For Peter Snell's wife Miki, something instantly clicked when she first met the champion Olympian at a dinner nearly four decades ago.

The passing of the athletics great (80) — who died in his sleep on Thursday lunchtime (US time) — has taken a heavy toll on Miki, who was married to the triple Olympic gold medallist for 36 years.

But it's also offered a chance for her to reflect on an amazing life together, something she described as "truly wonderful".

She recalled the circumstances of their first meeting, which could have been taken from a Mills and Boon novel.

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The Texan native, who was an accomplished Masters runner, attended training camps in the United States taken by the legendary Arthur Lydiard, who had coached Snell, Sir Murray Halberg and many others during New Zealand's golden era on the track in the 1960s.

"Arthur Lydiard used to come up to Dallas and he would conduct week-long running camp for my track team," said Miki. "Arthur talked about Peter all the time, and the training that Peter did. So when we heard that Peter was going to move to Dallas, all the local runners felt like we knew him. We had heard all about his training and I did the same training that he did."

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Snell had first moved to the United States in the early 1970s, to do a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of California. He then studied for a PhD in exercise physiology at Washington State University, before taking on a post doctoral fellowship at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in 1981, where he became one of the most respected members of his field over the next few decades.

"All the runners wanted to meet him," said Miki. "So my running coach called him up and invited him to come out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant with the local runners. So he did and an eight mile run had been planned before dinner, so everybody showed up and they did the run.

"But I decided that I didn't want to look all wrung out after an eight mile run. So I did my run earlier in the day and I just showed up and I was all cleaned up and not sweaty. We went to dinner with him and I just thought Peter was adorable."

Even then, their 'chance meeting' took some determination on Miki's part.

"I had to make sure I got to sit next to him too, because there were about 15 people there," she said. "It was a big long table and I had to be a little bit pushy and make sure I got to sit next to Peter. So when he choose a chair I took advantage of that, which was very helpful.

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"That's how we met and a few days after that he called me up and asked me to go out on a date. It helped that he called me, because I was thinking 'now what can I do to escalate this' and fortunately he saved me by calling me first. We dated for two years and then we got married."

Sir Peter Snell and his wife Miki in 2009. Photo / Getty
Sir Peter Snell and his wife Miki in 2009. Photo / Getty

Asked for her favourite memories of their time together, Miki recalled their shared love of orienteering, which they competed in for almost 20 years.

"We liked to travel," she said. "We travelled all over the world doing orienteering and he was the best person to travel with. He never whined – New Zealanders generally don't whine about anything – and he was just a pleasure to travel with. You have roadblocks and things that come up when you are in an unfamiliar place but he was just cool with it, he was just wonderful."

The active couple also competed at Masters level in table tennis (including at the 2017 World Masters Games in Auckland) and played golf regularly, among many hobbies.

"We did see and do so many things," said Miki. "We loved our home, we had a beautiful garden that we both enjoyed, and he loved his work. He never had a day where he said 'I don't want to go to work today'. He loved what he did for work and he worked until he was 75 when he retired."

Snell was recognised all over the world, wherever they went, something Miki got used to.

"He's a world figure, he really was," she said. "He was appreciated all over the world. I think part of it was because with some of his achievements – especially in Tokyo (1964) – it was all televised very well for the first time, and people saw it all over the world. Before that people didn't see it as easily. They were just stunned and it burned something in their memory about him."

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Miki was also immensely proud of Snell's academic career, especially since he had struggled at school in New Zealand.

"He kind of re-invented himself to have an academic career after his athletics career," said Miki. "He was very proud of that and deserving because he took a big risk to start over at age 34 and come to completion on that. He was a brave person; he moved to another country, and just made everything work."

His range of achievements across an extraordinary life are staggering, but Miki hopes she can capture the essence of them in a special video tribute. Despite her intense grief, she is determined to honour Snell's amazing legacy — across two nations and the athletic and academic spheres — in the best possible way.

"He was just an optimistic person, he was dedicated, he was talented, he just had all the ingredients," she said. "And he put them together and it brought great results. I am going to try to do a video memorial piece for him and the University of Texas South Western is going to help me put that together. I'm hoping with their help, I'm going to do something really nice about his memory. It will take me a while but I hope I can complete it in a relatively short period of time."

Snell is also survived by daughters Amanda and Jacqui from his marriage to first wife Sally.