Eugene – the 2018 Prefontaine classic is underway at Hayward Field (and it’s the last event at the Hayward Field we’ve come to know). Famous athletes and Olympians from all over the world will congregate to compete in the meet sanctioned to honor one of the best runners in UO and American history: Steve Prefontaine.
Born and raised in the coastal logging town of Coos Bay Oregon, Steve joined the cross country team upon starting at Marshfield High School in 1965. His coach at that time was none other than Walt McClure Jr., who himself had run under coach Bill Bowerman at Oregon and who’s father Walt Sr. had run under coach Bill Hayward himself. Though he finished with sub-par performances his first couple years, a summer devoted to training led to an undefeated Junior campaign which culminated in a state title. The following year, he was again undefeated and doubled up on state titles, winning the one and two mile distances. Although college recruitment was at a premium, it was a letter from Bowerman telling Steve that if he came to Oregon, he was certain the young man would become the world’s greatest distance runner. A heck of a proclamation, and who knows if Bowerman knew how right he’d end up being.
Under the tutelage of Boweman, the co-founder of Nike alongside “Uncle Phil”, Steve captured three Division 1 NCAA cross Country championships and four straight 5,000 meter titles. Known for his aggressive front-running style and insistence on not relinquishing leads, Steve once stated “I’m going to work so that it’s a pure guts race. In the end, if it is, I’m the only one who can win it.” At only 19 years of age, he found himself on the cover of Sports Illustrated in June 1970.
The 1972 Olympics presented a special opportunity for Steve with his family’s German heritage and the games being held in Munich, Germany. At the trials in Eugene in July, Steve set the American record in the 5,000 meters. In the 5,000 meter final in Munich, he took the lead during the final mile but fell back to 3rd in the last 200 meters and was passed up in the final 30 meters to finish 4th and miss his shot at claiming a bronze medal.
Though he had come up short in Munich Steve finished his collegiate career at Oregon with only 3 defeats, all in the mile run. He never lost an NCAA race, in the 3 mile (5,000 meters) or 6 mile (10,000 meters), showing that Bowerman’s earlier prediction had in many ways come to fruition.
After college, Steve set American records in every race from 2,000 to 10,000 meters while running for the Oregon Track Club, and he soon had his sights set on the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. However, after a prep meet at Hayward in May 1975 in which Steve again won the 5,000 meter race, he would attend a party on the evening of May 29th. After dropping a friend off on Prospect Drive, he headed down the narrow roadway of Skyline Boulevard. As we know by now, he would never make it back.
And so on this same weekend each year the Prefontaine Classic is held at Hayward, honoring the skinny young man with the floppy hair and mustache who in his short time in Eugene set the precedent for what would become “Track Town USA”.
“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift”
- Steve Prefontaine