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Peterson, Michael


Pyrotechnic Australian regularfooter from Queensland's Gold Coast; winner of the Australian National Titles in 1972 and 1974; regarded by many as the world's most advanced high-performance surfer during the mid-'70s. Michael Peterson, brimming with talent, ambition, and street-procured drugs, was as compelling a figure as the sport has ever produced, equal parts brilliant and disturbed. "He was Mickey Dora, James Dean and Marlon Brando all rolled into one," world champion and fellow Queenslander Peter Townend said.

Peterson's birth (1952) was the result of a gang-rape. He was raised in the Gold Coast town of Kirra, and brought up by a single mother who worked in the kitchen at a local cafe. He began surfing at age 11, dropped out of school at 16, and the following year, competing in the juniors division, won the 1970 Bells Beach event and placed third in the 1970 Australian National Titles. Peterson was by then regularly surfing the bullet-fast point waves of Kirra and Burleigh Heads with local teenagers Wayne Bartholomew and Peter Townend, both of whom would win world tour titles before the end of the decade.

The monosyllabic Peterson won the first of three Queensland state titles in 1971; in 1972 he won the first of two national titles; in 1973 he won the first of three consecutive Bells Beach men's division titles; in 1974 he won the debut Coca-Cola Surfabout, the richest pro contest ever held up to that point, earning $3,000 for the victory.

By that time, according to friend and rival Bartholomew, the darkly charismatic Peterson "was flat-out the best surfer in the world." His riding style was patterned directly on that of former world champion Nat Young—both surfers were tall, rangy, and powerful—but by 1974 Peterson had evolved into a completely unique performer. Energy seemed to radiate from Peterson's body while he surfed; his legs folded and straightened almost pneumatically, while his hands twitched and shook in response to an inner rhythm that put him onto fresh new angles, routes, and trajectories on the wave face. The effect was sometimes choppy, even frantic, but always thrilling; others rode with equal abandon and spontaneity, but none had Peterson's measure of raw talent. He could also channel his energy into the long, fast, subtle lines necessary to ride deep inside the tube at places like Kirra and Burleigh, and it's likely that he was the first surfer in the world to travel inside the barrel for more than 10 seconds at a stretch. (Peterson once said he liked being inside the tube because "no one can see me in there.")

Peterson visited Hawaii three times, and proved to be just as electrifying in 15-footers as he was in small surf. His form was too much his own to become mainstream, but a number of next-generation Australian surfers— most notably three-time world champion runner-up Gary Elkerton—adopted the Peterson style.

Tense and introverted, Peterson usually arrived on the beach just seconds before a match was due to start; he gave mumbled, head-down acceptance speeches at contest awards presentations, or didn't bother showing up at all. He also had an explosive temper, and the public brawls he had with younger brother Tom—who later became one of Queensland's best surfboard shapers—were the stuff of local legend. Fighting in the water once as teenagers, Michael ripped Tom's board away from him and paddled it out past the shark nets; Tom then swam to shore, opened the hood of Michael's car, and hurled his brother's distributor and battery into the surf. "I don't know why I have a lot of these problems," Peterson once told an Australian surf magazine. "I try to be like everybody else, but it's hard."

By mid-decade, Peterson was a regular drug user, mostly pot and mushrooms, with a growing heroin habit. All of it fueled his as-yet-undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenia.

By 1975, Peterson's paranoia was such that he hid in the parking lot after winning his third consecutive Bells Beach title, convinced that if he walked up to accept his prize check, spectators "were going to start throwing things at me." Peterson—who earned a living by shaping surfboards—meanwhile wanted nothing to do with the sanitizing that went with professional surfing; he kept his hair long, hid behind mirrored aviator sunglasses, and wore dark and frequently grungy clothes.

Peterson won the first contest of the debut world pro tour in 1976, finishing the season world-ranked #7, but by the end of the year he'd become a near recluse as mental illness and drug use took over. Twice in early 1977 he surfed through the prelims at local pro events, then vanished without competing in the finals.

The 1977 Stubbies Pro at Burleigh would be Peterson's last hurrah. The surf was five foot and perfect, 20,000 fans lined the point, and while Peterson went through the event so stoned, as one competitor recalled, "that he could hardly open his eyes," he surfed brilliantly to take first place, defeating future four-time world champion Mark Richards in the final. Peterson rarely got in the water after his Stubbies win, turning up only when conditions at Kirra or Burleigh were at their best, and he quit surfing altogether in 1982.

The following year Peterson was arrested after a high-speed car chase from Kirra to Brisbane; he told police he was a CIA agent and was being followed by Russian spies. His mental illness at last diagnosed, Peterson was jailed, then institutionalized, then released to the care of his mother. He lived with her for the rest of his life. Decades later, on occasion, a medicated and much-overweight Peterson, hiding behind mirrored sunglasses, would turn up at local surf contests to quietly watch the action.

In 2012, Peterson died at home after suffering a heart attack. He was 59.

Peterson appeared in more than a dozen 1970s-era surf movies, including Tracks (1970), A Sea for Yourself (1973), A Winter's Tale (1974), Playgrounds in Paradise (1976), and Tubular Swells (1977). He was briefly interviewed for the documentary Legends: An Australian Surfing Perspective (1994).

Peterson was inducted into the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame in 1992. Surfer magazine named him in 1985 as one of "25 Surfers Whose Surfing Changed the Sport"; in 1999 the magazine cited him as one of the "25 Most Influential Surfers of the Century;" in 2004 Surfing  magazine included Peterson in their list of the "16 Greatest Surfers of All Time"; Surfer ranked him #16 on their 2009 list of the "50 Greatest Surfers of All Time." A bronze plaque in Peterson's honor was erected at Kirra in 2014. 

MP: The Life of Michael Peterson, a biography written by Australian surf journalist Sean Doherty was published in 2004; the central figure in The Life, a 2011 fiction work by award-winning Australian novelist Malcolm Knox, is loosely based on Michael Peterson. Searching for Michael Peterson, a documentary directed by Jolyon Hoff, was released in 2009.