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
DiedMay 30, 1975(1975-05-30) (aged 24)
Eugene, Oregon
Country United States
SportTrack, Long-distance running
Event(s)1500 meters, Mile, 2-mile, 5000 meters, 10,000 meters
College teamOregon
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]
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Not to be confused with Stéphane Préfontaine.
Steve Prefontaine
StevePrefontaine 1969.jpg
Prefontaine in 1969
Personal information
Born(1951-01-25)January 25, 1951
Coos Bay, Oregon
DiedMay 30, 1975(1975-05-30) (aged 24)
Eugene, Oregon
Country United States
SportTrack, Long-distance running
Event(s)1500 meters, Mile, 2-mile, 5000 meters, 10,000 meters
College teamOregon
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 29, a group of traveling Finnish athletes took part in an NCAA Prep meet in Eugene, Oregon (without Lasse Virén). After the event, which included a track race that Prefontaine won, the Finnish and American athletes attended a party. In the early morning hours of May 30, 1975, while returning from the 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.

Outdoor track1500 m3:38.1June 28, 1973Helsinki
Mile3:54.6June 20, 1973Eugene
2000 m5:01.4May 9, 1975Coos BayAmerican record[22]
3000 m7:42.6July 2, 1974MilanAmerican record, broken by Rudy Chapa, May 10, 1979[23][22]
Two miles8:18.29July 18, 1974StockholmAmerican record, broken by Marty Liquori, July 17, 1976[23][22]
Three miles12:51.4June 8, 1974EugeneAmerican record[22]
5000 m13:21.87June 26, 1974HelsinkiAmerican record, broken by Duncan Macdonald, August 10, 1976[23][22]
Six miles26:51.4April 27, 1974EugeneAmerican record, set in the first six miles of his 10,000 m record run (below)[24][22]
10,000 m27:43.6April 27, 1974EugeneAmerican record, broken by Craig Virgin, June 17, 1979[23][22]

Competition record[edit]

Notable performances[edit]

1968Corvallis InvitationalCorvallis, Oregon1st2 Mile9:01.3Oregon State high school record
1969Corvallis InvitationalCorvallis, Oregon1st2 Mile8:41.5US National high school record
1970Oregon Twilight MeetEugene, Oregon3rdMile3:57.4
1971Oregon vs. UCLAWestwood, California1stMile3:59.1
Oregon Twilight MeetEugene, Oregon2ndMile3:57.4
US vs. USSR All StarsBerkeley, California1st5000 m13:30.4American record
Pan American GamesCali, Colombia1st5000 m13:52.53
1972Oregon Twilight MeetEugene, Oregon1stMile3:56.7
Oregon vs. Washington St.Eugene, Oregon1st5000 m13:29.6American record
US Olympic TrialsEugene, Oregon1st5000 m13:22.8[25]American record
Bislett GamesOslo, Norway2nd1500 m3:39.4
1st3000 m7:44.2American record
Olympic GamesMunich, Germany4th5000 m13:28.4
Zauli MemorialRome, Italy2nd5000 m13:26.4Three days after olympics
1973Sunkist Invitational Indoor MeetLos Angeles, California1st2 Mile8:27.4
Oregon Twilight II MeetEugene, Oregon1st2 Mile8:24.6American indoor record
Hayward Field Restoration MeetEugene, Oregon2ndMile3:54.6
World GamesHelsinki, Finland2nd5000 m13:22.4American record
1974Sunkist Invitational Indoor MeetLos Angeles, California1st2 Mile8:33.0
Oregon Twilight MeetEugene, Oregon1st10,000 m27:43.6American record; set American 6 miles record (26:51.4) en route
Hayward Field Restoration MeetEugene, Oregon1st3 Mile12:51.4American record
World GamesHelsinki, Finland2nd5000 m13:31.9American record
International MeetMilan, Italy2nd3000 m7:42.6American record
July GamesStockholm, Sweden3rd2 Miles8:18.4American record
1975Sunkist Invitational Indoor MeetLos Angeles, California1st2 Mile8:27.4
Oregon Twilight MeetEugene, Oregon1st10,000 m28:09.4
Finnish TourCoos Bay, Oregon1st2000 m5:01.4American record
California RelaysModesto, California1st2 Mile8:36.4
NCAA PrepEugene, Oregon1st5000 m13:23.8Final race and 25th straight win in a distance over a mile

US National championships[edit]

1969AAU Track and Field ChampionshipsMiami, Florida4th3 Mile13:43.0[a][26]
1970AAU Track and Field ChampionshipsBakersfield, California5th3 Mile13:26.0[26]
1971AAU Track and Field ChampionshipsEugene, Oregon1st3 Mile12:58.6[b][26]
1973AAU Track and Field ChampionshipsBakersfield, California1st3 Mile12:53.4[c][26]
a Third fastest 3-mile time ever ran by an American high schooler; Prefontaine's first non-high school track meet
b US National championships meet record; fifth fasted 3-mile time ever ran and the second fastest by an American; Prefontaine's first sub-13 minute 3-mile[26]
c Broke his own 1971 US National championships meet record; second fasted 3-mile time ever ran by an American[26]

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]

Representing Oregon
1969NCAA Cross Country ChampionshipsThe Bronx, New York3rd29:12.0[27]
1970NCAA Cross Country ChampionshipsWilliamsburg, Virginia1st28.00.2[28]
1971NCAA Cross Country ChampionshipsKnoxville, Tennessee1st29:14.0[29]
1973NCAA Cross Country ChampionshipsSpokane, Washington1st28:14.8[30]

Track and field[edit]

Representing Oregon
1970NCAA Outdoor Track and Field ChampionshipsDes Moines, Iowa1st3 Mile13:22.0[a][31]
1971NCAA Outdoor Track and Field ChampionshipsSeattle, Washington1st3 Mile13:20.1[32]
1972NCAA Outdoor Track and Field ChampionshipsEugene, Oregon1st5000 m[b]13:31.4[33]
1973NCAA Outdoor Track and Field ChampionshipsBaton Rouge, Louisiana1st3 Mile13:05.3[c][34]
a NCAA meet record
b A 5000 m race was held this year rather than a 3 mile race
c Broke his own NCAA meet record and set a stadium record[34]

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]

Representing Marshfield High School
1965Oregon State Cross Country Championships53rdNT[35]
1966Oregon State Cross Country Championships6th12:36[36]
1967Oregon State Cross Country Championships1st12:13.8[37]
1968Oregon State Cross Country Championships1st11:30.2[38]

Track and field[edit]

Representing Marshfield High School
1968Oregon State Track and Field ChampionshipsCorvallis, Oregon1st2 Mile9:02.7[39]
1969Oregon State Track and Field ChampionshipsCorvallis, Oregon1stMile4:08.4[40]
1st2 Mile9:03.0[40]


  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
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  26. ^ a b c d e f
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  34. ^ a b
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  40. ^ a b

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