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The Steve Prefontaine Story

Thousand miler Steve Prefontaine leads the field during the mile run in high school.

We want to introduce you to one of Oregon’s greatest sports legends, Steve Prefontaine, who’s pursuit for Olympic medals was a driving factor in the American running craze in the mid-1970s.

During his brief 24-year life-span, Steve Prefontaine grew from hometown hero, to record-setting college phenomenon, to internationally acclaimed track star. In that time, he claimed seven NCAA titles, a fourth-place Olympic finish in 1972 (5K), and American records from 2,000 meters through 10,000 meters. Click here for more of his records.

We in the Coos Bay area, hold a special place for Steve here where he was born in 1951 and discovered his gift for running fast and far as a student at Marshfield High School. It was here, he developed his foundation of commitment; working to be the best in the field, and doing it his way. He was one-of-a-kind and when he ran those fortunate enough to witness it, saw something they had never seen before, or since. He was one of those rare people who combine talent, discipline, determination, and natural celebrity with a single-minded vision. This is what made Pre the inspiration to those he called “his people”. Even now, decades after his death, devoted fans who came to watch him run and entered into the performance with roars of encouragement, still shout, “Go Pre!”

Every September, at the Prefontaine Memorial Run in Coos Bay, participants honor Steve with a challenging 10K road race across one of his old training courses, with its finish line at the high school track where he first competed. Click here for more information about the race.

Here are some facts about this local legend:

WHO WAS STEVE PREFONTAINE, “Pre” to his fans?

  1. He was born and raised in Coos Bay.
  2. Pre was a 2-time State 2-mile champion and 2-time State Cross Country Champion.
  3. Set the National Record in the 2-mile at the Corvallis Invitational in 1969.
  4. Graduated from MHS in 1969.
  5. After just completing high school, he qualified for the USA National team and competed in international meets against the USSR, Germany, Great Britain and a combined European team.
  6. He entered the UO in the fall of 1969 as one of the most highly recruited high school track athletes ever.
  7. He won 3 NCAA XC titles and 4 NCAA 3-mile championships.
  8. He set American records at various distances 14 times.
  9. Pre won the 1972 Olympic trials 5000 meters in Eugene to qualify for the Olympic Games in Munich, Germany, where he finished 4th in one of the greatest Olympic 5000M races of all-time.
  10. He fought vigorously for athletes’ rights against the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), an organization in those days that totally controlled where athletes competed, where they stayed, how they traveled—all aspects of an athlete’s life.
  11. Pre defied the AAU by organizing a series of meets with a group of Finnish athletes. One of these meets was held at Marshfield High School on 5-9-75, at which Pre set his last American record. The last of those meets was held at Hayward Field in Eugene on May 29th, and tragically, just hours after the conclusion of that meet, Pre was killed in an auto accident near Hendricks Park just above the UO campus.
  12. At the time of his death, Pre held every American distance running record from 2-miles through 10,000 meters.
  1. His running style made him a fan favorite—he was a front-runner.
  2. He knew only one speed—all-out
  3. Pre never avoided racing against anyone at any distance, even though he knew in many cases he would have very little chance of winning.
  4. He was vociferous in speaking out to advocate for athletes’ rights against the dictatorial, clubby AAU.
  5. He died young at the peak of his career, leaving unfulfilled the great promise of many more years of great performances.
  6. Hollywood produced two full-length feature films of Pre’s life — Prefontaine and Without Limits. There is also a documentary film called Fire on the Track that is very inspiring and a book called Pre by Tom Jordan, who is now the meet director of the Prefontaine Classic track meet in Eugene. A children’s book, Steve Prefontaine-Rocketman by Bree Donovan was published in 2010.

Prefontaine Letter Revealed at Olympic Trials 2008

In June 2008, during the Olympic Trials held in Eugene, OR, the Coos Bay–North Bend Visitor & Convention Bureau (VCB) shared Steve Prefontaine’s hometown history. The VCB, along with the Mill Casino Hotel and 75 coastal volunteers, showcased their love of the area, promoted the annual Prefontaine Memorial Run in Coos Bay, and shared a part of Pre’s history.

Steve Prefontaine's LetterRead Pre’s Letter Here (PDF)

The VCB shared old photographs, racing programs, newspaper articles and the highlight of their display, a never before published letter written by Steve Prefontaine shortly before his death. The letter dated March 17th, was written to Prefontaine’s Marshfield High School coach, Walt McClure in 1975.

Katherine Hoppe, previous director of the Coos Bay–North Bend VCB said, “When Walt first brought the letter to me, I was afraid to even touch it, I was in awe. We’ve actually had a copy of it for months but have been waiting for just the right time to release it. With the opportunity to participate in the Eugene 08 festivities, we couldn’t think of a better time or place to share this letter.”

Pre writes of his training with Frank Shorter in Denver, of his battle with the AAU, getting ready for “the Finn” and of his intentions to begin training for the 76 Olympics.

(541) 269-0215
50 Central Ave, Coos Bay, OR 97420

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