And so a heart attack seals the complex and sobering tale of a paranoid schizophrenic and former drug addict who was the Australian shark of mid-1970s competitive surfing, a shy, dusky demigod who hadn’t ridden a wave since 1982. A year later he would be jailed, institutionalized, shock-therapied, and eventually fall under the home care of his mother. Three decades on, the man at 59, we would sadly say goodbye to Michael Peterson.
“He was the most naturally gifted surfboard rider Australia ever produced,” said Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew, a lifelong friend of Peterson’s. “His surfing was fast and frenetic. He pioneered deep tuberiding at Kirra. He was an innovative shaper, designer, and a master strategist. His paddling prowess was legendary, as was his psyche.”
Between the ages of 17 and 24, the tall, powerful Peterson revolutionized high-performance surfing, winning most of the contests he entered (including three consecutive Bells Beach titles), plus two Australian national championship titles.
“There was so much energy in his surfing,” close friend Andrew Mckinnon said. “You couldn’t help but be inspired.”
On land, Peterson was vague and elusive. In the water, he was a fiery force of nature, intimidating and lighting-quick, a lord of the barrel, an anomaly in a range of elites that included 1976 world champion Peter Townend. Their lives had been intertwined since the mid-1960s, when they started out in the Tweed Heads/Coolangatta clubbies at Greenmount Point.
“Peterson was the king of Coolangatta/Kirra,” Townend said, “and I was just a prince! (laughs) Having been a chief rival in those early- to mid- ‘70s years, I’d have to say he was arguably the best surfer in the world at that time. Along with Rabbit, we three were the original Cooly Kids.”
A month before Peterson’s March 29 passing, Townend shared a beer with him.
“I went down to visit Michael with Rabbit and Andrew Mckinnon. We were all members of the ‘72 Aussie team to San Diego. We had (Larry) Bertlemann with us, too. We had a beer and talked about old times. Michael was in great spirits.”
Last Thursday, about 400 mourners paid respect to him at the Tweed Crematorium and Memorial Gardens in Tweed Heads South, where Peterson had lived with his mother. The Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach, which started on April 3, was dedicated to Peterson. The Final heat (which saw Mick Fanning top Kelly Slater) last Friday was preceded by a minute-long applause in memory of the Australian legend.
“I was on the verge of tears,” Fanning said. “I just sat out the back before the Final and just took in the whole crowd.”
Many felt that it was fitting a new-school Cooly Kid would ring the bell.
“They not only broke the mold with Michael Peterson,” Bartholomew said, “there will simply never be another like him.”