Steve Prefontaine

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Steve Roland Prefontaine
BornSteve Roland Prefontaine
January 25, 1951
Coos Bay, Oregon, US
DiedMay 30, 1975
Eugene, Oregon
Cause of deathCar Accident
ResidenceEugene, Oregon
Other names"Pre"
OccupationAmerican Runner

Steve Roland Prefontaine (January 25, 1951 - May 30, 1975) (commonly referred to as Pre by runners and fans) was an American collegiate champion and Olympic runner born in Coos Bay, Oregon.

Prefontaine was primarily a long distance runner, and at one point held the American record in every running event from the 2000 meters to the 10,000 meters. He is considered one of the greatest American runners of all time, having inspired a running boom during the 1970s.

He is known for his extremely aggressive "front-running" racing style and at the University of Oregon's Hayward Field thousands of loyal fans would gather and chant "Pre, Pre, Pre," as he competed. Prefontaine made the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine at the age of 19.

He was the first athlete to win four consecutive NCAA track titles in the same event (three-mile race). He was the first athlete to sign with the Nike Company (for $5,000 in 1974). He has a building named after him and a statue commemorating him at the Nike, Inc. corporate headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon.

Prefontaine was also an activist and reformer who challenged the Amateur Athletic Union's treatment of amateur athletes.

He was inducted into the 2000 class of the National High School Sports Hall of Fame.

Early years

Born to Raymond and Elfriede Prefontaine, his father was a carpenter and his mother was a seamstress from Germany. Steve Prefontaine was a typical high school boy and wanted to play football and the traditional sports. He proved to be too small for these sports and turned to running.

As a freshman at Marshfield High School in Coos Bay, Oregon, Prefontaine initially found some success in cross country running. With help from the Marshfield cross country coach, Walt McClure, he placed 53rd in the state meet. He ran a personal best of 5:01 in the mile and 10:08 in the two mile his freshman year. His high-mileage training plan during the following summer was ultimately successful as he placed 6th in the year-end state meet.

His sophomore season was similarly unspectacular, except for the district cross country meet when he kept up with the state mile champion and the state cross country champion for all but the last 300 yards. He followed up with a 4:31 indoor mile, but his fourth-place finish in that spring’s district track meet failed to qualify him for the high school state meet in his primary event—the two-mile.

He continued rigorous training at the end of the cross country season in preparation for track, but failed to qualify for the state meet. However, his junior and senior years proved highly successful, with Prefontaine winning every meet, including states, and setting a national high school record his senior year in the two mile race with a time of 8:41.5 (breaking Rick Riley's 8:48.4 from 1966).[1]

By the end of his high school career Prefontaine had broken 19 National High School Records in track.

University of Oregon (1969–1973)

Prefontaine gained national attention in 1969 when he made the AAU international team in his high school uniform, started his freshman year at the University of Oregon, and made the cover of Sports Illustrated.

At the University of Oregon he trained under coach Bill Bowerman, who would later co-found Blue Ribbon Sports, the precursor to the Nike shoe company. He joined the Pi Kappa Alpha Fraternity as an undergraduate. After his freshman year, in which he finished 3rd in the NCAA National Cross Country meet, 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 titles in Track and Field.

He was known for going out hard and not relinquishing the lead, a tactic that his fans and fellow competitors admired. Chants of "Pre! Pre! Pre!" became a staple at Hayward Field, a mecca for track and field in the U.S. Many fans wore shirts proclaiming "Legend," which became a sort-of war cry for him.

In 1971, Prefontaine was closing in on making the Olympic team, as well as won 21 straight collegiate meets, broke the American 3,000 and 5,000 meter records, and was the NCAA cross country champion.

As the youngest runner in the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich he was passed with 150 m remaining in the 5000 m race by eventual winner Lasse Viren and silver medalist Mohamed Gammoudi. He lost a third place position to Britain's hard-charging Ian Stewart in the last 15 meters of the race after having led nearly the entire last mile in a toe-to-toe battle with Viren.

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.

By the time he finished his career at Oregon University he won an impressive seven NCAA national titles: Three in cross country, 1970, 1971, and 1973 and four in the three-mile in track, ‘70, ‘71, ‘72, and ‘73. Prefontaine was also the first athlete to win four consecutive NCAA track titles in the same event. He also held eight collegiate records including the 3 mile and 6 mile races that still stand today.[1]

Challenging the AAU

It was during his collegiate career that he began to fight the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) which demanded that athletes who wished to remain "amateur" for the Olympics not be paid for appearances in track meets, even though they drew large crowds that generated millions of dollars. At this time the AAU was taking away the amateur status of athletes who were endorsed in any way. Because Prefontaine was accepting free clothes and footwear from Nike he was subjected to the AAU's rulings and he found himself living on food stamps. He spoke very publicly against the injustices and hypocrisy of the AAU.

The ITA, a new professional track circuit at that time, offered him 2,000 dollars to join their ranks, but he refused, with goals of taking home the gold in 1976, and stating, “I run better when I run free.”[2]

Early in 1975 he said, "We need to set up national training camps supported by big business and other interested groups." He went on to say "We're too pro-oriented in this country, and nothing is done for the amateur athlete after he gets out of college. I think we'll see in Montreal that we're falling further and further behind the European countries."[3]

Even his final race was an act of rebellion against the AAU. Prefontaine brought the National Finish Team to Eugene for a meet. He hoped to have a rematch with Lasse Viren, who took the gold in 1972, but Viren at the last minute couldn’t make it. The meet still proved to be a success but it would be his last race, as he was killed in an auto accident on his way home from the celebration.

In 1978, three years after he died, the U.S. Congress passed the Amateur Sports Act, which took control of track and field away from the AAU.


In 1974, Prefontaine became an employee of an athletic shoe company started by his college coach, Bill Bowerman. That company was Nike. He became the first athlete to be paid to wear Nike shoes. He was also the first person in the company to try and get top international athletes to wear the new brand.

He would send a personal letter and free shoes to his top rivals and ask them to try them out. On April 9, 1975, Steve Prefontaine wrote a letter to a relatively unknown, but up and coming runner named Bill Rodgers.

Rodgers wore the shoes sent by Prefontaine the following week in the Boston Marathon. He ran a new American and Course Record time of 2:09:55. Because the shoes were a bit big for him Bill had to stop twice in the final miles to tighten them, to the surprise and shock of the spectators and the press.

Twenty-one days after Rodgers' win, Prefontaine died in a car crash.[4]


On May 30, 1975, on the return from a party and dropping off of a friend, Frank Shorter, Prefontaine was driving down a familiar road, Skyline Boulevard, near Hendricks Park, when his car, a gold 1973 MGB,[5] swerved left and hit a rock wall along the side of the street. The overturned car trapped Prefontaine underneath it. It is unclear if in the end Pre suffocated or the car's weight caused his ribs to puncture his heart.

Steve Prefontaine is buried at Sunset Memorial Park, Coos Bay, Oregon.


The death of Prefontaine proved shocking to many. The Eugene Register-Guard called his death "the end of an era." Whether his death was an alcohol-related fatality remains controversial. His blood alcohol content was 0.16, six-hundredths higher than Oregon's legal limit at the time; however, a mortician posthumously tested his blood rather than a medical examiner.

By the time of his death, Prefontaine was an extremely popular athlete, and along with Frank Shorter and Bill Bowerman, is attributed with sparking the running boom of the 1970s. His life story has been detailed in two big-screen films, 1997's Prefontaine and 1998's Without Limits as well as the documentary Fire on the Track. An annual track event, the Pre Classic, has been held in his honor since 1974.

Steve Prefontaine is arguably the greatest American distance runner in history, and at the height of his career he held every American track and field record from the 2,000 to the 10,000 meters. He still remains an icon in American running. Over his running career he ran 153 races, of which he won 120, or 78 percent. One of Prefontaine's most famous quotes was, "To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the Gift."

Steve Prefontaine is honored every year at the Prefontaine Memorial Run in Coos Bay, Oregon, where a 10K road race across one of his old training courses, with its finish line at the high school track where he first competed.


Pre's Rock is a memorial at the site of the roadside boulder where Prefontaine died after crashing his car into it. Runners inspired by Prefontaine leave behind memorabilia, such as race numbers, medals, running shoes, etc. Pre's Rock became the newest of all the memorials to Prefontaine when it was dedicated in December, 1997. Located in Hendricks Park, just across the Willamette River from the east end of Pre's Trail, 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…

The Steve Prefontaine Memorial Jogging Trail is nine and a half miles of wood chip path that winds through Alton Baker Park in Eugene.

In Prefontaine's hometown of Coos Bay there is a plaque-on-a-boulder memorial featuring a relief of his face, records, and date of birth.

The Coos Art Museum in Coos Bay contains is a section dedicated to Prefontaine. This section includes medals he won during his career and the pair of spikes he wore when setting a record for the 5,000 at Hayward Field.

Personal records

Distance Time Date Location
1,500 meters 3:38.1 June 28, 1973 Helsinki, Finland [6]
2,000 meters 5:01.4 May 9, 1975 Coos Bay, Oregon [6]
3,000 meters 7:42.6 July 2, 1974 Milan, Italy [6]
5,000 meters 13:21.87 June 26, 1974 Helsinki, Finland [6]
10,000 meters 27:43.6 April 27, 1974 Eugene, Oregon [6]
1 mile 3:54.6 June 20, 1973 Eugene, Oregon [6]
2 miles 8:18.29 July 18, 1974
3 miles 12:51.4 June 8, 1974 Eugene, Oregon [6]
6 miles 26:51.8 April 27, 1974

Personal quotes

  • "To give anything less than your best, is to sacrifice the gift."
  • "A race is a work of art that people can look at and be affected in as many ways as they're capable of understanding."
  • "I'm going to work so that it's a pure guts race at the end, and if it is, I am the only one who can win it."
  • "Someone may beat me, but they are going to have to bleed to do it."
  • "The only good race pace is suicide pace, and today looks like a good day to die."
  • "Some people create with words or with music or with a brush and paints. I like to make something beautiful when I run. I like to make people stop and say, 'I've never seen anyone run like that before.' It's more than just a race, it's a style. It's doing something better than anyone else. It's being creative."[7]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Distance Running, National Distance Running Hall of Fame. Retrieved December 22, 2008.
  2. Sarah Mandell, Fire on the Track: The Steve Prefontaine Story. Retrieved December 22, 2008.
  3., Politics—The AAU. Retrieved December 22, 2008.
  4. Running Past, A Letter From "Pre" Captures A Moment In American Running History. Retrieved December 22, 2008.
  5. Tom Jordan, Pre: The Story of America's Greatest Running Legend, Steve Prefontaine (Rodale, [1977] 1997, ISBN 0-87596-457-5).
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 University of Oregon, Steve Prefontaine Bio & Pix. Retrieved February 19, 2007.
  7. Brainyquote, Steve Prefontaine Quotes. Retrieved December 22, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Donovan, Bree T., Linda Prefontaine, and Sara Charmé Zane. 2008. Steve Prefontaine, Rocketman. [S.l.]: Lulu. ISBN 9781435716292.
  • Hollister, Geoff. 2008. Out of Nowhere: The Inside Story of How Nike Marketed the Culture of Running. Maidenhead: Meyer & Meyer Sports. ISBN 9781841262345.
  • Jordan, Tom. 1997. Pre: The Story of America's Greatest Running Legend, Steve Prefontaine. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press. ISBN 0875964575.
  • "Prefontaine, Steve." 1999. American National Biography. 17. OCLC 60420235.

External links

All links retrieved February 25, 2023.


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