Steve Prefontaine

Tracks Coolest Runner

As my daughter and I strolled through Barnes and Noble a week ago we stopped to grab something hot to drink. After I obtained my Café Americano I was scanning the magazines and glimpsed a picture from the past. There on the cover of Runner’s World was one of my favorite all time runners, Steve Prefontaine. Now there was a throw back to my past having in my younger years being a track athlete. My Mom and I back in 1973 went to the LA Times Indoor Invitational and got to watch the man in action. Prefontaine, Pre as he was known to his fans and fellow athletes did not disappoint on that day as he won the mile in pure Prefontaine fashion. It will be a day I have not and will not forget.

Steve Prefontaine
Steve Prefontaine

Pre!

Steve Prefontaine was born January 25, 1951 in Coos Bay, Oregon. As a freshman in high school Pre started running with the cross country team and found some success. This would start him on the road to being one of the best middle to long distance runner of his time. Even today some of what he did as a runner has never been matched. His freshman year he ran a personal best of 5:01 in the mile, which in those day and at that age is pretty darn impressive. Pre’s sophomore year was fairly uneventful but managed to pull in a time of 4:31 running the indoor mile. By the time Pre graduated from high school he won every meet, including the state championship and set national track record in the two mile.

Following high school Pre enrolled at the University of Oregon and continued his running. His new coach and mentor was well known Coach Bill Bowerman who founded Nike. His freshman year he finished third in the NCAA Men’s Cross Country Championships. Pre was an aggressive runner and would lead the whole way. Pre was not one that liked to be back in the pack and did not like finishing in any other spot except first. He once said that he would make the 5000 meter “a guts race”, no backing down till you cross the finish line. It was about this time that fans could be heard chanting “Pre! Pre!” which became a staple at track meets. Fans wore t-shirts the read “Legend” while those that opposed him wore t-shirts that read “Stop Pre”. When Pre was nineteen years old he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In between his junior and senior year Pre had qualified for the 1972 Olympic Team and would compete in the 5000 meters which he held the American record. Pre did not fare well in this race and finished fourth after leading the race most of the way. The last 150 meters were a tough one with it being a toe to toe battle between four runners. Upon returning for his senior year Pre only had 3 defeats all coming in the mile. At this time Pre took on the battle with the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) which said any athlete wanting to go to the Olympics had to remain “amateur”. This was the days before allowing athletes to have endorsements. While other countries were sending their best athletes and being paid to do it, our athletes struggled financially. Prefontaine was accepting freebies from Nike which he was subject to AAU’s ruling and could lose his amateur status.

The Olympics and The Death of a Great Athlete

After graduating from Oregon Pre continued running and was preparing for the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. On May 30, 1975 having been at a party and had just dropped off friend Frank Shorter, Pre headed off in his MGB. Having had a little too much alcohol Pre lost control of his car on a curvy road and crashed into a rock wall. The car overturned and trapped Prefontaine under his car. The first witness on the scene had seen another car leaving the scene. Pre was found flat on his back but was still alive under his car. The witness tried to get Prefontaine free from under the car but could not do it. The witness ran for help but when he returned Prefontaine had died. Steve Prefontaine was only 24 and we will never know if he would have come home with Olympic Gold. Knowing the type of competitive runner he was I have no doubt that he would have come home an Olympic Champion. For those of us that remember him on the track and enjoyed watching him run, we can still hear the chant “Pre!”

September, every year on the third Saturday 1000 plus run in the Prefontaine Memorial Run 10k.

1983, inducted into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame.

Two movies have been made about Steve Prefontaine, “Without Limits” and “Prefontaine”.

Prefontaine Quotes:

"A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest. I run to see who has the most guts, who can punish himself into exhausting pace, and then at the end, punish himself even more".

"Somebody may beat me, but they are going to have to bleed to do it".

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GNelson profile image

GNelson 6 years ago from Florida

Great Athletes have one thing in common, the will to win. Steve was one of them.

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