the swimmer my deepest sympathies for their tragic loss," he said.

Captain Russell Petrie, president of the New Zealand Merchant Service Guild, said the union had offered Ports of Auckland workers legal support and would help organise counselling for staff as needed.

- Herald on Sunday

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