Peter Nelson was born on 26th April 1931 at Black Forest, South Australia, the son of wheelwright and automotive manufacturing engineer Frederick Nelson and his wife Winifred (née Mostyn). He was educated at Christian Brothers College and, when he left school, worked in the retail section of A.G. Healing’s sports store in Adelaide. He idolized his older brothers and when they returned from the war in 1946 he followed them into their sports. His brothers remembered him as someone who could take up any sport and excel at it. He was a fine swimmer and was so successful in junior events that he was invited by the state coach to join an elite squad. In the meantime, however, he had discovered cycling.
He won his first race as a sixteen-year-old in 1947 and thereafter committed himself to excellence as a cyclist. Jim Nestor, a dual Olympian, took an interest in him and encouraged him to train as a road racer. Nelson joined the Sturt Cycling Club, which was based at Edwardstown Oval, and followed Nestor’s advice about applying himself to training. He rode 500 miles a week and was included in the state junior team in 1949. His training was done after work and, given the mileage he had to cover for adequate workouts, he was often still out riding late into the night. Considered a ‘strong rider’, he never believed his press and always thought he could be fitter. He regularly attended a gymnasium when it was not fashionable to do so.
His resolution and commitment paid off. In 1950 he was 15, 25 and 50 mile champion and was included in the State Senior team. He was successful in the 100 mile Mail Tour and won the Adelaide to Milang Road Race. He was a popular rider because of his ethical values and his resolute but honest approach to his sport. Cycling was considered a sport of questionable standards, and coaches at that time did not always encourage close fellowship with opponents. Nelson, however, would often billet his interstate rivals when they came to Adelaide to compete against him.
Peter Nelson won the road race in the Olympic trials of 1951 and was included in the Australian cycling team to compete in Helsinki in 1952. He competed in the 4000 metres team pursuit (Nelson, Caves, Nevin and Pryor) and the 190 kilometre road race. The Australian pursuit team finished seventeenth in the first round of the competition and did not progress to the finals. Nelson was unable to finish the road race. His lack of success at the Olympics was, in part, due to the fact that the Australian team had been based in London prior to the Games with no competitions organized for them. They trained as hard as they could in the large metropolis but needed races to ready them for the Olympic contests. Their diet was also inappropriate for elite sportsmen and they put on weight. Nelson competed in the World Championships in Luxembourg before returning to Australia. He continued his racing in South Australia and in 1953 he was again state champion for the 50 mile road race. He retired in 1954.
Nelson had met and fallen in love with Marjorie Jackson on the flight to Helsinki in 1952 and they were married in Lithgow, New South Wales, on 7th November 1953. Both retired from their sports a year later to open a store on Unley Road. They had too much talent to leave their sports so early in their careers but in the fifties in Australia there was no financial support for elite performers. Peter Nelson was closely involved in the activities of the Unley Rotary Club and in the mid-1960s was instrumental in establishing the Unley Memorial Swimming Pool, where he taught learn-to-swim classes.
He died of leukaemia on 2nd February 1977 and was cremated. The Peter Nelson Leukemia Research Foundation was established by Marjorie Jackson in his honour.
Atkinson, G., Australian and New Zealand Olympians: The stories of 100 great champions (Canterbury: Five Mile Press, 1984).
Vamplew, W., et al, The Oxford companion to Australian sport (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994).