Childhood & Early Life
He was born on January 25, 1951, in Coos Bay, Oregon, US, to Raymond Prefontaine and Elfriede. His father served in the ‘US Army’ during the Second World War. Thereafter, he worked as a welder and carpenter. His mother was a seamstress. He had two sisters, Neta and Linda.
He participated in various activities since childhood and was part of the football and basketball teams of his junior high school.
While in eighth grade, he spotted a few high school cross-country team members practicing and jogging around the football ground. Later that year, his physical education classes made him realize that he was performing well in long-distance races. Gradually, he developed an interest in cross-country running.
In 1965, he enrolled at the ‘Marshfield High School,’ where he was trained by coach Walt McClure Jr., as part of the school’s cross-country team. His personal best in his first year was 5:01 mile. By the end of the year, he had climbed up to the second spot from the seventh spot and was ranked 53rd in the ‘State Championship.’
He remained undefeated during his junior cross-country season, while winning the state title. The ‘Corvallis Invitational’ witnessed him setting a national record with a time of 8:41.5, while in his senior year. He remained undefeated that season, in 1-mile and 2-mile events, and became the winner of two state titles.
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Around 40 colleges across the US wanted to recruit Prefontaine. They sent letters and made phone calls, while their coaches visited Prefontaine to acquire him for their respective teams. He finally decided get enrolled at the ‘University of Oregon’ to be trained by famous track and field coach Bill Bowerman, who had coached Walt McClure, Jr. during his tenure with the ‘University of Oregon.’
Bowerman co-founded ‘Blue Ribbon Sports,’ along with Phil Knight, on January 25, 1964, which on May 30, 1971, became ‘Nike, Inc.’
The track and field stadium ‘Hayward Field’ in Eugene, Oregon, witnessed fans of Prefontaine chanting “Pre! Pre! Pre!,” whenever he participated in any event at the stadium. T-shirts of his fans often displayed the words “LEGEND” or “GO PRE,” and at times, jokingly, “STOP PRE.”
With time, he garnered national prominence and graced the cover of the November issue of ‘Track and Field News’ in 1969 and the cover of the June issue of ‘Sports Illustrated’ in 1970.
Prefontaine turned his attention to the forthcoming 1972 ‘Summer Olympics,’ which was to be held in Munich, West Germany, and started to train himself.
He won four 5,000-meter titles in track, three times in a row. He also won the ‘Division I NCAA Cross Country Championship’ thrice. A ‘Pi Kappa Alpha’ fraternity member, Prefontaine emerged as the winner of four straight 3-mile/5000-meter titles in track.
Gradually, he earned repute for his extremely aggressive "front-running" style of racing. With his tremendous leg speed, Prefontaine recorded his career-best time for the mile (3:54.6), which was just 3.5 seconds behind the then-existing world record.
At the ‘Olympic Trials’ in Eugene, on July 9, 1972, he set the American record in the 5000-meter event.
In the finals of the men's 5000-meter event at the 1972 ‘Summer Olympics,’ held in September, Prefontaine took the lead during the last mile. However, he finally fell behind Lasse Virén of Finland, Mohammed Gammoudi of Tunisia, and Ian Stewart of Britain. Steve ended up at the fourth place.
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He did not lose a single collegiate (NCAA) race during his four years at Oregon, be it a 3-mile event, a 5,000-meter event, a 6-mile event, or a 10,000-meter event.
He started an extended fight with the ‘Amateur Athletic Union’ (AAU) during his senior year. The organization insisted that those athletes who wished to remain amateur during the ‘Olympics’ would not receive any payment for their participation in track events, which, according to many, was unfair.
After concluding his collegiate career, Prefontaine eyed the 1976 ‘Summer Olympics,’ which was to be held in Montreal, and started preparing himself.
He succeeded in setting records in all the races, from 2,000 meters to 10,000 meters, during his tenure with the ‘Oregon Track Club.’
Meanwhile, in 1974, he was recruited as an employee by ‘Nike, Inc.’ He was the first athlete to be paid by ‘Nike’ for wearing their shoes. He wanted the top international athletes to wear ‘Nike’ shoes, and this made him send free shoes, with his personal letter, to many of his top competitors.
In his career, he had won 120 races out of the 153 races he had participated in.
Personal Life & Legacy
A group of travelling athletes from Finland participated in an ‘NCAA Prep’ meet at ‘Hayward Field’ in the spring of 1975. Following the event held on May 29, where Prefontaine won a 5,000-meter race, the American and Finnish athletes partied. While returning from the party, after midnight, Prefontaine decided to drive his orange 1973 MGB convertible. The same night, he met with a severe accident while driving. He was declared dead before any medical help could reach him.
He was buried at the ‘Sunset Memorial Park’ in Coos Bay, and a memorial service was held at ‘Hayward Field,’ which was attended by thousands of his fans, friends, and well-wishers.
The gifted athlete, along with Bill Rodgers, Frank Shorter, and Jim Ryun, was credited to have inspired the “running boom” of the 1970s.
The annual ‘Oregon Track Club’ event, the ‘Hayward Field Restoration Meet,’ which began in 1973, was re-named as the ‘Bowerman Classic’ in 1975, after Bowerman. The same event was again re-named, with the latter’s approval, to ‘Prefontaine Classic’ on June 1, 1975, in honor of Prefontaine.
In 1983, he was inducted into the ‘Oregon Sports Hall of Fame.’
In December 1997, the ‘Pre's Rock’ memorial was dedicated to the athlete. The memorial, which is maintained as the ‘Prefontaine Memorial Park’ by ‘Eugene Parks and Recreation,’ is located at the site where Prefontaine had breathed his last.
The achievements of Prefontaine are honored every year by the ‘Prefontaine Memorial Run,’ which is held in Coos Bay on the third Saturday of September. Each year, more than a thousand runners participate in the event.
A section of the ‘Coos Art Museum’ in Coos Bay is dedicated to him.
Two films, ‘Prefontaine’ (1997) and ‘Without Limits’ (1998), as well as a documentary, ‘Fire on the Track’ (1995), were based on his life.