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, U.S.
DiedMay 30, 1975(1975-05-30) (aged 24)
Eugene, Oregon, U.S.
Height5 ft 9 in (1.75 m)
Weight152 lb (69 kg)
SportTrack, Long-distance running
Event(s)1500 meters, Mile, 2-mile, 5000 meters, 10,000 meters
College teamOregon Ducks track and field
Achievements and titles
Personal best(s)1500m: 3:38.1[1]
Mile: 3:54.6[1]
3000m: 7:42.6[1]
2-mile: 8:18.29[1]
5000m: 13:21.87[1]
10,000m: 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.[2] While running for the Oregon Track Club, Prefontaine set American records at every distance from 2,000 to 10,000 meters,[3][4] as he prepared for the 1976 Olympics. Prefontaine's career, alongside those of Jim Ryun, Frank Shorter, and Bill Rodgers, generated considerable media coverage, which helped inspire the 1970s "running boom."[5][6] Prefontaine's celebrity and charisma resulted in two 1990s feature films about his life. He died at age 24 in an automobile accident near his residence in Eugene, Oregon. One of the premier track meets in the world, the Prefontaine Classic, is held annually in Eugene in his honor.

Early life[edit]

Prefontaine was born on January 25, 1951, in Coos Bay, Oregon.[7] His father, Raymond Prefontaine, was 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. occupation forces.[8] The middle child and only son, he had two sisters, Neta and Linda,[2] and they all grew up in a house built by their father.[9]

Prefontaine was an exuberant person, even during his formative years. He was always moving around, partaking in different activities.[9] In junior high, Prefontaine was on his school’s football and basketball teams, but was rarely allowed to play because of his short stature.[9][10][11] 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.[9] 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 and had fun with cross country.[11]

High school (1965–69)[edit]

When he got into the school Marshfield High School in the fall of 1965, Prefontaine joined the cross country team, coached by Walt McClure, Jr.[12] McClure had run under coach Bill Bowerman at the University of Oregon in Eugene and his father, Walt McClure, Sr. had run under Bill Hayward, also at Oregon.[10]

Prefontaine's freshman and sophomore years were decent, and he managed a personal best of 5:01 in the mile 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.[12] 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.[12]

With the advice of Walt McClure, Prefontaine’s high school coach, he took it upon himself to train hard over the summer.[12] He went through his junior cross country season undefeated and won the state title.[12][13]

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.[10][13] He won two more state titles that year after another undefeated season in both the one and two mile distances.[10][14]

Some forty colleges across the nation recruited Prefontaine,[11][15] and he received numerous phone calls, letters, and drop-in visits from coaches. He referred many of his calls to McClure, who wanted Prefontaine to attend the University of Oregon. McClure turned away those universities that began trying to recruit him late.[11][16] McClure maintained that he did not sway Prefontaine's collegiate choice, except to ask Steve where all the distance runners went to college.[10]

Prefontaine wanted to stay in-state for college[16] and attend the University of Oregon.[11] 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.[11][16] 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.[11] He had followed Prefontaine's career since he was a sophomore and agreed with McClure in his assessment of Steve being a good runner.[16]

It wasn't until Prefontaine read a letter from 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.[11][16] Sometime after Prefontaine announced that he signed a letter of intent to attend Oregon on the first of May in 1969,[15][17] Bowerman wrote a letter addressed to the community of Coos Bay describing his appreciation for their role in helping Steve become a great runner.[16]

University of Oregon (1970–73)[edit]

Prefontaine at Oregon

He 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). 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 where famous runners ran. 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.[11] He was on the cover of Track and Field News's November 1969 issue.[18]

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). Prefontaine set the American record of 13:22.8[19] in the 5000 meters at the 1972 Olympic Trials in Eugene on July 9.[20] An underdog at the 1972 Olympics in Munich in September,[21] 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.[22][23]

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,[24] 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.

After college (1974–75)[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 2,000 to 10,000 meters.[13] In 1974, Prefontaine was invited to give a presentation at a banquet. It was held in Eugene 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.[25]


In 1975, a group of traveling Finnish athletes 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 at the home of former Duck runner Geoff Hollister.[4][3] Shortly after midnight,[26] Prefontaine left the party to drive Frank Shorter to Kenny Moore's home on Prospect Drive, then descended narrow Skyline Boulevard alone, east of the university campus near Hendricks Park.[3][4] While in the extended right curve near the base, his orange 1973 MGB convertible crossed the center line, jumped the curb, impacted a rock wall (44°02′36″N 123°03′18″W / 44.0433°N 123.0549°W / 44.0433; -123.0549) and flipped, trapping him underneath it.[3][27] 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.[4][27][28] The official cause of death was traumatic asphyxiation and he had no other injuries that contributed.[29]

Prefontaine is buried in his hometown of Coos Bay at Sunset Memorial Park.[30] A day after his funeral in Coos Bay, a memorial service at Hayward Field in Eugene drew thousands.[31]


Eugene's Register-Guard called his death "the end of an era."[3] At his death, Prefontaine was probably the most popular athlete in Oregon and, along with Jim Ryun, Frank Shorter, Jeff Galloway and Bill Rodgers, was credited with sparking the national running boom of the 1970s.[32][33] 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.[34] 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.[31][35]

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[edit]

Pre's Rock in 2007

Pre's Rock is a memorial at the base of the roadside boulder where Prefontaine died.[36] An engraved stone memorial with a picture of Prefontaine, it 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 in June 2012, during the U.S. 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 22 years ago in December 1997 and is maintained by Eugene Parks and Recreation as Prefontaine Memorial Park.[37] The rock (44°02′36″N 123°03′18″W / 44.0433°N 123.0549°W / 44.0433; -123.0549) is a mile (1.6 km) due east of Hayward Field, just across the Willamette River from the east end of Pre's Trail. On Skyline Boulevard, it is approximately 150 feet (45 m) from its intersection with Birch Lane.[3]

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 a thousand runners engage in the Prefontaine Memorial Run, a 10k run honoring his accomplishments.[38]

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[39] where one of his Oregon track uniforms is on display.

The Pete Susick Stadium at Marshfield High School in Coos Bay dedicated their track to honor Prefontaine, in April 2001.[40]

Nike used video footage in a commercial titled "Pre Lives" advertising his spirit for their product. On the 30th anniversary of his death in 2005, Nike placed a memorial advertisement in Sports Illustrated,[41] Eugene's Register-Guard,[42] and aired a television commercial in his honor. Nike's headquarters have a building named after him.[43]

The day after Prefontaine's death, the Register-Guard printed Ode to S. Roland, a poem by chief American rival Dick Buerkle.[44]

In popular culture[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.

"Prefontaine" is the fifth track off Madchild's 2013 album "Lawn Mower Man".[45][circular reference]

“Prefontaine” is also the title of Hip hop duo Versatile’s song.

Personal bests[edit]

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.[13]

Surface Event Time Date Location Notes
1,500 m 3:38.1 June 28, 1973 Helsinki 11th-place finish[46]
Mile 3:54.6 June 20, 1973 Eugene runner-up to Dave Wottle[47]
2,000 m 5:01.4 May 9, 1975 Coos Bay American record[48][49]
3,000 m 7:42.6 July 2, 1974 Milan American record, broken by Rudy Chapa, May 10, 1979[49][50]
Two miles 8:18.3 July 18, 1974 Stockholm American record, broken by Marty Liquori, July 17, 1975[49][50][51]
Three miles 12:51.4 June 8, 1974 Eugene American record[49]
5,000 m 13:21.9   June 26, 1974 Helsinki American record, broken by Duncan Macdonald, August 10, 1976[49][50]
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)[49][52]
10,000 m  27:43.6 April 27, 1974 Eugene American record, broken by Craig Virgin, June 17, 1979[49][50]
  • Conversions: 1 mile (1,609.3 m), 2 miles (3,218.7 m), 3 miles (4,828 m), 6 miles (9,656 m)

Competition record[edit]

Notable performances[edit]

Year Competition Venue Position Event Time Notes
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[53] 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[47]
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[48]
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

US National Championships[edit]

Year Competition Venue Position Event Notes
1969 AAU Track and Field Championships Miami, Florida 4th 3 mile 13:43.0[a][54]
1970 AAU Track and Field Championships Bakersfield, California 5th 3 mile 13:26.0[54]
1971 AAU Track and Field Championships Eugene, Oregon 1st 3 mile 12:58.6[b][54]
1973 AAU Track and Field Championships Bakersfield, California 1st 3 mile 12:53.4[c][54]
a Third fastest 3-mile time ever run by an American high schooler; Prefontaine's first non-high school track meet
b US National championships meet record; fifth fastest 3-mile time ever run and the second fastest by an American; Prefontaine's first sub-13 minute 3-mile[54]
c Broke his own 1971 US National championships meet record; second fastest 3-mile time ever run by an American[54]

NCAA championships[edit]

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.

Cross country[edit]

Year Competition Venue Position Notes
Representing Oregon
1969 NCAA Cross Country Championships The Bronx, New York 3rd 29:12.0[55]
1970 NCAA Cross Country Championships Williamsburg, Virginia 1st 28.00.2[56]
1971 NCAA Cross Country Championships Knoxville, Tennessee 1st 29:14.0[57]
1973 NCAA Cross Country Championships Spokane, Washington 1st 28:14.8[58]
  • Prefontaine redshirted the Fall of 1972 after the Olympics which made him eligible to run cross country in the fall of 1973.

Track and field[edit]

Year Competition Venue Position Event Notes
Representing Oregon
1970 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships Des Moines, Iowa 1st 3 mile 13:22.0[a][59]
1971 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships Seattle, Washington 1st 3 mile 13:20.1[60]
1972 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships Eugene, Oregon 1st 5000 m[b] 13:31.4[c][61]
1973 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships Baton Rouge, Louisiana 1st 3 mile 13:05.3[d][62]
a NCAA meet record
b A 5000 m race was held this year rather than a 3 mile race
c NCAA meet record for 5000 m; broke Gerry Lindgren's 1968 record of 13:57.2
d Broke his own NCAA meet record and set a stadium record[62]

Oregon State high school championships[edit]

During his junior and senior years at Marshfield High School Prefontaine went undefeated in both cross country and track.

Cross country[edit]

Year Competition Venue Position Notes
Representing Marshfield High School
1965 Oregon State Cross Country Championships 53rd NT[63]
1966 Oregon State Cross Country Championships 6th 12:36[64]
1967 Oregon State Cross Country Championships 1st 12:13.8[65]
1968 Oregon State Cross Country Championships 1st 11:30.2[66]

Track and field[edit]

Year Competition Venue Position Event Notes
Representing Marshfield High School
1968 Oregon State Track and Field Championships Corvallis, Oregon 1st 2 mile 9:02.7[67]
1969 Oregon State Track and Field Championships Corvallis, Oregon 1st Mile 4:08.4[68]
1st 2 mile 9:03.0[68]


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External links[edit]