Steve Prefontaine

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Steve Prefontaine
StevePrefontaine 1969.jpg
Prefontaine in 1969
Personal information
Born (1951-01-25)January 25, 1951
Coos Bay, Oregon
Died May 30, 1975(1975-05-30) (aged 24)
Eugene, Oregon
Country  United States
Sport Track, Long-distance running
Event(s) 1500 meters, Mile, 2-mile, 5000 meters, 10,000 meters
College team Oregon
Achievements and titles
Personal best(s) 1500 meters: 3:38.1[1]
Mile: 3:54.6[1]
3000 meters: 7:42.6[1]
2-mile: 8:18.29[1]
5000 meters: 13:21.87[1]
10,000 meters: 27:43.6[1]

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.[2] Prefontaine died in May 1975 at the age of 24 in an auto accident.

Prefontaine, 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.

Early life[edit]

Steve Prefontaine was born on January 25, 1951, in the coastal logging town of Coos Bay, Oregon.[3] 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 had met Elfriede in Germany while serving with the U.S. Army occupation forces.[4] He had two sisters, Neta and Linda, and they all grew up in a house built by their father.[5]

Prefontaine was a rambunctious person, even during his formative years. He was always moving around, partaking in different activities.[5] In junior high, Prefontaine was on his school’s football and basketball teams, but was rarely allowed to play because of his short stature.[5][6][7] 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.[5] 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.[7]

High school (1965–1969)[edit]

When he began high school at Marshfield High School in 1965, Prefontaine joined the cross country team, coached by Walt McClure, Jr.[8] McClure ran under coach Bill Bowerman at the University of Oregon and his father, Walt McClure, Sr. ran under Bill Hayward, also at Oregon.[6]

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.[8] 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.[8]

With the advice of Walt McClure, Prefontaine’s high school coach, he took it upon himself to train hard over the summer.[8] He went through his junior cross country season undefeated and won the state title.[8][9]

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.[6][9] He won two more State titles that year after another undefeated season in both the one and two mile distances.[6]

Prefontaine was recruited by 40 colleges across the nation, [7][10] 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.[7][11] McClure maintained that he did not sway Prefontaine's collegiate choice, except to ask Steve where all the distance runners went to college.[6]

Prefontaine wanted to stay in-state for college [11] and attend the University of Oregon.[7] Sadly, 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.[7][11] Bowerman stated that he did not recruit Prefontaine differently than how he recruited 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.[7] Bowerman had followed Prefontaine's career since he was a sophomore and agreed with McClure in his assessment of Steve being a good runner.[11]

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.[7][11] Sometime after Prefontaine announced that he signed a letter of intent to attend the University of Oregon on the first of May in 1969,[10] Bowerman wrote a letter addressed to the community of Coos Bay describing his appreciation for their role in helping Steve become a great runner. [11]

College (1970–1973)[edit]

Prefontaine at Oregon.

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 founded Blue Ribbon Sports, later known as Nike). In 1972 he began his training for the upcoming Olympic Games in Munich. He was defeated only twice for the rest of his college career, both times in the mile. He also 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 runner, insisting on going out hard and not relinquishing leads. He 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". A local celebrity, chants of "Pre! Pre! Pre!" became a frequent feature at Hayward Field, a mecca for track and field in the USA. Fans wore t-shirts that read "LEGEND", while those who supported other teams wore shirts with the phrase "STOP PRE" printed on a stop sign. Prefontaine gained national attention and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 19.[7]

Prefontaine set the American record in the 5000 meters race, the event that took him to the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich. In the finals, Prefontaine took the lead in the last mile and ended the slow pace of the first two miles. 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 medal.

Returning for his senior year at the University of Oregon, Prefontaine 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.

After college (1974–1975)[edit]

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 2000 to 10,000 meters.[9] 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.[12]


On May 30, 1975, returning from a party, Prefontaine was driving on Skyline Boulevard, east of the University of Oregon campus near Hendricks Park when his orange 1973 MGB convertible swerved into a rock wall and flipped, trapping Prefontaine underneath it.[13] 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 0.16 by the Eugene Police Department;[13] however the accuracy of reported value is disputed by some other testing procedures.[14]

Prefontaine is buried at Sunset Memorial Park in his hometown, Coos Bay.


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.[15][16] An annual track event, the Pre Classic, has been held in his honor since 1975.

Throughout his career, he won 120 of the 153 races he ran (78 percent), and never lost a collegiate (NCAA) race at the University of Oregon.


Pre's rock[edit]

Pre's Rock

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...

Pre's Rock During the 2012 Olympic Trials

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 in December 1997 and is maintained by Eugene Parks and Recreation as Prefontaine Memorial Park.[17] The rock is just across the Willamette River from the east end of Pre's Trail.

Other memorials[edit]

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.[18]

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.

In 1983, Prefontaine was inducted into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame, where several exhibits showcase his shoes, shirts, and other memorabilia. Steve Prefontaine is an inductee of The National Track and Field Hall of Fame in upper Manhattan[19] where one of his Oregon University track uniforms is on display.

The Pete Susick Stadium at Marshfield High School dedicated their track to honor Prefontaine, in April 2001.[20]

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.[21]

Portrayals in mass media[edit]

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.

Personal bests[edit]

At the time of his death, Prefontaine held every American record between 2,000 and 10,000 meters.

Surface Event Time Date Location Notes
Outdoor track 1500 m 3:38.1 June 28, 1973 Helsinki
Mile 3:54.6 June 20, 1973 Eugene
2000 m 5:01.4 May 9, 1975 Coos Bay American record[22]
3000 m 7:42.6 July 2, 1974 Milan American record, broken by Rudy Chapa, May 10, 1979[23][22]
Two miles 8:18.29 July 18, 1974 Stockholm American record, broken by Marty Liquori, July 17, 1976[23][22]
Three miles 12:51.4 June 8, 1974 Eugene American record[22]
5000 m 13:21.87 June 26, 1974 Helsinki American record, broken by Duncan Macdonald, August 10, 1976[23][22]
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)[24][22]
10,000 m 27:43.6 April 27, 1974 Eugene American record, broken by Craig Virgin, June 17, 1979[23][22]


  1. ^ a b c d e f All-Athletics. "Profile of Steve Prefontaine". 
  2. ^ "Steve Prefontaine". National Distance Running Hall of Fame. Retrieved February 19, 2007. 
  3. ^ "Tie-dyed Eugene unlikely home for football power". ESPN. January 8, 2011. Retrieved February 24, 2011. 
  4. ^ Jordan, Tom (1997). Pre: The Story of America's Greatest Running Legend, Steve Prefontaine. United States of America: Rodale. p. 168. ISBN 0-87596-457-5. 
  5. ^ a b c d Jordan (1997), pp.5–6
  6. ^ a b c d e Musca, Michael (April 2002). "In the Beginning". Running Times Magazine. Retrieved February 22, 2011. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i Putnam, Pat (June 15, 1970). "The Freshman And The Great Guru". Sports Illustrated 32 (24). Retrieved February 25, 2011. 
  8. ^ a b c d e Jordan (1997), pp.7–9
  9. ^ a b c "Steve Prefontaine Bio & Pix". University of Oregon, Official Athletic Site. Retrieved February 19, 2007. 
  10. ^ a b "Prefontaine signs letter". The Bulletin. May 2, 1969. Retrieved March 1, 2011. 
  11. ^ a b c d e f Jordan (1997), p.11
  12. ^ "Prefontaine Speech Notes From 1974". Retrieved 2013-11-15. 
  13. ^ a b "Newspaper Article". The Milwaukee Journal. Retrieved May 2, 2012. 
  14. ^ Scott, Gerald (6 May 1985). "THE LEGEND LIVES ON : Even though Steve Prefontaine died almost 10 years ago, the memory of his life and controversy surrounding his death are as alive as ever". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 12 January 2013. 
  15. ^
  16. ^ "Steve Prefontaine (USA)". Retrieved 2013-11-15. 
  17. ^ "Prefontaine Memorial Park". City of Eugene. Retrieved March 18, 2008. 
  18. ^ Prefontaine Run
  19. ^ "Steve Prefontaine". USATF. Retrieved March 25, 2011. 
  20. ^ The Steve Prefontaine Track
  21. ^ "Company Overview". Nikebiz Company Overview. Retrieved March 7, 2011. 
  22. ^ a b c d e f g "Steve Prefontaine Bio & Pix - - The University of Oregon Official Athletics Web Site". Retrieved 2013-11-15. 
  23. ^ a b c d
  24. ^

Cited texts[edit]

External links[edit]