Prefontaine in 1969
January 25, 1951|
Coos Bay, Oregon
|Died||May 30, 1975
|Height||5 ft 9 in (1.75 m)|
|Weight||152 lb (69 kg)|
|Sport||Track, Long-distance running|
|Event(s)||1500 meters, Mile, 2-mile, 5000 meters, 10,000 meters|
|Achievements and titles|
|Personal best(s)||1500 meters: 3:38.1
3000 meters: 7:42.6
5000 meters: 13:21.87
10,000 meters: 27:43.6
Steve Roland "Pre" Prefontaine (January 25, 1951 - May 30, 1975) was an American middle and long-distance runner who competed in the 1972 Olympics. Prefontaine once held the American record in seven different distance track events from the 2,000 meters to the 10,000 meters. Prefontaine died in May 1975 at the age of 24 in an automobile accident in Eugene, Oregon.
The career of Steve Prefontaine, alongside Jim Ryun, Frank Shorter, and Bill Rodgers generated considerable media coverage, which helped inspire the 1970s "running boom". Prefontaine was often known for his mustache and his long locks of hair that parted as he ran.
Prefontaine was born on January 25, 1951, in the coastal logging town of Coos Bay, Oregon. His father, Raymond Prefontaine, was a carpenter and a welder after his time serving in the U.S. Army in World War II. Steve's mother, Elfriede, worked as a seamstress. The two returned to Coos Bay after Ray met Elfriede in Germany while serving with the U.S. Army occupation forces. He had two sisters, Neta and Linda, and they all grew up in a house built by their father.
Prefontaine was a rambunctious person, even during his formative years. He was always moving around, partaking in different activities. In junior high, Prefontaine was on his school's football and basketball teams, but was rarely allowed to play because of his short stature. In the eighth grade, he noticed several high school cross country team members jog to practice past the football field, an activity he then viewed as mundane. Later that year, he began to realize he was able to compete well in longer distance races in his physical education class during a three-week conditioning period. By the second week of the daily mile runs, Prefontaine was able to finish second in the group. With this new-found success, he fell in love with cross country.
When he began high school at Marshfield High School in 1965, Prefontaine joined the cross country team, coached by Walt McClure, Jr. McClure had run under coach Bill Bowerman at the University of Oregon and his father, Walt McClure, Sr. had run under Bill Hayward, also at Oregon.
Prefontaine's freshman and sophomore years were decent, and he managed a 5:01 mile personal best in his first year. Though starting out as the seventh man, he progressed to be the second by the end of the year and placed 53rd in the State Championship. In his sophomore year, he failed to qualify for the state meet in his event, the two-mile. However, his coach recalls that it was his sophomore year where his potential in the sport really began to surface.
With the advice of Walt McClure, Prefontaine's high school coach, he took it upon himself to train hard over the summer. He went through his junior cross country season undefeated and won the state title.
In his senior year, many of his highest goals were set. He obtained a national record at the Corvallis Invitational with a time of 8:41.5, only one and a half seconds slower than his goal, and 6.9 seconds better than the previous record. He won two more State titles that year after another undefeated season in both the one and two mile distances.
Prefontaine was recruited by 40 colleges across the nation, and he received numerous phone calls, letters, and drop-in visits from coaches. Prefontaine referred many of his calls to McClure, who wanted Prefontaine to attend the University of Oregon. McClure turned away those universities that began recruiting him late. McClure maintained that he did not sway Prefontaine's collegiate choice, except to ask Steve where all the distance runners went to college.
Prefontaine wanted to stay in-state for college  and attend the University of Oregon. He had not heard much from Bill Bowerman, the head coach for the University of Oregon. Prefontaine only received letters from Oregon once a month whereas other universities such as Villanova were persistent in recruiting him. As a result, Prefontaine did not know how much Bill Bowerman wanted him to attend Oregon. Bowerman stated that he did not recruit Prefontaine differently from anyone else. It was a matter of principle for him to advise recruits where to attend college, wherever it may be, and to not flood the recruits with correspondence. Bowerman had followed Prefontaine's career since he was a sophomore and agreed with McClure in his assessment of Steve being a good runner.
It wasn't until Prefontaine read a letter from Bill Bowerman that he made up his mind to attend the University of Oregon. Bowerman wrote that he was certain Prefontaine would become the world's greatest distance runner if he decided to run at Oregon. Although it was an odd promise, Prefontaine was up for the challenge. Sometime after Prefontaine announced that he signed a letter of intent to attend the University of Oregon on the first of May in 1969, Bowerman wrote a letter addressed to the community of Coos Bay describing his appreciation for their role in helping Steve become a great runner.
Prefontaine was recruited by several top track programs across the United States, but decided to enroll at the University of Oregon to train under coach Bill Bowerman (who in 1964 co-founded Blue Ribbon Sports, later known as Nike). In 1972 he began his training for the upcoming Olympic Games in Munich, which had special meaning for his family (his mother was German and his parents had met and married in Germany). He won four 5,000 meter titles in track three times in a row. At this time, he suffered only two more defeats in college (both in the mile), winning three Division I NCAA Cross Country Championships and four straight three-mile/5000-meter titles in track. He was a member of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity.
Prefontaine became a very aggressive front runner, insisting on going out hard and not relinquishing leads, reminiscent of the 1956 Olympic gold medalist Vladimir Kuts, another famous front runner at 5,000 meters. Prefontaine was quoted as saying, "No one will ever win a 5,000 meter by running an easy two miles. Not against me." He would later state, "I am going to work so that it's a pure guts race. In the end, if it is, I'm the only one that can win it". Along with his reputation for leading early instead of holding back until the last lap, Prefontaine had tremendous leg speed; his career best for the mile (3:54.6) was only 3.5 seconds off the world record at the time.
A local celebrity, chants of "Pre! Pre! Pre!" became a frequent feature at Hayward Field, a place famous for track and field in the USA. Fans liked to wear T-shirts that read "LEGEND" or "GO PRE", though there was one instance where a group of fans jokingly put on shirts that read "STOP PRE". Prefontaine found humor in the shirts and when offered, decided to wear one for his victory lap. Prefontaine gained national attention and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 19 in June 1970. He was on the cover of Track and Field News's November 1969 issue.
Prefontaine set the American record in the 5000 meters at the 1972 Olympic Trials in Eugene on July 9. An underdog at the 1972 Olympics in Munich in September, Prefontaine took the lead in the 5,000 m final during the last mile and ended the slow pace of the first two miles, negative splitting the race. In second place at the start of the bell lap, he fell back to third with 200 meters to go. Lasse Virén took the lead in the final turn over silver medalist Mohammed Gammoudi. Prefontaine ran out of gas with 30 meters to go as Britain's hard-charging Ian Stewart caught him from behind and moved into third place within ten meters of the finish, depriving Prefontaine of an Olympic bronze medal.
In his four years at Oregon, Prefontaine never lost a collegiate (NCAA) race at 3 miles, 5,000 meters, 6 miles, or 10,000 meters. Returning for his senior year, he ended his collegiate career with only three defeats in Eugene, all in the mile. It was during this year that Prefontaine began a protracted fight with the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), which demanded that athletes who wanted to remain "amateur" for the Olympics not be paid for appearances in track meets. Some viewed this arrangement as unfair, because the participants drew large crowds that generated millions of dollars in revenue, with the athletes being forced to shoulder the burden of all their own expenses without assistance. At the time, the AAU was rescinding athletes' amateur status if they were endorsed in any way. Because Prefontaine was accepting free clothes and footwear from Nike, he was subject to the AAU's ruling.
Following his collegiate career at Oregon, Prefontaine prepared for the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. While running for the Oregon Track Club, Pre set American records in every race from 2,000 to 10,000 meters. In 1974, Prefontaine was invited to give a presentation at a banquet. It was held in Eugene, Oregon, the night prior to the Junior College Cross Country Championships. Prefontaine talked about the importance of cross country through his own eyes. After his death, the notes Prefontaine made were given to his family.
In the spring of 1975, a group of traveling Finnish athletes (without Lasse Virén) took part in an NCAA Prep meet at Hayward Field in Eugene. After the event on Thursday, May 29, which included a 5,000-meter race that Prefontaine won, the Finnish and American athletes attended a party. While returning from the party shortly after midnight, Prefontaine was driving on Skyline Boulevard, east of the University of Oregon campus near Hendricks Park. His orange 1973 MGB convertible swerved into a rock wall ( ) and flipped, trapping Prefontaine underneath it. A nearby resident was first on the scene and reported he found Prefontaine flat on his back, still alive but pinned beneath the wreck. By the time medics arrived, he was pronounced dead. It had been reported that his blood alcohol content was found by the Eugene Police Department to be 0.16.
The Eugene Register-Guard called his death "the end of an era." By the time of his death, Prefontaine was probably the most popular athlete in Oregon, who, along with Jim Ryun, Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers, was credited with sparking the running boom of the 1970s. An annual track event, the Prefontaine Classic, has been held in his memory since 1975. Known as the "Hayward Field Restoration Meet" in its first two years, it was rebranded as the "Bowerman Classic" for 1975 and set for June 7. Two days after Prefontaine's death, it was renamed by the Oregon Track Club on June 1, with Bill Bowerman's approval, and the first "Pre Classic" was held six days later.
During his career, Prefontaine won 120 of the 153 races he ran (.784), and never lost a collegiate (NCAA) track race longer than one mile at the University of Oregon.
Pre's Rock is a memorial at the site of the roadside boulder where Prefontaine died. The memorial features a plaque with a picture of Prefontaine that reads:
For your dedication and loyalty
To your principles and beliefs...
For your love, warmth, and friendship
For your family and friends...
You are missed by so many
And you will never be forgotten...
Runners inspired by Prefontaine leave behind memorabilia to honor his memory and his continued influence, such as race numbers, medals, and running shoes. Paying such homage to Prefontaine has become a tradition that reaches a height during important or noteworthy running events in Eugene (e.g. the Olympic Trials or the Prefontaine Classic).
Pre's Rock was dedicated 20 years ago in December 1997 and is maintained by Eugene Parks and Recreation as Prefontaine Memorial Park. The rock ( ) is a mile (1.6 km) due east of Hayward Field, just across the Willamette River from the east end of Pre's Trail.
The Prefontaine Memorial, featuring a relief of his face, records, and date of birth, is located at the Coos Bay Visitor Center in Coos Bay. In 2008, ten memorial plaques were laid along the Prefontaine Memorial Race route, the former training grounds of Prefontaine. The plaques bear an image of Prefontaine from his high school yearbook and various quotes and records from his time in Coos Bay. The plaques were part of a grant from the Oregon Tourism Commission, the Coos Bay-North Bend Visitor & Convention Bureau, and the Prefontaine Memorial Committee.
Each year on the third Saturday of September in Coos Bay, over 1000 runners engage in the Prefontaine Memorial Run, a 10k run honoring his accomplishments.
The Coos Art Museum in Coos Bay contains a section dedicated to Prefontaine. This section includes medals he won during his career and the pair of spikes he wore when setting an American record for the 5,000 meters at Hayward Field.
Prefontaine was inducted into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame in 1983, where several exhibits showcase his shoes, shirts, and other memorabilia. He was also inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in upper Manhattan where one of his Oregon track uniforms is on display.
Nike used video footage in a commercial titled "Pre Lives" advertising his spirit for their product. On the 30th anniversary of his death, Nike placed a memorial in Sports Illustrated, and aired a television commercial in his honor. Nike's headquarters have a building named after him.
Steve Prefontaine's life story has been detailed in two dramatic films: 1997's Prefontaine (starring Jared Leto as Prefontaine) and 1998's Without Limits (starring Billy Crudup as Prefontaine), as well as the documentary film Fire on the Track.
At the time of his death in May 1975, Prefontaine held every American outdoor track record between 2,000 and 10,000 meters. His personal best times over each distance, including those records, are below.
|1,500 m||3:38.1||June 28, 1973||Helsinki||11th-place finish|
|Mile||3:54.6||June 20, 1973||Eugene||runner-up to Dave Wottle|
|2,000 m||5:01.4||May 9, 1975||Coos Bay||American record|
|3,000 m||7:42.6||July 2, 1974||Milan||American record, broken by Rudy Chapa, May 10, 1979|
|Two miles||8:18.3||July 18, 1974||Stockholm||American record, broken by Marty Liquori, July 17, 1976|
|Three miles||12:51.4||June 8, 1974||Eugene||American record|
|5,000 m||13:21.9||June 26, 1974||Helsinki||American record, broken by Duncan Macdonald, August 10, 1976|
|Six miles||26:51.4||April 27, 1974||Eugene||American record, set in the first six miles of his 10,000 m record run (below)|
|10,000 m||27:43.6||April 27, 1974||Eugene||American record, broken by Craig Virgin, June 17, 1979|
|1968||Corvallis Invitational||Corvallis, Oregon||1st||2 mile||9:01.3||Oregon high school record|
|1969||Corvallis Invitational||Corvallis, Oregon||1st||2 mile||8:41.5||US high school record|
|Coos County Meet||Coos Bay, Oregon||1st||Mile||4:06.9||Oregon high school record|
|US-USSR-Commonwealth Meet||Los Angeles, California||5th||5000 m||14:40.0||First international track meet|
|1970||Oregon Twilight Meet||Eugene, Oregon||3rd||Mile||3:57.4||First sub-4 min. mile|
|1971||Oregon vs. UCLA||Westwood, Los Angeles, California||1st||Mile||3:59.1|
|Oregon Twilight Meet||Eugene, Oregon||2nd||Mile||3:57.4|
|US vs. USSR All Stars||Berkeley, California||1st||5000 m||13:30.4||American record|
|Pan American Games||Cali, Colombia||1st||5000 m||13:52.53|
|1972||Oregon Indoor Invitational||Portland, Oregon||1st||2 mile||8:26.6||Collegiate record|
|All-Comers Spring Break Meet||Bakersfield, California||1st||6 mile||27:22.4||Collegiate record|
|Oregon Twilight Meet||Eugene, Oregon||1st||Mile||3:56.7|
|Oregon vs. Washington St.||Eugene, Oregon||1st||5000 m||13:29.6||American record|
|Rose Festival||Gresham, Oregon||1st||3000 m||7:45.8||American record|
|US Olympic Trials||Eugene, Oregon||1st||5000 m||13:22.8||American record|
|Bislett Games||Oslo, Norway||2nd||1500 m||3:39.4|
|1st||3000 m||7:44.2||American record|
|Olympic Games||Munich, Germany||4th||5000 m||13:28.4|
|Zauli Memorial||Rome, Italy||2nd||5000 m||13:26.4||Three days after Olympics|
|1973||Sunkist Invitational Indoor Meet||Los Angeles, California||1st||2 mile||8:27.4|
|LA Times Invitational Indoor Games||Inglewood, California||1st||Mile||3:59.2|
|Oregon Twilight II Meet||Eugene, Oregon||1st||2 mile||8:24.6||American indoor record|
|Hayward Field Restoration Meet||Eugene, Oregon||2nd||Mile||3:54.6||personal best|
|World Games||Helsinki, Finland||2nd||5000 m||13:22.4||American record|
|1974||Sunkist Invitational Indoor Meet||Los Angeles, California||1st||2 mile||8:33.0|
|LA Times Invitational Indoor Games||Inglewood, California||2nd||Mile||3:59.5|
|Oregon Twilight Meet||Eugene, Oregon||1st||10,000 m||27:43.6||American record; set American 6 mile record (26:51.4) en route|
|Hayward Field Restoration Meet||Eugene, Oregon||1st||3 mile||12:51.4||American record|
|World Games||Helsinki, Finland||2nd||5000 m||13:21.9||American record|
|International Meet||Milan, Italy||2nd||3000 m||7:42.6||American record|
|July Games||Stockholm, Sweden||3rd||2 mile||8:18.4||American record|
|1975||CYO Invitational Indoor Meet||College Park, Maryland||2nd||Mile||3:58.6|
|Sunkist Invitational Indoor Meet||Los Angeles, California||1st||2 mile||8:27.4|
|Oregon Twilight Meet||Eugene, Oregon||1st||10,000 m||28:09.4|
|Finnish Tour||Coos Bay, Oregon||1st||2000 m||5:01.4||American record|
|California Relays||Modesto, California||1st||2 mile||8:36.4|
|NCAA Prep||Eugene, Oregon||1st||5000 m||13:23.8||Final race and 25th straight win in a distance over a mile|
|1969||AAU Track and Field Championships||Miami, Florida||4th||3 mile||13:43.0[a]|
|1970||AAU Track and Field Championships||Bakersfield, California||5th||3 mile||13:26.0|
|1971||AAU Track and Field Championships||Eugene, Oregon||1st||3 mile||12:58.6[b]|
|1973||AAU Track and Field Championships||Bakersfield, California||1st||3 mile||12:53.4[c]|
While at Oregon Prefontaine won seven NCAA national titles: three in cross country, '70, '71 and '73; and four in track, '70, '71, '72 and '73. He was the first athlete to win four NCAA track titles in the same event.
|1969||NCAA Cross Country Championships||The Bronx, New York||3rd||29:12.0|
|1970||NCAA Cross Country Championships||Williamsburg, Virginia||1st||28.00.2|
|1971||NCAA Cross Country Championships||Knoxville, Tennessee||1st||29:14.0|
|1973||NCAA Cross Country Championships||Spokane, Washington||1st||28:14.8|
|1970||NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships||Des Moines, Iowa||1st||3 mile||13:22.0[a]|
|1971||NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships||Seattle, Washington||1st||3 mile||13:20.1|
|1972||NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships||Eugene, Oregon||1st||5000 m[b]||13:31.4[c]|
|1973||NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships||Baton Rouge, Louisiana||1st||3 mile||13:05.3[d]|
During his junior and senior years at Marshfield High School Prefontaine went undefeated in both cross country and track.
|Representing Marshfield High School|
|1965||Oregon State Cross Country Championships||53rd||NT|
|1966||Oregon State Cross Country Championships||6th||12:36|
|1967||Oregon State Cross Country Championships||1st||12:13.8|
|1968||Oregon State Cross Country Championships||1st||11:30.2|
|Representing Marshfield High School|
|1968||Oregon State Track and Field Championships||Corvallis, Oregon||1st||2 mile||9:02.7|
|1969||Oregon State Track and Field Championships||Corvallis, Oregon||1st||Mile||4:08.4|