"Just tell the New Zealand people that Peter did love them, and he loved his country. And I just want the New Zealand people to know that Peter lived well, up until just moments before he passed."

That was the heartfelt message from Miki Snell, Sir Peter's wife of 36 years, from their home in Dallas, Texas, on Saturday morning (NZ time).

Snell, who won three Olympic gold medals in an incredible sporting career and was recognised as New Zealand's athlete of the 20th century, died in his sleep around midday on Thursday (US time). He was 80 years old.

Despite her deep and profound grief, Miki was proud to reflect on her husband's remarkable life and wonderful legacy.

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"I loved Peter so much, and he still loved his country so much," she told the Herald on Sunday, holding back tears. "He was appreciated all over the world, Truly he was. Wherever we went, people knew him and appreciated him.

"But he did love New Zealand and he was very happy to give his medals to the [Te Papa] museum [in 2017] because he wanted the people to know that he loved them."

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Snell had been based in the United States for the best part of four decades, carving out an impressive academic career. He gained a PhD at Washington State University, before moving to Dallas to do a post-doctoral fellowship. He was there for more than 30 years and came to be recognised as an authority on exercise physiology.

But, as Miki said, he never forgot his home.

"I think he gave New Zealand a lot of pleasure with what he achieved," she said. "When he came back they loved seeing him and interacting with him and he loved it as much as they did."

Sir Peter Snell at the display with the items he donated to Te Papa. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Sir Peter Snell at the display with the items he donated to Te Papa. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Though it was difficult to talk about, Miki wanted to emphasise that Sir Peter had passed away peacefully and hadn't suffered.

"I just want the New Zealand people to know that Peter lived well, up until just moments before he passed," said Miki. "He was just doing his regular thing, that he would have done that day. He went to the grocery store that morning, he bought a big roast and he was going to cook it, because he has been doing all the cooking – he loves to cook and he had the roast all bought and ready."

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"Then he had another idea, he said 'let's go eat lunch at this café'. We were going, getting ready to go, and he just lay down to watch the news and he nodded off. Because he was pretty tired, he was getting weaker and weaker, his heart was not working as well."

"He nodded off for a little nap and he just died in his sleep. I tried to wake him up and I couldn't wake him. The paramedics came – it took them about five minutes to get to him – but they could not revive him. But he was doing what he wanted to do, living life."

Sir Peter had already made plans for that night, the couple were going to play table tennis, a sport they had competed in at regional and state level, with some success.

"He had told me that morning that he wanted to go to play table tennis that night," said Miki. "So he was not bedridden, he was not in a terrible state; he was living and doing the things he wanted to do. So let people know that he went the way he would have liked to have gone."

Miki explained that Sir Peter had been diagnosed with heart failure "10 years ago", but it hadn't stopped him living life to the fullest.

Sir Peter Snell was a three-time Olympic gold medal winning middle-distance runner. Photo / file
Sir Peter Snell was a three-time Olympic gold medal winning middle-distance runner. Photo / file

"He's been getting worse but he's had heart failure for 10 years," she said. "And he's lived a really great existence during the time since he was diagnosed. He's done everything he has wanted to do and we just had a good life, despite this compromising situation that he had."

"He felt good enough. It was partly due to his fitness, that he had always maintained, and he had a really strong body but his heart was compromised. He had very good medical care which helped and he was a strong person and had a strong will. I think it gave him 10 years of really quality life that he might not have had if he hadn't been that strong."

"He was never one to just go 'oh poor me'. He took the bull by the horns and lived his life really well. He did have to slow down though. He kept riding his bike and they finally said no more bike riding because he would ride too fast and it's not a good place [here] to have any kind of an issue on a bike. He finally had to quit that."

When asked to reflect on their time together, Miki summed it up well.

"It was a wonderful marriage," said Miki. "We liked all the same things, we were on the same page about everything and it has just been a really fine ride. He was a very good person. That's just it. "

Miki said that Sir Peter had told her he wanted to be cremated.

"He wanted a small memorial close to his residence, with family and friends in attendance," she said. "He wanted to be cremated and not buried.

"He didn't want a burial site; he doesn't want people coming to a grave site to visit. He wants them to remember him as he was. I hope I can do something to justify his memory and that is my goal."