"Pre" Steve Prefontaine - Legend of Running
A runner's life
Many runners will recognize this name: Steve Prefontaine. He set 15 records in America at distances ranging from 2000 meters to 10,000 meters. Nicknamed "Pre", he became known worldwide and became a running legend. This exceptional talent was born on January 25, 1951 in Coos Bay, Oregon, where he also discovered his talent for running. His discipline, ambition and determination in every race distinguished him. Ray Prefontaine, Steve's father, met Steve's mother, Elfriede, in Germany during World War II. Together they settled in Coos Bay. Steve was too small for the football team and also basketball, so he took up running his freshman year in high school.
"After so many years in running, running became a part of my life."
Back then, no one ran just for fun. In Oregon, it was normal to see Steve running on the streets, but in other parts of the country, people would have found it strange. Some skeptics asked "What are you running from?" Trained by Bill Bowerman, he was soon considered a college phenomenon. He then got national attention when he broke the high school record in the 2-mile run in 1969. In the late 1960s, running also grew in popularity as a recreational sport and became the second most popular sport worldwide.
"He was probably the best runner America ever had, his day just hadn't come yet. That's the sad part."
In addition to his athletic success, he was one of the most outspoken critics of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), an American organization for amateur sports. At the time, athletes had to ask for permission if they wanted to compete in events not hosted by the AAU. This rule denied athletes the opportunity to earn money through sponsorship and participation in competitions. Neither Oregon nor the sport of running had ever seen such a courageous person as Prefontaine, who was so unabashed in criticizing the sport's governing body to boot. Hoping to make at least some money and advance his sport, Steve became one of the first employees of the small company Blue Ribbon Sports, which was renamed Nike in 1971.
In 1972, he competed in the Munich Olympics. After a spectacular run in which he doggedly fought his way to the front of the field time and time again, he missed out on the bronze medal by less than a second. This defeat broke his heart, but it only made him even more of a legend, as he was the youngest competitor in the field at the age of 21. When he returned to high school after the Olympics, he had to learn a lesson he hadn't known before: "The real challenge is in losing and how you get back up afterward."
With the goal of winning at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, he kept training and setting more records. On the night of May 30, 1975, Steve Prefontaine died in a tragic car accident at the age of 24. Some questions about the circumstances of his death remain unanswered to this day. His death caused deep consternation, as he was and still is a role model for many running athletes. A 10,000-meter race is held in his honor each year in Coos Bay.
photo credit: Steve Prefontaine quote poster via photopin (license)
Steve Prefontaine at his last race, May 29, 1975, Hayward Field, Eugene, Oregon. Photo by Brian Lanker via photopin (license).