Steve Prefontaine: Short Life, Long Legacy

Today would have been the 68th birthday of Oregon running legend Steve Prefontaine.  Sadly, he only lived to the age of 24, as a car accident on May 29, 1975 took his life.  The impact of his life is still felt in Oregon and far beyond.

Steve Prefontaine was born January 25, 1951 in the coastal logging community of Coos Bay, Oregon.  Born to a carpenter and a seamstress, he grew up with two sisters in a house built by his father, who was a world war two veteran. He was always a restless youth, participating in nearly every activity he could find in and away from school.  In junior high, he liked football and basketball best, but his size limited him from having much success in either sport.  One day, he saw the cross country team practicing and deciding to give that sport a shot.

Prefontaine enrolled at Marshfield High School in 1965, and immediately signed up for both cross country and track.  His success was fairly limited at first, but he worked extremely hard to turn himself into one of the best runners in the state.  During his junior and senior year, he never lost a race.  He won every one and two mile race.  At the Corvallis Invitational, he set a national record in the two mile with a time of 8:41.  Prefontaine was recruited heavily by 40 of the top track and field schools in the country, but ultimately chose to attend the University of Oregon.  He wanted to be trained by legendary coach Bill Bowerman, who was also a cofounder of Nike.

(Nike was originally known as “Blue Ribbon Sports” and was ironically founded on this date in 1964, Prefontaine’s 13th birthday)

Steve Prefontaine’s success at the University of Oregon is unparalleled.

* Four Consecutive N.C.A.A. track titles at three miles.

* American records at every distance from 2000 to 10,000 meters

* Never losing a race longer than a mile to anyone at his home track of Hayward Field.

* He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a freshman and a track athlete, both unheard of.

prefontaine-cover
Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated

There was so much more to “Pre” as fans called him than just his records and statistics though.  He had style, attitude, and flair that were unmatched. Fans loved the way he ran, pushing himself as hard as he could from the sound of the gun to the finish line.  He famously said, “If someone is going to beat me, they are going to have to bleed to do it.” His eyes would flash the pain but he believed he had a higher tolerance for it than anyone on the planet.  Hayward began drawing capacity crowds for his meets, with thousands chanting “GO PRE”.   He started jogging clubs around the state, he went to area schools to inspire the youth, and even visited prisons to get involved in their fitness programs.  He was a champion advocate for his teammates, the sport, and all athletes.

On May 30, 1975, Steve Prefontaine was coming home from a dinner with friends and other track athletes down Eugene’s Skyline Road.  Another car was heading up the road.  Pre swerved to the side to avoid the car, causing his car to roll over.

oregonian may 30 1975a-2
Eugene Register Guard

There is a memorial at the site of the crash known as “Pre’s Rock” still visited daily by track fans from around the world.  Former Oregon football coach Chip Kelly would take his team to the rock each year and tell his team, “We are going to play football like Pre ran…..all out, all the time.”

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Pre’s Rock
Photo Credit: Eugene Register Guard

Decades after his death, two major Hollywood motion pictures were released about Prefontaine.  He has a major running trail in Eugene named after him.  Each May there is an invitational track meet known as the Prefontaine Classic held in Eugene which features many of the world’s most elite athletes.  You can be traveling pretty much anywhere and see posters with Prefontaine’s pictures and quotations on them  People young and old can be spotted wearing “Pre” t-shirts.

The spirit of Steve Prefontaine is still very much alive.  He was a major factor in the rise of distance running not just as a sport, but a lifestyle.   In the 1950’s and 60’s, few people went on long runs just for exercise.  If you were seen running down the side of the road, some well intentioned person might just slow down to ask if you were okay, or if you needed help because you were being chased.  There weren’t 5ks for fun or charity, running clubs, or really anything of the sort.  Steve Prefontaine is one of the biggest reasons that running for health and exercise is a part of our national fabric these days.  Sadly, Steve Prefontaine died much too young, but he is still helping others live more.

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