"I had no idea about Michael’s issues. I just thought he was super intense… the same way Andy was intense. The same way Kelly is intense. I just thought he was one of those super intense guys on the Tour who didn’t care about making friends and only cared about making heats." - Mark Richards
Michael Peterson entered the world as the product of a brutal gang-rape. The Australian surf icon would go on to achieve incredible feats throughout his short, troubled life, but it was those turbulent beginnings that would forever shape his future.
Peterson and his siblings grew up in the 1950s and '60s on Queensland’s Gold Coast, living in a series of ramshackle homes and apartments. With no steady father-figure available, Peterson’s mother Joan was left to house, feed, and raise four kids mostly on her own, which was–of course–difficult.
Lacking the necessary supervision, Peterson and his brother Tommy ran amok under the hot Queensland sun, quickly getting into drugs, surfing, and plenty of other trouble along the way. During his late teens, Peterson’s drug tastes graduated from weed and mushrooms to the ever-potent heroin, which had become a minor epidemic in Queensland at that time.
Alongside his lifetime rivals Wayne ‘Rabbit’ Bartholomew and Peter Townend, Peterson became a formidable presence across Coolangatta’s famed points of Snapper, Greenmount, and especially Kirra. Peterson gained a reputation as a lethal paddler and magnificent tube rider, and was known for his unpolished but commanding approach to the wave.
Peterson's prodigious talent on a surfboard was apparent at a young age. Michael Peterson photo.
Personality-wise, he was described as being painfully shy, intense, paranoid, and–like anyone with a healthy heroin habit–selfish and untrustworthy. Peterson was notorious for his crazed driving, having compiled dozens of speeding tickets during his years on the road. He also loved dogs and was fanatical about his health, famously adopting a vegetarian diet well before it was a mainstream practice. He was also devastatingly handsome and a physical specimen, which when combined with his mysterious, bad-boy nature, made Peterson ever-appealing to the opposite sex.
During the early-to-mid 1970s, Peterson won almost every professional surfing event on the Australian continent, including national titles in ‘72 and ‘74, three consecutive Bells Beach titles (starting in 1973), the Coca Cola Surf Bout in 1974 (then the richest event in the history of the sport), and lastly the Stubbies Pro in 1977, which was the first man-on-man surfing event and the last contest he would ever win.
Peterson mostly disappeared after the event. His yet-to-be-diagnosed paranoid schizophrenia had become too overwhelming to bear in public, and caused Peterson, who had always been known for his reclusive tendencies, to shut off from the world entirely. He spent the next few years living in quiet corners along Australia’s east coast.
Peterson’s disease came to a head in August of 1983, when–on a roadtrip to Noosa–the sound of police sirens sent Michael’s schizophrenia into hyperdrive. Peterson began driving frantically to escape the sirens, which–as was later discovered–he believed were alien spaceships out to get him.
Having ample experience in high-speed automobiles, Peterson delivered a wonderful highway chase, which necessitated 20 cop cars on his tail and another 15 to create an impassable roadblock on the Story Bridge near Brisbane. That roadblock proved effective, and Peterson was forced out of his car and arrested for his actions. After hearing his alien account, the police assumed Peterson had been driving under the influence of drugs, when in reality he was suffering deeply from his mental disorder.
After some time in prison, Joan Peterson was able to convince a judge that her eldest son was mentally ill and needed to be put in a psychiatric ward rather than a jail cell. It was only then that Peterson’s disease was officially diagnosed, which led to heavy medication and electric shock therapy, until eventually Michael was released to live with his mother and never to surf, or drive, again.
After reaching three-times his usual bodyweight, Michael Peterson died of a heart attack at age 59 in his Tweeds Head, New South Wales home, just across the river from his childhood stomping grounds on Queensland’s Gold Coast.
All of that was just a brief introduction to the man, myth, and legend of Michael Peterson. If you’d like to know MP’s full story, or at least the most detailed account of his existence that will ever be compiled, you must read Sean Doherty’s MP: The Life of Michael Peterson.
Peterson cast a mysterious shadow in the surfing world–revered for his surf abilities, admired for his natural good looks, but never seemingly at home. Michael Peterson photo.
In the book, Doherty–a noted surf journalist and family friend of the Petersons–was tasked with chronicling all the incredible moments and mishaps that defined Peterson – a surfer once considered the best in the world, who fell off the face of the earth when consumed by a misunderstood mental illness.
I recently spoke with Doherty to see what he learned about Peterson, drugs, society, and disease when doing the extensive research for this book, and how that has shaped his ideas of the world today. Surfing’s de facto historian, Matt Warshaw, and four-time World Champion Mark Richards – who surfed against Michael in the finals of that famous Stubbies event – also shared some thoughts along the way.
Doherty: You wouldn’t see a lot of him, because he would rarely go outside after everything happened, and even before that he always hated cameras, so all we had to go off were all of these outrageous stories. Many of them were based around his surfing, but mostly it was Michael’s darkness out of the water that got talked about – the drug taking, the car chase, etc. He became a cult figure. Like a dead rock star, but he wasn’t dead. He was just living at his mum’s house.
Doherty: The general take was he was revered – like the dark knight. Because he was the opposite to anything corporate, and he hated the “squares”, he was almost universally loved – like a [Miki] Dora, or one of those guys who raged against the system. The only people who had the opposite point of view were the handful that actually surfed against Michael and saw him through a lot of his frailty. So they didn’t buy into the myth. They weren’t so kind in their judgement.
Richards: Michael just seemed like a ruthless competitor to me – somebody who wanted to win at all costs. We were all just obstacles on his path to victory.
Warshaw: MP looked like the bad guy – extremely dark and serious. He was really wary of everyone except for a select few people. But he was also extremely handsome and enigmatic and cool.
Doherty: Nobody knew anything until I wrote the book, because the family had buried it. Even when Michael went through the court system – and this was at the height of his schizophrenia – he had been to jail, had all the diagnoses, the institutions, shock therapy, all that happened behind closed doors. I think they buried his story so heavily for the sheer fact that there would be no public sympathy for it. There was certainly no public understanding of it. So they just kept it quiet, MP stayed medicated, lived with his mom, sat under a mango tree, that was it. That was life for 20 years.
Peterson diagnosis was hidden from the media by his family, so he suffered in plain sight, misunderstood. Here, Peterson is photographed after winning the infamous 1977 Stubbies contest, the first-ever surf contest to employ one-on-one heats. Dan Merkel photo.
Richards: I had no idea about Michael’s issues. I just thought he was super intense… the same way Andy was intense. The same way Kelly is intense. I just thought he was one of those super intense guys on the Tour who didn’t care about making friends and only cared about making heats.
Doherty: Schizophrenia, at least in its early stages, gave Michael a laser focus. No one was more focused on surfing than that guy. Maybe the one other thing it contributed to making Michael such a good contest surfer, was that the early onset of the paranoia made him think that other surfers were plotting against him.
Michael loved the game of chess, and he saw life the same way, so he’d be extremely strategic and try to jump ahead. So that just made him this arch-competitor who was consumed by being one step in front of the other guys, who, in his mind, were all out to get him.
Richards: When he was paddling out, coming towards you, he just had this death-stare like he wanted to kill you. It was almost scary sitting in the water waiting for a wave when you could see him coming. Especially back then, we didn’t have priority for waves, so whoever paddled deepest got the right of way. And nobody paddled like Michael. He was like a great white shark coming to get you.
Doherty: This is really the crux of it.
If there had been a diagnosis for MP when he was in his prime, and they started treating him with meds, he wouldn’t have been anyone. His flame would have been extinguished right then and there. Those meds slow your metabolism, your thinking, everything; they just squeeze the life force out of you. It crushes the disease but it crushes everything else at the same time. So he’d have never been anyone if he was medicated.
But the same thing that allowed him to be so brilliant for those few years also meant that he was never gonna last. It’s kind of like Andy (Irons). You can’t compare the two diseases (bipolar disorder and schizophrenia), and you certainly can’t compare the two individuals, but that pattern of burning bright and then disappearing is a real commonality between MP and Andy.
Doherty: There are three things at play here – you’ve got the mental disease, a recreational drug habit, and the person himself – and they all intersect at different points to different degrees.
Michael’s personality... well, he was just kind of like that. He was a bit shady. And he was always about Michael, and he was always about winning. But I think a lot of the real shady stuff you can attribute to the drug habit. He was a smacky at certain points, and that will have you crawling through people’s windows to get your hands on a couple bucks. But really, I don’t think the schizophrenia could be related to any of the shadiness. I think it contributed to him living privately, but to blame any shadiness on his schizophrenia would be a disservice to anyone else suffering from the disease.
Doherty: Michael had a couple of long term girlfriends in his teens and early 20s who both speak fondly of him and paint a different picture of him to the fast-living surf animal. They both say he was more sensitive and shy than anything.
I think once he got a bit of a profile he played faster with women, who were by that stage throwing themselves at him. There was that time he climbed through the bathroom window unannounced, and he occasionally hit on someone’s girlfriend, but I don’t really attribute that to any kind of predatory or malicious behavior. It’s more the fact he just was so socially awkward that he had trouble understanding, navigating, and occasionally respecting social boundaries. That pattern repeated through all of his social relationships, not just with women.
Doherty: I think there was an internal tension that ran through Michael all the time. He just had so many thoughts going through his head that I don’t think he could ever relax, and you actually saw that.
You know what surfing’s like... you watch someone surf and you can actually get a better read on who they are as people. That’s completely true with Michael. You can see he’s so jittery but at the same time really commanding on the wave. That jitteriness is the manifestation of all those thoughts in his head, so it comes out through his body and his signature karate hands.
MP's surfing reflected his own internal struggles–chaotic, frenzied, unpredictable. It was unlike anything anyone had ever seen. Dan Merkel photo.
Richards: Michael was ahead of his time when it came to surfing progressively and fast – he was so hard off the bottom and hard off the lip. If you look back at the footage, you can see that the boards he was riding were holding him back from what he actually wanted to do.
Warshaw: MP wasn’t necessarily pretty to watch. You didn’t know what he was gonna do move-to-move. He was kind of stuttery in the way he surfed, and he turned in places you didn’t quite expect. He’d push further than you’d think he was going to, and he drew lines that were different. It’s almost like he was on a different wavelength.
And if you watch him he’s got these crazy hands. It’s almost like he’s epileptic. Then in the tube, that was the only place Michael slowed down and stopped moving so much. He once said he liked being inside the tube because "No one can see me in there," so maybe that’s why, once inside, he was finally able to relax.
Doherty: Michael had a real strong militaristic kick – even as a kid he would put model planes together and play with them. I think he even wanted to go into the army at some stage. As it turns out, most of the voices in his head were military-related, but he was in charge. He was the one dishing the orders out. It’s so funny when you think about it, but he was running a little war campaign in his own head.
That’s also where you delineate his personality – he had a very strong personality and obviously liked to be in control, and you saw that in his surfing career. He was in control of everyone. He was the one everyone was worried about. He was playing games with everyone. That was his personality. So when it came to the voices, he started telling them what to do too.
Doherty: I reckon drugs definitely had a hand in manifesting Michael’s schizophrenia. Most doctors will tell you that schizophrenia is programmed into certain people’s DNA, but it can be exacerbated or even generated by drug use. And Michael was using heroin at 17 or 18 and smoking pot from a really early age.
But at the same time there was likely a genetic component, potentially from his (unknown) father. I mean Michael’s brother Tommy still wakes up every day and smokes pot before he gets out of bed, and despite all the chemicals he’s put into his body over the years, he’s still sharp as a blade – and he’s Michael’s half-brother. But if Michael was predisposed to schizophrenia, which I reckon he was, the drugs definitely didn’t help.
Doherty: Michael’s story is still highly mythologized, and the fact that people understand more about schizophrenia nowadays only makes it easier to see him in a positive light. Especially with Andy’s whole story coming out, people in the surf world are becoming more empathetic to the idea of mental disease. But to most Australians, he always has been and will be a surfing hero.
Peterson will remain one of surfing's most enigmatic figures. How he would have fared today with modern medicine remains a giant question mark. Dan Merkel photo.
Warshaw: While Michael’s disease has become more widely understood in recent years, unfortunately his surfing has not.
I’ve found it impossible to make a clip of Michael Peterson that does his surfing any justice. Nobody from the current generation will understand what made it special, because it doesn’t make sense to see it isolated. The only thing that makes sense is to show 10 minutes of what other surfing was going at the time and then show Michael, but nobody wants to watch that.