Pre--1951-1975, Remembering the American Running Legend
by Patrice Malloy, RAC member
Thirty years ago, a poignant spirit was tragically and prematurely lost. Gone from our world was an athlete so exceptional and so driven that he inspired throngs of people simply by walking into a stadium.
Few American athletes have generated as much gut-wrenching emotion as Steve Prefontaine. Here was a talented runner who never set a world record or won an Olympic medal, but his fearless performances, charismatic nature and raw ambition has gained him more recognition than anyone could imagine. A maverick at times, Prefontaine knew what it took to push beyond God-given limits. He has become an American legend.
The Early Days
Steve Roland Prefontaine was born on January 25, 1951, in the mill town of Coos Bay on the Oregon coast. He was one of thee children and the only son of Elfriede, a German-born seamstress, and Ray Prefontaine, a carpenter and welder. "Steve was very easy to raise and was very obedient," said his mother, Elfriede, from her Coos Bay home. "He was an active boy who had trouble sitting still." According to his mother, Prefontaine enjoyed school and hated to miss class. "He was going for a perfect attendance record and got upset that he had to miss school because he got sick."
Prefontaine's mother remembers him as always being goal driven. "Steve would write his goals down on paper and post them on his bedroom dresser," she said. "He always wanted to get better."
Prefontaine - who became known as "Pre" during his high school years-- became enamored with running during a physical education conditioning class in junior high school. He discovered during the running sessions that he was faster than his classmates - and he liked the feeling. "Steve came home one day and told me how much he liked running and that he could be good at it," said his mother.
In his freshman year at Marshfield High School, Prefontaine went out for the cross country team and, by the end of the season, he was its second best performer and placed 53rd in the state meet. But it was in his sophomore year that Prefontaine would display flashes of brilliance as he continually was able to overcome the leaders. Too often in those early stages he was caught at the finish line. This made him more determined, and he became obsessed with winning.
He became thoroughly hooked on running and began training religiously. Later that year Prefontaine placed fifth in the Oregon Invitational, a showcase race for the best runners in the state. "Pre would do anything we asked him to do," remembers Walt McClure, his high school coach. "I never had a problem with that young man."
Continuing his evolution into a dedicated and focused athlete, Steve set a goal in his junior high school year to be undefeated during the track season. He trained many hours a day on sand dunes and roads with great intensity. He realized his goal, setting a state record for the 2-mile (9:01.3) and leading his team to the state title. He was fast becoming a phenomenon, as he didn't lose a race in either cross country or track his remaining two years in high school.
As a senior, the kid from Coos Bay was becoming a hot commodity, as the famous track coach from the University of Oregon, Bill Bowerman, began to show keen interest in him. Bowerman reportedly sent a handwritten note to Prefontaine prior to his running a 2-mile race that clinched Pre setting the American record in the distance (8:41.5) and gaining him widespread notice. The note was said to have stated that if Pre came to Oregon, Bowerman would make him into the best distance runner ever.
Pre's Prime Years
Prefontaine's Oregon career was no less than remarkable. He turned out to be unbeatable -- winning seven NCAA championships between 1969 and 1973. He was the first athlete to win four consecutive NCAA titles in the same event, the 5000 meter and set an American record (13:30.4). Incredibly, he never lost a meet at Oregon's Hayward Field at or over 5000 meters.
Curiously, it was not Prefontaine's speed or even his exceptional running talent that that was responsible for his astounding success. It was his stout heart. When Prefontaine lined up to race, he was ready to suffer. From the start to the finish, he would run hard, relying on a high pain threshold to carry him past his rivals. "His competitive side is what set him apart from the others," recalled former Oregon teammate Pat Tyson who also roomed with Prefontaine in a trailer. "Pre found his niche in running and he threw everything into it. His mental toughness - and speed-- is what set him apart. He was driven and had the capacity to dig deep down for that extra effort."
As his accomplishments soared, so did his popularity and campus fame. Thousands of loyal Oregon fans would gather and chant "Pre, Pre, Pre," as he competed. At age 19, he made the cover of Sports Illustrated and was destined to have a dramatic impact on his sport.
And he did. He qualified for the 1972 Olympics at the Trials in Eugene in front of a partisan hometown crowd clinching a new American record (13:22.8) in the 5000 meter and decisively beating veteran George Young (2nd, 13:29.4) and Leonard Hilton (3rd, 13:40.2).
Prefontaine was not widely expected to medal in Munich, since he was a mere 21, just three years out of high school, and had only modest experience competing at the international level. But he acquitted himself admirably in those Olympics as he advanced to the finals. A thrilling race, Prefontaine took the lead with four laps to go before being overcome in the last 200 meters by more battle-tested Europeans. Still, he was in medal position until the race's last 150 meters and finished fourth in 13:28.3. No American has since finished higher in that event. Prefontaine was disappointed but hardly discouraged as he made a vow to himself and to friends that he would win a gold medal in the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
Pre's Final Lap
Pre's brief journey came to a devastating end during the early morning hours of May 30, 1975. Driving home from a party in his MG convertible, he lost control of the car, swerved across the center line and overturned as the car hit a rock wall. He was only 24 years old.
One of the iconic athletic figures of the 1970s, his legacy has been secured as various track meets, running trails and memorials are named in his honor. There have also been two movies and one book based on his life.
What could he have accomplished had he lived? "I think that he definitely could have medaled in Montreal in the 10,000 meter," said Alberto Salazar, who followed in Pre's footsteps at Oregon where Pre's influence is still present.
"Pre had a great zest for life and the ability to create an aura around him," said Tyson. "He was the type of guy who could walk into a packed school auditorium and have everybody be quiet and listen to him. He was the great connector - a master at getting people of all social circles to gravitate to him."
Steve Prefontaine set American track records in events ranging from 2,000 to 10,000 meters. But his greatest accomplishment might be the way he forged himself into the hearts of loyalists. In that regard, his memory and spirit will live on forever.
About the Author: A Club member since 2002, Patrice Malloy is a freelance writer based in Cardiff by the Sea, California. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.