Steven Roland Prefontaine (1951-1975) was the greatest distance runner
in American history. He ran in the Munich Olympics
in 1972, placing fourth despite being only 21 years of age. Sadly, "Pre
", as he was known to his fans
, was killed in a car crash before he reached his athletic prime
Pre was born on January 25, 1951 in Coos Bay, Oregon, the son of Ray and Elfriede Prefontaine. Pre had two sisters, Neta and Linda. Pre showed a highly competitive spirit even in his early life. No matter what it was, academic or athletic, Pre just had to be the best. By his high school years, he was already displaying the ability to be one of America's greatest athletes.
Pre's high school career was amazingly successful. In his junior and senior years, he went undefeated in all of his cross country and track races. Pre attended Marshfield High School, where he was coached by Walter McClure. Under McClure's guidance, he claimed the American record for the two mile race with an astounding 8:41.5.
Pre established his unique running style early. In line with his philosophy, Pre ran as hard as he could for every stride of every race, leaving it all on the track. Though it is considered a very good strategy to follow other runners and draft them, cutting air resistance, Pre always refused to do this. As he has said:"To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift." Pre faced little serious competition in high school, and blew his opponents away every single time. Every race was a new chance for Pre to show how gutsy he was, and how much pain he could endure.
Pre decided to go to the University of Oregon in 1970 for college. Oregon was a tough track school, but Pre was a tough guy. He won a total of seven NCAA championships in his four years at Oregon. He won the three mile event every single year, becoming the first athlete in NCAA history to perform such a feat. He also won three NCAA championships in cross country, one in every year except his junior year of 1972. Pre never lost a race that was more than a mile when he was in high school or college.
It's easy to imagine how Pre's abilities and somewhat brash personality got him a lot of fans. To this day, many runners are still inspired by Pre. The legions of fans that would cheer him on during his races were known as "Pre's People". As well as being the most talented, Pre is by far the most popular distance runner ever born in America.
In 1972, Pre was given the honor of representing his country in the Olympic Games in the 5,000 meter race. Though he was still in college, and only 21 years of age, he competed with the best in the world. Ian Stewart of England passed Pre at the last second and earned the bronze medal. Though Pre went home empty-handed, he gave the world a little taste of his skill and intended to come back four years later to win it all. Pre's coach at Oregon, Bill Bowerman, was the founder of the Nike shoe corporation. Pre became the first athlete sponsored by Nike, signing a contract in 1974 worth $5,000.
Pre held 8 American records at once, one for every distance between 2,000 and 10,000 meters and 2 and 6 miles. The records of his still standing today include the collegiate records for the three mile (12:53.4) and six mile (27:09.4). Here is a list of Prefontaine's personal records, from Oregon's site, http://goducks.fansonly.com/genrel/ore-prefontaine.html:
- 1,500 meters 3:38.1 6/28/73, Helsinki
- Mile 3:54.6 6/20/73, Eugene
- 2,000 meters 5:01.4 5/9/75, Coos Bay
- 3,000 meters 7:42.6 7/2/74, Milan
- 5,000 meters 13:21.87 6/26/74, Helsinki
- 10,000 meters 27:43.6 4/27/74, Eugene
Pre's life ended abruptly on May 30, 1975. At a celebratory party after a race, Prefontaine had a few drinks. His friends believed that he was capable of driving, and he left the party in his 1973 MGB. For some reason which still remains a mystery today, Pre lost control of his car on the roads with which he was so familiar and his MGB flipped, hitting a rock and killing him. The blood alcohol content of his body was not measured as it normally was; making it hard to determine if his drinking caused him to be severely impaired. Regardless of what caused Pre's death, this day would mark the end of an era.
Before his death, Pre had made it clear that he intended to break the world record for 3 miles, and hit 12:36. His memorial service was given on Hayward Field, with hundreds of Pre's People in attendance. During the eulogy, a clock was run to that exact time, marking what Pre had hoped to do.
Three films have been made about Prefontaine's life. Fire on the Track was a documentary, while Prefontaine and Without Limits are more Hollywood-style movies. Each of these films is an inspiration, and they all give an excellent portrayal of the legend. Also in his memory, there is the Prefontaine Memorial Run, held every year. This event is a 10,000 meter race along one of Pre's old training courses, and it ends at the track of Marshfield High.
Pre believed it's a tragedy that a mediocre effort can win a competition, while a [strong|stronger| effort can lose. Steve Prefontaine's memory lives on in the heart of every athlete who believes in giving one's absolute best all of the time. Here a few more quotes from Pre, from http://www.stevepre.com:
- "Some people create with words or with music or with a brush and paints. I like to make something beautiful when I run. I like to make people stop and say, 'I've never seen anyone run like that before.' It's more than just a race, it's a style. It's doing something better than anyone else. It's being creative."
- "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. Nobody is going to win a 5,000 meter race after running an easy 2 miles. Not with me. If I lose forcing the pace all the way, well, at least I can live with myself."
- "To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the Gift."
- "I don't just go out there and run. I like to give people watching something exciting."
- "Something inside of me just said 'Hey, wait a minute, I want to beat him,' and I just took off."
- "What I want is to be number one."
- "Somebody may beat me, but they are going to have to bleed to do it."
- "I'm going to work so that it's a pure guts race at the end, and if it is, I am the only one who can win it."
- "How does a kid from Coos Bay, with one leg longer than the other win races? All my life people have been telling me, 'You're too small Pre', 'You're not fast enough Pre', 'Give up your foolish dream Steve'. But they forgot something, I HAVE TO WIN."
- "A race is a work of art that people can look at and be affected in as many ways they’re capable of understanding."
- "You have to wonder at times what you're doing out there. Over the years, I've given myself a thousand reasons to keep running, but it always comes back to where it started. It comes down to self-satisfaction and a sense of achievement."