Monday, February 26, 2007

An Unlikely Hero Lives On

On May 30 of this year, one of America’s greatest distance runners will have been dead for 32 years. But like any good legend, Steve Prefontaine continues to influence his sport to this day.
If you’ve ever slipped on a pair of Nike running shoes, you may have noticed the face of an old man scowling up at you from the heel inside the shoe. The man is Bill Bowerman, the University of Oregon track coach who created Nike three decades ago by stealing his wife’s waffle iron to make homemade shoes in his garage. Making shoes wasn’t the only thing he was good at, though. In fact, it was only a hobby. Bill Bowerman’s full-time job was making spectacular runners.
Steve Prefontaine was born in 1951 in the small town of Coos Bay, Oregon. He was a short child, with one leg shorter than the other. He was never good at team sports, and in the rare instances when he actually got to play in his baseball and football games, he was easily outmatched by bigger, stronger players. How then, did a kid like that become one of the fastest runners the sport has ever known?
If you had asked that question of Pre, as he was called by friends, fans, and the world alike, the answer would have been straightforward enough. “All my life” he once said, “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.” Pre ran away from his inability to succeed in contact sports – and kept running. From age 15 to 16, he cut 39 seconds off his mile time to 4:32 (for non-runners, read that as “he got really fast really quickly). During his junior and senior years of high school, Pre won every race in which he ran, and set a national high school record in the two-mile event. He had become an expert musician - the track, his stage; his legs, his instrument.
Then he met Bill Bowerman. And if anyone could have believed it, the best freshman runner in the nation got better. Much better. During his tenure at the University of Oregon, Pre won three straight NCAA Division I Cross Country titles and four straight titles in the 5,000-meter event in Track and Field. During the course of his career, Pre set American records in all seven events from the 2,000-meter to the 10,000-meter, something that was never accomplished before or since.
Interestingly enough, none of those races were events in which Pre had wanted to compete. When he started running for Oregon, he wanted to be a champion miler, like his hero Jim Ryun. However, the legendary coach Bowerman knew Pre’s ability better than Pre did, and told him to concentrate on the 5,000-meter run, also known as the three-mile. When Pre objected, saying no one cared about the three mile, Bowerman told him to give people something to care about. Pre did. During his junior year, Pre ran the 5,000 in another track meet you might be familiar with: the 1972 Munich Olympics. However, he was badly shaken when members of the Israeli team were murdered during the games by Palestinian terrorists shortly before his event. Though he led for much of the race, Pre was caught at the end and finished fourth.
His defeat, however, is part of his legend as one of the most devoted athletes of all time. Because he knew he wouldn’t be able to defeat his rival, Finnish runner Lasse Viren, at the 1976 Montreal Olympics unless he raced him first, Pre organized and promoted a meet between Finnish and American athletes, which would be held at the University of Oregon track. Because the meet was unsanctioned by the Amateur Track Union, the organization threatened to revoke Pre’s amateur status, eliminating his eligibility for the Montreal Olympics (at that time, only amateur athletes were allowed to compete). However, Pre was not deterred. Finally the ATU relented and sanctioned the meet, which is held to this day as the Prefontaine Classic. The meet, which was held May 29, 1975, is probably Pre’s most famous; it was also his last.
That night, while driving home from a post-race celebration, Pre’s car skidded off the road, slammed into a rock wall, and flipped. Pre, who was not wearing his seat belt, was trapped beneath the car, and died on the scene in the early hours of May 30, 1975. Running had lost its favorite son. As commentator Rick Riley put it, “The magic was gone forever.”
Nearly everyone Pre touched during life seemed to go on to success. Mac Wilkins, Pre’s teammate and friend, set a world record for the discus at the Finnish-Oregon meet, and went on to win the gold medal in Montreal. Pat Tyson, Pre’s roommate, said “Pre gave me confidence. I was shy and timid, and he brought me out of my shell.” Pre obviously did a good job, because Tyson is now arguably America’s best high school cross country coach.
And then, there is Nike. Many people don’t even believe the company wouldn’t have made it without Pre. He was the first runner to sign for Nike in 1974 for $5,000 (For comparison to the lengths by which Nike and professional running have grown, Alan Webb signed in 2002 for $250,000 a year). As a close friend of Bill Bowerman, Pre also had a great deal of influence on the original shoe designs. He even sent pairs to runners all over the world to help promote his coach’s creation. Today, the company refers to Pre as “The Soul of Nike,” and celebrates his memory with a large statue of him outside their corporate offices.
However, there is no doubt that Pre’s greatest contribution to the sport was his maverick style of living. “He didn’t take no for an answer, he wasn’t politically correct, and he didn’t kiss peoples’ butts!” says Tyson. Steve Prefontaine was, simply put, running’s first rock star. “We don't have people like that anymore in our sport,” Tyson reflects, “He was a huge reason why distance running flourished in the 1970's. Watching him run, you’d think Pre was instinctively great, but he wasn’t. It was all about hard work and being consistent. Pre dictated the tempo… the pace… life. I miss him.” Tyson isn’t the only one. Thousands of people each year flock to the place where Pre died to pay their respects to the man who inspired them to get up, lace up their shoes, and start running.

As America’s fastest distance runner, Pre had a right to be cocky, but inside he had the same insecurities and dreams as every other college student. Once, during a race, Pre wore his jersey inside-out. Spectators thought he was making a statement about the University of Oregon, but he wasn’t – he had just accidentally put his shirt on wrong. Tyson remembers, “Listening to him on the phone lie to the many girls he was dating, often at the same time, and they realizing he was a con artist was incredibly funny.” Pre was never a superhero, but he became the hero of many. He may have been the best, but that was only because he wanted to be. What makes Pre special is how hard he worked to realize his dreams. Deep down, Steve Prefontaine was just a boy from a small town that happened to make people say, “I’ve never seen anyone run like that, before.”