Thursday, May 28, 2015

Rock Star Runner

Hard to believe it’s been 40 years since Steve Prefontaine was suddenly and tragically killed in a car crash; a front-page story in The Register-Guard a few days ago reminded me of that week in May 1975. An undergraduate at the University of Oregon at the time, memories of “Pre” came flooding back into my consciousness.

In those days, Pre was the closest thing that Eugene-Springfield had to a sports superstar; indeed, he was even more popular than Ronnie Lee, another superlative athlete of the time who starred for the University of Oregon basketball team, known in those days as the “Kamikaze Kids.” Pre, however, was a rock star on a world stage.

Despite his preeminent status, Pre was a regular guy, whether out for a run along the Willamette River or pouring beers as a bartender at The Paddock Tavern. A native of Coos Bay, he won numerous NCAA titles, held seven American records from 2,000 meters to 10,000 meters, and was preparing for the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

Living on Hilyard Street in 1975 (below) with more than a half dozen other students, I saw Pre often. He was a regular at our parties: his girlfriend was close to one of our female roommates. What I remember most about that fateful Saturday morning was the utter shock of losing someone so seemingly vital and poised for greatness.

Earlier that week, I received an offer of summer employment with the Wenatchee National Forest on the eastern slopes of the Cascades in Washington. The end of spring quarter was a blur, followed by a move to a new state. I don’t recall much else about those last two weeks other than Steve Prefontaine -- the man and the legend.

What I remember most about Pre? His ultra-competitive nature. “Somebody may beat me,” he said, "but they’re going to have to bleed to do it.” Sure, he faded in the 1972 Olympics, finishing fourth after leading in the 5,000-meter race, but Pre was only 21 at the time. I have no doubt he would have won the gold medal in 1976.

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