“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”
How does a distance runner who never held a world record or even won an Olympic medal make such an impact on the world? Steve Prefontaine was a winner, the kind of guy you want to cheer for – an average Joe that proved what was possible if you are determined. Sadly, Pre died over 35 years ago, at the age of 24, before reaching his full potential.
Pre ran track at the University of Oregon during the early 70’s and wasn’t your typical hero athlete. He was a working-class guy from a small coastal logging town in Oregon and had a little edge. A rebel with a cause if you will. He was very outspoken and an absolutely ferocious competitor.
In addition to showing his tenacity on the track, Pre fought hard to overturn the amateur status for track and field in the Olympics. Even though the athletes were generating millions of dollars in revenue both in college and after college, they weren’t allowed to be paid for their appearances and still be eligible to compete in the Olympics. Despite being a world famous athlete, he was forced to live in a trailer and use food stamps to keep his amateur status alive. Just three years after his death Congress took the amateur status requirement away from track and field.
Pre is also famous for his association with Nike. The Oregon track and field coach, Bill Bowerman, was the co-founder of Blue Ribbon Sports in 1964 which later became Nike. Steve Prefontaine would become the first Nike athlete and the company continues to honor him through campaigns like “Pre Lives” and naming buildings after him.
Prefontaine died at the age of 24 after swerving his car (allegedly after several beers) and running into a rock. The MG convertible rolled over and him underneath. At the time of his death Pre held an impressive 14 American running records including every distance from 2 miles to 10,000 meters. If you ever find yourself in Eugene, Oregon I highly recommend stopping by Hayward Field and leaving a running momento at Pre’s Rock.
Here are a few more famous Pre quotes (if these don’t get you fired up you’d better check your pulse):
“How does a kid from Coos Bay, with one leg longer than the other win races? All my life people have been telling me, ‘You’re too small Pre’, ‘You’re not fast enough Pre’, ‘Give up your foolish dream Steve’. But they forgot something, I HAVE TO WIN.”
“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.”
“Somebody may beat me, but they are going to have to bleed to do it.”
For those of you that think I’m not an emotional person, this post is a little insight into what really gets me going. No, not his death, his competitiveness.
Pre was a huge contributor to the running boom that began in the 1970s. Did you know that jogging was not always a popular exercise? Track and field was a popular spectator sport (weird), but that didn’t translate into everyone going on morning jogs. Ron Burgandy sums up the nation’s exposure:
Many people first heard of Steve Prefontaine when two major movies were released about his life within the same year of each other (Prefontaine in 1997 and Without Limits in 1998). Actually, a documentary Fire on the Track was made in 1995 as well.