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Peter John Lacey (1946–1997)

by Stephen Townsend

This article was published online in 2024

Peter John Lacey (1946–1997), surf lifesaver, real-estate agent, and property-development executive, was born on 19 April 1946 at Wavell Heights, Brisbane, second of three sons of John (Jack) William Lacey, a Victorian-born bookmaker, and his Queensland-born wife Beryl Eunice, née Sheppard. The family lived in the suburb of Highgate Hill during Peter’s childhood, and he attended (1958–64) the Church of England Grammar School (Churchie), East Brisbane. Although not especially tall, he was solidly built, with a broad chest and thick limbs. His physical attributes were matched by a fiery competitiveness that was stoked from an early age by involvement in cricket, tennis, rugby, and boxing. Young ‘Lace’ was renowned in his neighbourhood for being unbeatable in any physical challenge, including push-up contests and pogo-stick jumping. At the age of twelve, he was chopping wood on a boy scouts’ excursion and swung the axe into his foot, severing the muscles and tendons in his ankle. Unable to run but needing to rehabilitate his grievously injured leg, he began swimming in the Davies Park municipal pool at West End.

The pool was overseen by the renowned coaches Bill Fleming and John Carew. Although they initially regarded Lacey as an average swimmer, his love of training soon set him apart and Carew encouraged him to join Surfers Paradise Surf Life Saving Club (SLSC). Already an avid beachgoer with his family, he joined in 1960 and began spending most weekends with the club. He maintained a successful schoolboy athletic career in Brisbane but his preference for the surf soon became obvious.

Engaging in competitive events when not beach patrolling, Lacey was Surfers Paradise SLSC cadet champion in 1962, junior champion in 1963 and 1964, and winner of two junior Australian titles in 1964: the male surf belt and male surf team. There were two more national titles, in 1965, including the first of three gold medals as part of victorious Queensland representative teams. He was particularly strong in swimming events and was said to be able to swim faster with a rescue belt in large surf than most others could swim unencumbered in flat water. His ability to read waves and currents made him uncannily consistent in surf races, where success is often determined by luck.

After graduating to open competition in 1966, Lacey won four Australian titles in the next four years and earned selection in three consecutive Australian representative teams (1967, 1968–69, and 1970). In 1971, following several years of balancing lifesaving with helping his father operate the municipal Olympic pool at Jindalee, Brisbane, and unfinished study towards an economics degree at the University of Queensland, he moved to Melbourne as a sales representative for Levi Strauss (Australia) Pty Ltd. He continued to compete by joining Lorne SLSC, where he won his ninth Australian title, in the six-person rescue and resuscitation event; his brother Paul and the Olympian Graham White were also in the team. Peter Lacey maintained his legendary adherence to physical training, aided by a lifelong abstinence from alcohol in fulfilment of a promise to his father.

In Melbourne Lacey met Rosemary Ann McLeod, a secretary and fellow Queenslander. The couple returned to their home State in 1975 and settled on the Gold Coast, marrying on 2 May 1976 at All Saints’ Church of England, Brisbane. Lacey rejoined Surfers Paradise SLSC and began a new appointment as a professional lifeguard. Seeking a fresh challenge, he moved to Currumbin SLSC in 1976 and competed primarily in board-racing events, winning three Australian titles in three years. He went back briefly to the Surfers Paradise club, before moving to Southport SLSC in 1979 and winning the final three titles of his open career. In 1985 he retired from open competition, with a tally of 18 gold, 19 silver, and 10 bronze medals in national competitions, in addition to four world surf lifesaving championships. With unmatched longevity, he would train and compete as a masters swimmer and triathlete for the rest of his life, once again with the Surfers Paradise SLSC. He had successful engagements (1983 and 1985) as coach of the Australian surf lifesaving team.

When Lacey’s athletic career decelerated in the late 1970s, he had begun selling real estate, working first for his friends Doug Bryant and Max Christmas and then PRD Realty. His celebrated charm, extensive personal networks, and reputation as an unwaveringly honest negotiator combined to make him a star of the Gold Coast property market. After a successful period in residential realty, he moved into land acquisition, specialising in purchasing sites for skyscraper construction. Between 1985 and 1997, he oversaw deals worth some $700 million for, successively, the Raptis Group Ltd, Richard Ellis Gold Coast, and Soheil Abedian’s Sunland Group Ltd, becoming an influential figure in the Gold Coast property development market during arguably its most productive era. His acquisitions were the genesis of multiple towers that reshaped the skyline of the northern Gold Coast.

Lacey died unexpectedly of a heart attack on 9 January 1997 at Southport and was buried in the Allambe Garden of Memories lawn cemetery, Nerang. His funeral was attended by more than 1500 people from the surf lifesaving and business communities. He was survived by his wife and their children, Adam and Kate. A statue of Lacey by Phillip Piperides was erected outside Surfers Paradise SLSC in 1997. Regarded as one of the greatest exponents of competitive surf lifesaving, he was in the first cohort of inductees (2004) into the Surf Life Saving Australia Hall of Fame.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Galton, Barry, and Ed Jaggard. ‘The Luck of the Surf: Competition.’ In Between the Flags: One Hundred Summers of Australian Surf Lifesaving, edited by Ed Jaggard, 133–63. Sydney: UNSW Press, 2006
  • Lacey, Adam. Interview by the author, 25 October 2021. Audio recording and notes
  • Lacey, Ann. Interview by the author, 25 October 2021. Audio recording and notes
  • Lacey, Peter. Papers. Private collection
  • Lacey, Peter J. The Story of a Surf Club. Surfers Paradise, Qld: Peter Lacey, [1975?]
  • McGregor, Adrian. ‘Lifesaver Joins the Bronzed Aussies: Legend of the Sea Larger in Death than in Life.’ Weekend Australian, 10–11 July 1997, 9
  • Mitchell, Peter. Interview by the author, 17 January 2002. Audio recording
  • Scully, Gary. ‘Champion Inspired Trust during Gold Coast Boom.’ Australian, 11 April 1997, 17
  • Surf Life Saving Australia. Results: SLSA Australian Surf Lifesaving Championships and Australian Representative Teams. Bondi Beach, NSW: Playright Publishing, 2018
  • Surfers Paradise Surf Life Saving Club. Annual Report. 1996–1997
  • Winders, J. R. Surf Lifesaving in Queensland: An Historical Record of Surf Life Saving in Queensland. South Brisbane: Council of the Queensland State Centre of the Surf Lifesaving Association of Australia, 1970

Citation details

Stephen Townsend, 'Lacey, Peter John (1946–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lacey-peter-john-32843/text40873, published online 2024, accessed online 22 February 2024.

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