Today Steve Prefontaine would have turned 64 years old.
Known for his speed, he hardly looked like someone who once held seven track records. A bushy mustache surrounded by locks of flowing hair, Prefontaine – or Pre as he was known as – started a running revolution in the United States in the 1970s.
Pre chose to attend the University of Oregon to train under coach Bill Bowerman (who in 1964 founded Blue Ribbon Sports, later known as Nike). He never lost a collegiate (NCAA) race at 3 miles/5,000 meters or 6 miles/10,000 meters. In fact he only lost three races during his entire collegiate career – all in the mile.
Who knows what other records he would have gone on to break? Steve Prefontaine died in a car crash early in the morning of May 30, 1975. He was only 24.
The letter below is from Pre to his high school track coach, Walt McClure, 10 weeks before his death.
I’m still in Denver training extremely hard with Frank Shorter and a few other guys I’ve met around here. I’m running almost twenty miles daily at altitude and I can feel myself getting stronger by the day. My attitude is the best it’s been in years and I think I’m beginning to get my old killer instinct back.
Now for the information you need to know. It should be any day now that the AAU [Amature Athletic Union] comes through with those permits. Ive got the Oregon AAU on my side now and Hal Heller is working with me. The press info should also be here soon and I’ll call you as soon as it arrives.
If you want a story for the papers have them call me at 303-xxx-xxxx in the early mornings or around five in the afternoons. I think a good story about my serious training and getting ready for the Finn would be good. I’ve decided to train for 76 [Olympics] and your [sic] among the first to know. Please don’t let it get around yet since I’m not ready for the pressure. This should be a great year for me since I want to destroy my competition.
I’ll close for the moment.
Prefontaine never earned a medal in Olympic competition, but he was part of one of the most exciting finishes in all of racing. The video below shows the last five minutes of the 5,000 meters in the ’72 Munich games – it’s a nail-biter and Pre’s aggressive style gives it dramatic flare.