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Master swimmer loses life in accident off Bondi Beach



South African-born Peter Michaelson (57) was an acclaimed master swimmer and got much joy from swimming in the ocean. However, it was in the water off the coast of Sydney, Australia, where he lived that he had a freak accident that led to his death.

He and Roy Cohen both left Johannesburg for Sydney decades ago, and although they didn’t know each other in South Africa, they became firm friends in Australia. Both excellent swimmers, they were enjoying the ocean at Bondi Beach after work on 1 February, when the unthinkable happened: Michaelson dived into the water, possibly onto some rocks, and suffered catastrophic injuries, including skull and vertebrae fractures.

Along with their friend, Lawrence Kopping, who is also a South African expat, they usually swam to Flat Rock, about 200m away, and relaxed there before heading back. “This time, we swam to the boat ramp, then walked to Flat Rock. We were there for a bit, and then jumped in to swim back to shore. Lawrence and I were already in the water, so we didn’t see exactly what happened, but Pete must have dived in and hit some rocks that were submerged.

“Thirty seconds later, we looked around and couldn’t see him. We then saw he was on top of the rocks – he must have been washed back onto them. We started to do CPR, and there happened to be a nurse there who helped us. Lifeguards from the beach responded very quickly. I’m not sure who called for help, but there was quite a commotion. Paramedics were called, and they worked on him for about half an hour. They then carried him up off the rocks to the ambulance, and he was taken to hospital. He passed away the next day.”

“The only consolation is that he didn’t suffer,” says Cohen. “Pete was a powerful and accomplished swimmer who broke records as well as mentored others. We’ve done that swim a hundred times. He was the best swimmer and diver amongst us. But he died doing what he loved.”

His cousin in Cape Town, Trevor Abromowitz, says that Peter’s wife, Leeanne, was visiting her sister in Perth when the accident occurred, and had to rush back. He was told that Peter’s 17-year-old daughter, Siena, held his hand at his hospital bedside while the room filled with people. “Everyone loved him and wanted to be there for him.” Cohen says Peter’s daughter and wife were his pride and joy.

“It was a freak event – Peter was highly experienced at diving from that particular spot,” says Leeanne. “Siena and I are heartbroken. Our family and community are rallying around us. Peter’s funeral was the largest that the rabbis had attended. Peter was connected to South Africa through his family, and was hoping to travel to Cape Town for the birth of Trevor’s son in a couple of weeks’ time.”

Peter was born in Johannesburg to Joyce and Jack Michaelson. “From a young age, it was apparent that he was a natural-born athlete and excelled at swimming and running, winning multiple titles at state and national level,” says Leeanne.

He attended Fairways Primary and Hyde Park High. “The last time I saw Pete was in April 2022, when we visited Sydney for Pesach,” says Abromowitz. “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it would be the last time. I also went to Fairways, and remember looking up at the achievements board and seeing his name there as ‘Sportsman of the Year’. I remember thinking I wanted to be just like him. He was a real Joburg boy.

“He was a popular student, shown by the friendships that stood until his recent passing,” says Leeanne. “The family migrated to London in 1981. Peter’s swimming talents further developed, and his persistence earned him a place in the British swimming team. Peter was extremely humble and downplayed his achievements.” The family eventually settled in Sydney.

Peter initially worked in the family business and was a much-respected antique jewellery dealer, travelling to London regularly. “When his father retired, Peter put his gemologist training to use, and expanded the business to include modern jewellery, which he sold out of his store in Cross Street. The shop was renowned as being the social hub of Double Bay,” says his wife.

Peter returned to competitive swimming with the Warringah Masters Swimming Club as a masters athlete, “where he was a much loved and respected team member, breaking state records in his age category for 50m and 100m freestyle”, Leeanne says. “He always lived close to Bondi Beach, and in summer, Peter and friends would swim out to Flat Rock. A challenging swim for most, Peter found it relaxing, and encouraged as many people as he could to swim the bay.”

Cohen describes his friend as a “giant”, literally and figuratively, at 6 foot 4 (1.9m) and weighing 95kg. “And he had the biggest heart.” He says Peter was “tops at freestyle, but he was also excellent at all the strokes”. Abromowitz says Peter had a Facebook group where he shared tips on freestyle swimming. “I think he was working on his dive, because in a 50m sprint, everything has to be perfect. He had a real sprinter’s build.” Peter was the fastest swimmer in Australia in his division.

Abromowitz says his cousin “Loved Yiddishkeit and loved Yiddish. He would often throw out a Yiddish expression. He had a real grounding in Judaism, and love of the Jewish people.” And his athletic ability was passed onto his beloved daughter, who he supported at the Maccabi Games last year, where she played netball. “He was very excited about going to Israel.”

Rabbi Danny Yaffe of CBDChabad Sydney says he thinks Peter loved swimming “because he was a man of life, energy, and nature”.

When he heard about the accident, he felt shock and disbelief. “It has been surreal. Sometimes I look at my phone waiting for a joke or a question from him to come through. At the last shiur, a few of us were wondering if he would show up late as usual! Each week, I would present a controversial topic, and Peter would be on fire, presenting arguments and counter arguments, proving and disproving, between lively L’Chaims and side stories or jokes.

“As a rabbi, I believe the best that can be done in the wake of tragedy isn’t to stop but to do more, build more, reach out more. And if it’s done in Pesach Ben Yaakov’s memory, it would keep his legacy alive.”

Though South Africans are scattered around the globe, “our communities are like one body with one heart”, says the rabbi. “Thus, when we lose someone, especially in these circumstances, it’s like losing a part of our body – we all feel it. So one mitzvah helps all of us where ever we may be in the world.”

A GoFundMe fundraiser was started by the family’s close friend, Nicole Sussman. “Peter was taken from us in the prime of his life, doing what he loved,” she wrote. “But his greatest love was his wife, Leeanne, and daughter, Siena. All he would want right now is stability for them. Let’s all come together as a community and help take care of our dear friends. Let’s support Pete’s family for him the way he supported us during his lifetime.”

To support the Michaelson family, visit

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  1. Pam

    Feb 16, 2023 at 5:54 pm

    How very sad. Condolences to his family. Each day is a gift.

  2. Tony Gallagher

    Feb 19, 2023 at 12:54 pm

    Peter was a highly respected and much admired member of Warringah Masters Swimming Club. He joined us about 5 years ago. His specialty was the 50 metre free style sprint and in 2022 he broke the State record (for New South Wales) three times. The photo in the pool is from the Pan Pacific Games, Gold Coast, November 2022, which was where he broke it the third time for 2022. This was for the 50 metres long course, free style, fastest time for the 55 to 59 years old age group.

    We have several people from South Africa, of Jewish heritage in our club. All of them are beautiful ambassadors for their country of birth, their faith, elite/championship swimmers, and the Australian community where they now live. They honour us with their presence in our club and have made good mentors for slower Masters swimmers like myself. Peter in particular always had words of encouragement and good advice for other swimmers.

    Thank you Tali Feinberg for an excellent report.

    Tony Gallagher, Secretary, Warringah Masters Swimming Club

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