“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”
Yes, it’s hard to imagine that 30 years have passed since his ’73 MGB sports car crossed the center line, hurdled a curb, and hit the rock wall–crushing him and snuffing out his life at the tender age of 24. To this day, people still visit the crash site–“Pre’s Rock,” they call it–paying respects to the man who ran each individual race as if it were his very last one. Enthusiastic, rebellious, charismatic–just some of the adjectives one can use to describe the great Steve Prefontaine.
Appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated at the age of 19, Steve Prefontaine was truly the future of American long-distance running; while at the University of Oregon, he won seven NCAA titles–three in cross country and a remarkable four at the three-mile distance. In 1972, he set the American record in the 5,000 meters (13:22.8); it was a race that would ultimately send him to the Munich Olympics where he would finish fourth at the same distance–even though he was two years younger than anyone else in the more experienced, favored field. “That’s O.K.,” “Pre” would say to himself thereafter–vowing that he would show the world at Montreal in 1976 who was the best, toughest runner of them all; hell, this was the same guy who won his first NCAA track title with twelve stitches in his foot after having endured a diving accident just days before. Quite frankly, Steve Prefontaine ran like no runner had before him–with an abandonment and purpose that truly fueled the American running craze in the early-to-mid-‘70s. His fans–known as “Pre’s People”–would turn up regularly when he ran; the cheers of “Pre, Pre, Pre” would resound throughout Hayward Field in Oregon–a place where he competed in 38 races between 1970 and 1975 while NEVER losing a race of over a mile in length. Overall, he set American records 14 times, ran nine 5,000-meter races under 13:30, and even found time to break the four-minute-mile mark an impressive EIGHT times along the way. But it was the manner in which he ran, along with his devotion to the sport, that makes Steve Prefontaine a legend to this day. He literally THRIVED on competition; he prided himself on pushing his body beyond the normal limits of human physiology/endurance. In fact, no one appreciated it more than one Steve Prefontaine when he would witness his competitors pushing THEMSELVES to previously-unknown limits–thus bringing out the best in everyone. “A lot of people run a race to see who is the fastest,” he once said. “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 two miles. Not with me. If I lose forcing the pace all the way, well, at least I can live with myself.” Yes, the man had this uncanny desire and drive that his competitors often marveled at; it was simply “all-out or nothing” for Steve Prefontaine every time he stepped onto a track.
“Pre” took his undying devotion/discipline to other venues, also; he was involved in volunteer work with kids but was perhaps better known for speaking out intensely about protecting the rights of amateur athletes. This is a man who once actually REFUSED a $20,000 offer to join a professional track circuit in the interest of continuing to run against ONLY the best in the sport on the amateur level. You see, it was ALL about running to “Pre;” he simply fought for amateurs to be able to support their training needs while focusing solely on their crafts. And he practiced what he preached, too. Though an international star who revolutionized an entire sport due to his charisma and fan base, Steve Prefontaine, at the time of his death, still lived in a trailer while living off food stamps and stipends of less than $100 a month. No money, no fakeness, no greed on the part of one Steve Prefontaine during his short, yet fascinating life–just one helluva sense of devotion to his sport while never compromising his incomparable spirit. “Pre” purely lived for the sport that had pumped so much life into HIM. Yes, an athlete who lived NOT for the money–just for the glory of being able to test one’s limits. Can the athlete of today even BEGIN to relate?
Ah, what might have been. The opinion here is that Steve Prefontaine would have shined greatly at the 1976 Olympics; he continued to break records after his time in Munich and was just “hitting his stride” when his life tragically ended. He remains perhaps the most popular distance runner ever–the fierce, competitive will-to-win being what separated him from the rest. He was simply the Pete Maravich of his sport–a genuine forerunner whose revolutionary contributions are still seen years after his competitive athletic exploits ended.
The Steve Prefontaine Memorial Jogging Trail in Eugene exists as a further reminder of “Pre’s” contributions; the Prefontaine Classic track meet, held yearly at Hayward Field, continues to give “Pre’s People” a joyous way to celebrate/recognize a remarkable man’s life. Finally, statues of Prefontaine still stand at Nike headquarters in Oregon–where playful chants of “Pre, Pre, Pre” are mouthed by visitors who’ll never forget the runner who taught us so much about ourselves–and who may have been the best of them all.