Why a fit, accomplished swimming champion lost his life doing a routine swim with mates at Bondi Beach is puzzling friends and family trying to come to terms with his tragic death.
The athletic frame of Peter Michaelson, who stood 188 centimetres tall and weighed 110kg, seemed a natural fit among those at world championship events and ocean swims at Bondi.
While growing up in South Africa and then spending his teenage years in England before moving to Sydney, Peter had always swum. He continued to compete even as a 57-year-old while running a jewellery business in Double Bay.
But it was his regular swim with mates at Bondi Beach that the loveable larrikin and father of one was best known for. A tradition he’d been keeping for 25 years.
The swim out to Flat Rock, just 300 metres from the sand, was something he and his friends had done “hundreds of times before”. They’d swim out, sit on the rocks, play with any local dogs then jump back in, waiting for each other before making their way to the beach together.
But on Wednesday, February 1, on a “very calm, beautiful and sunny afternoon”, something went wrong.
“Two mates jumped in, then a few seconds later they looked back and couldn’t see Peter,” Arik Shifroni, one of Peter’s best friends who wasn’t there at the time, told Yahoo News Australia. “Then a few seconds after that they saw Peter on the rocks, tumbling back and forth with the sway of the water.”
By the time Peter’s friends had pulled him up onto the rocks, a crowd had gathered, including a nurse, who all tried to revive him. An ambulance was called, and the fit and healthy 57-year-old was airlifted to St Vincent’s Hospital.
Wife makes mercy dash across Australia to say farewell
With Peter suffering critical head, neck and spinal injuries, believed to have been sustained from hitting a rock under the water, his friends delivered the devastating news that he was unlikely to survive.
“He was beyond critical and severe, that was what the head doctor said,” Arik explained. “He’d been a doctor around the world for 30 years and said he’d never seen anything so devastating and serious as his injuries.”
At the time, Peter’s wife Leeanne was in Perth to celebrate her sister’s birthday .
“They did everything to keep him breathing and his heart beating so that she could come back and say goodbye to him properly,” Arik said. “But the truth is, he was already beyond the point.. there was nothing they could do to save him.”
‘He may have miscalculated’ the jump
For Arik, the sheer tragedy of what went wrong at Flat Rock on that day makes little sense.
“We've done it a hundred times, jumping from those rocks,” he said. “We know exactly where to jump, Peter was very athletic, very strong and he knew exactly what to do. But you know, it's the ocean. He may have miscalculated something, or he may have jumped the wrong way.”
Almost 600 people gathered at Peter’s funeral last week to mourn the man known by Maccabi Swimming Club as a “master sprinter” who’s “love for the water and passion for the sport inspired so many”.
“Everyone loved him,” his best friend said. “He touched a lot of people, he helped a lot of people. He would listen to everybody.”
Community comes together in wake of ‘tragic, sudden death’
A GoFundMe page has since been set up to support his wife Leeanne and 17-year-old daughter Siena who have been “completely shattered by the tragic and sudden death”. So far more than $50,000 has been raised.
“Peter was taken from us in the prime of his life doing what he loved...swimming,” the organiser Nicole Sussman said. “But his greatest love was his wife Leeanne and daughter Siena. All he would want right now is stability for them.”
“It wasn’t like [he was] a sick person and you know it’s coming,” Arik added. “Something like this teaches you how to appreciate life and live it to the fullest every day.
“Go home to your wife and husband, tell them that you love them, and give them a kiss every day.”
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