He ran like a dream, rose to become New Zealand's greatest athlete, and died peacefully during a nap on the couch.

Sir Peter Snell, the three-time Olympic champion and one of the best middle-distance runners the world has seen, died yesterday aged 80.

"He was just doing his regular thing. He went to the grocery store that morning, he bought a big roast and he was going to cook it," his partner Miki Snell told the Herald on Sunday.

Snell had also planned to go for lunch at a cafe in his adopted hometown of Dallas, Texas, and to play table tennis that night. He continued to play despite years of heart problems.

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Before lunch, Snell lay down to watch the news and never woke up, Miki said.

"He just died in his sleep. But he was doing what he wanted to do, living life. So let people know that he went the way he would have liked to have gone."

Snell, a protege of acclaimed athletic coach Arthur Lydiard, stunned the world when he won a gold medal in the 800m at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

The photo of him, age 21, lunging forward to meet the finishing tape, every muscle and sinew straining, became a defining image in New Zealand sport.

Peter Snell winning gold at the Rome Olympics in the 800m. Photo / File
Peter Snell winning gold at the Rome Olympics in the 800m. Photo / File

In 1964 at the Toyko Games, he delighted the world again with two gold medals, becoming the first man since 1920 to win the 800 and 1500 at the same Olympics - a record unbroken since.

"To be able to try and follow in his footsteps was a great privilege," said New Zealand Olympic medal winner Nick Willis, who competed 40 years after Snell.

Willis said he strove to emulate Snell who, despite being an unusually large and powerful man, ran his middle-distances with enviable style and grace.

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

Peter George Snell was born on December 17, 1938 in Opunake.

As a child his family moved to Te Aroha and he discovered running while boarding at Mt Albert Grammar School.

He competed for nine years, retiring in 1965 aged 26, with a desire to explore a world that didn't require 9.30pm bedtimes, paid little money, and left no space for family life.

By the end of his sporting career, Snell also developed a desire to be anonymous.

He chose to move to the United States, where "no one cared about medals" and there were no expectations to conform to, he told the Listener in 2004.

Peter Snell after winning Gold at the Tokyo Olympic games, 1964. Photo / PHOTOSPORT
Peter Snell after winning Gold at the Tokyo Olympic games, 1964. Photo / PHOTOSPORT

Despite never gaining University Entrance in New Zealand, Snell became an academic, gaining a PhD in exercise physiology from Washington State University, then becoming an associate professor at the University of Texas.

According to Herald columnist Paul Lewis, Snell held close the belief there were three great gifts people could give themselves: a university education, a fulfilling career, and a high level of wellness.

He never stopped learning, and focused on work over money. He practised the third gift by keeping up exercise - in orienteering and then table tennis.

Snell never returned to New Zealand permanently, but partner Miki said he never forgot his homeland either.

Snell frequently spoke of missing New Zealand's wilderness.

A silver fern grew on the porch outside their front door.

"I loved Peter so much, and he still loved his country so much," she told the Herald on Sunday.

"He was appreciated all over the world, truly he was. Wherever we went, people knew him and appreciated him.

"When he came back they loved seeing him and interacting with him and he loved it as much as they did."