Growing up in New Zealand, a small island nation in the South Pacific with 3.5 million people and 60 million sheep, any Kiwi who earned international recognition was deservedly hailed as a hero. Though predominately a farming community, our collective ethos prevailed: a “can-do” attitude undeterred by our small population and limited resources. Like clockwork, every year during rugby season, the All Blacks were our celebrated national heroes. Every little small town boy wanted to be an All Black when he grew up. For girls, our national Netball team (though not on par with the same media attention as the All Blacks) set an example of female athleticism. As a classically trained ballerina, my NZ role model was Rowena Jackson.
But for me, as a young child, the real Kiwi magic went on display once every four years. Here was this little country of sheep farmers heading into battle to face the giants of the world in a very grand, very prestigious series of athletic events, filled with dreams of world records. Like soldiers going into war, we gave only our very best to this fight. Each and every athlete was not only a role model, but also an idol. The crescendo of excitement would build in the weeks leading up to the games, filling the classrooms with stories of seemingly incomprehensible athletic prowess. We would dutifully study the exotic location hosting the games, and our Kiwi legends representing us. I remember my Social Studies teacher at Pio Pio Primary inviting our class to his house on the school premises to watch the 1984 Olympics LIVE on TV. Watching this strange almost imaginary world unfold before my eyes, in real-time 7,000 miles away, with the iconic Silver Fern emblazoned across our athlete’s uniforms, blew my mind. Before the games even began, my favorite part was trekking to the local library and meandering my way through the Dewey Decimal System to locate the latest copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica to learn about NZ history. At least one school project focused on a national Olympic hero upon whom the foundation of our young country was built. I wrote about Sir Peter Snell.
In 1960 at the Rome Olympics, a little known New Zealander Peter Snell, sprinted onto the world stage winning a gold medal in the 800 meter event. Raised in a small farming town he was a latecomer to the sport, but a chance meeting with one of New Zealand’s now legendary coaches changed everything. Snell was encouraged to devote the time and effort into long distance running, and his hard work paid off. He continued to dominate the sport, winning two more gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics four years later in the 800 and 1500 meter events and setting new national and world records. Sir Peter Snell is now highly regarded as New Zealand’s greatest athlete of the 20th Century.
It’s not often that we are given the opportunity to meet one of our childhood heroes. Invited to a small gathering of fellow ex-pat Kiwis at a private home in San Francisco, I wasted no time. Interacting with Sir Peter, I was struck by how his unassuming presence and incredible athletic achievements were strikingly unmatched. We connected immediately about the dichotomy of growing up in NZ in farming communities and leaving home to study in America. But before I had the chance to ask him my mental list of questions, he asked me directly about my swimming. Each invitee was asked to submit a short bio a week prior to the breakfast event. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined Sir Peter would read mine.
I will never forget his advice:
“Train hard, but aim low. That way you don’t set yourself up for disappointment. Success is always easier [to deal with] than failure.”
Later that evening at our San Francisco Kiwis Annual Waitangi Dinner, Sir Peter took the podium for his speech. I had the shock of a lifetime as he addressed the audience by highlighting my swimming accomplishments. The blood rushed to my head so quickly I honestly cannot remember what was said. As he kindly inscribed his autograph for me, I literally fell off my chair. And thanks to a broken chair, my moment of intense awe was punctuated by hilarity and public embarrassment.