New Zealand Olympic medal winner Nick Willis says Sir Peter Snell was the inspiration that led him to his own record running feats.

Snell, the famed Olympic middle-distance runner, is being remembered as "the greatest athlete New Zealand has had" after news of his death at age 80.

He died at his home in Dallas on Thursday after years of heart problems.

He is one of New Zealand's most famous Olympians, winning three gold medals - the first for the 800m at the 1960 Rome games, then in both the 800m and 1500m at the 1964 Tokyo games.

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He is the only athlete to have won the "Olympic middle-distance double" since 1920.

Speaking to Martin Devlin in an interview airing on Radio Sport this afternoon, Willis said Snell was an inspiration for himself and "so many others".

"He is the best sportsperson from New Zealand, ever. There is no doubt about that.

"To be able to try and follow in his footsteps was a great privilege."

Sir Peter Snell has been an inspiration for generations of Kiwi runners. Photo / File
Sir Peter Snell has been an inspiration for generations of Kiwi runners. Photo / File

Willis, who won the 1500m silver at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and bronze in Rio in 2016, remembers reading Snell's biography, No Bugles, No Drums, as a child and being inspired by his mental capacity, and intense training under coach Arthur Lydiard.

"It was the real source of inspiration for me, I'd say, 'Hey, this is who I want to try and emulate and become'.

"There is no way I would have got anywhere near close to where I have, and I didn't get anywhere near his level, without having his example and John walker before me."

Snell "broke the mould" of who a runner could be, Willis said.

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"Running was always viewed as little willowy guys tip-toeing around the track, but Snell broke that mould, that you can be a powerful guy from New Zealand.

"He gave many of us who came from rugby backgrounds hope, that we didn't have to just be skin and bones."

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Despite living on the other side of the world, Willis said Snell was still heavily involved in the sport in New Zealand.

"My lasting memory is how he was all excited to take a phone call to talk to Hamish Carson and Julian Matthews, who had been named in the 2016 Olympic team, to welcome them into the fraternity of New Zealand runners.

"It was wonderful for him to give them that welcome, and very special memories.

"He was a fantastic example to me and others you did not have to be all consumed to be great. You can have seasons of focus, with many other passions around it.

"He was a great tennis player, a multi-talented athlete before he was discovered by Arthur Lydiard."

Snell was also interested in exercise physiology, eventually gaining a PHD in the field from Washington State University, and later on took up table tennis and orienteering.

"He has been very inspiring all of the way through. Hopefully many of us can continue to be that passionate in our lives and fitness well into our 70s as well."

That Snell remained the only athlete to have won the Olympic middle-distance double, in Tokyo in 1964, was testament to his ability, Willis said.

"Perhaps it will be broken, but that he did it so long ago and no one has come close shows how remarkable he was, and Arthur Lydiard who shaped the runner he became."

Snell and his wife Miki had been planning to go shopping at noon Dallas time on Thursday, when Snell "nodded off to sleep".

"Miki was getting ready, and Peter nodded off, as is not unusual for him," sports historian and friend Ron Palenski told the Herald.

"But he didn't wake up."

Snell had been going to cook a roast for dinner and had talked to Miki about the possibility of playing table tennis.

Palenski said Miki told him: "But I want people to know that he was living his life. He was not bed-ridden."

Snell was due to turn 81 on Tuesday.

Palenski, chief executive of the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame, was a friend of Snell's and had worked with him a lot over his career in his journalism and writing.

"It is very sad news, a grievous loss for New Zealand.

"In terms of track and field, he is probably the greatest athlete New Zealand has had.

"He is up there with those figures like Sir Edmund Hillary, Sir Brian Lochore, who rose beyond their great achievements.

"But at the same time [Snell] was a very humble guy. He very reluctantly talked about himself. In Dallas, people didn't know who he was, because he didn't tell them."