Notable Oregonians: Steve Prefontaine - Athlete (Runner)
Born on January 25, 1951, Steve Prefontaine was raised in Coos Bay, Oregon by his father Raymond, a carpenter, and his mother Elfriede, a seamstress. He set records in track from the beginning of his running career at Marshfield High School and went on to run at the University of Oregon under noted track coach, Bill Bowerman.
Prefontaine was the first athlete to win four consecutive NCAA titles in the same event, the 5,000 meters. In 1972, he won a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, barely missing a medal to come in fourth in Munich. By the time of his death in May 1975, Prefontaine held the American record in every event from 2,000 to 10,000 meters.
In addition to his outstanding athletic performances, he was admired for his enthusiasm, determination, and charisma. He never lost a meet at the University of Oregon's Hayward Field, and 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 and was known for the passion and confidence he brought to his sport. Not a tactical runner, Prefontaine ran hard from the start, at least partially relying on an extremely high threshold of pain.
He participated in the community as well, often volunteering at Roosevelt Junior High School and the Oregon State Prison where he eventually started a running club while corresponding with many of the inmates. Prefontaine was outspoken against what he saw as injustice and was well known for his stance against the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) for their allegedly shoddy treatment of amateur athletes.
On May 30, 1975, driving home from celebrating at a meet earlier that day, he was killed at the age of 24 after his MG convertible sports car hit a rock wall and overturned. The site of his fatal car crash, known as Pre's Rock, was dedicated in December 1997 and is maintained by Eugene Parks and Recreation as Prefontaine Memorial Park.
One of the best and most controversial track athletes of the 1970s, his legacy continues with running trails, track meets, and memorials named in his honor. Two movies about his life have also been produced.