US running legend and Nike muse Steve Prefontaine would be celebrating his 60th birthday today were he still alive. Prefontaine, or ‘Pre’ as he is widely known, was born in Coos Bay, Oregon on January 25th, 1951. Pre’s combination of attitude, mustache and an early death make him perhaps the coolest American runner of all time.
Prefontaine won every race his junior and senior seasons at Marshfield High School including a national record 8:41.5 two-mile time. Pre then enrolled at the University of Oregon where he lost only three times in three years of collegiate competition and was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was just nineteen and the associated article began to cement Pre’s reputation for toughness among runners with this quote from his then coach Bill Dellinger, himself a former Olympian:
Prefontaine, he’s as tough mentally right now as world-class runners who are 10 years older. If the competition is tough or the wind is blowing like crazy or it’s awfully hot, hell, that’s not going to stop him. There’s nothing in running that he doesn’t believe he can do.”
By the time of Pre’s death he owned every (8) American record between 2,000 and 10,000 meters and between two miles and six miles. He also held eight collegiate records while at Oregon, with his three-mile (12:53.4) and six-mile (27:09.4) still standing. During his career, he broke his own or other American records 14 different times, broke the four-minute barrier nine times, ran 25 two-mile races under 8:40 and 10 5K races faster than 13:30.Prefontaine was one of the first athletes to wear the first Nike shoes created by Bill Bowerman using a waffle iron to create the sole. His great visibility as an athlete combined with Bowerman’s impact on the American culture of running and jogging for fitness helped get Nike off the ground. Additionally, Prefontaine was one of the most vocal critics of the AAU (amateur athletics unions) which insisted that to remain Olympics eligible track and field athletes not be compensated in any way for their efforts in the sport. Even accepting clothing and footwear from sponsors was seen as a violation of this rule. Getting that rule changed opened the door to sports business as we know it today.
Nike has honored Pre repeatedly with a building named in his honor at their headquarters, an ongoign line of apparel featuring him, support of the annual Prefontaine Classic track meet in Eugene and an ad campaign in his honor on the anniversary of his death:
Pre was killed in a car accident on May 30th, 1975 but has since been memorialized by three movies and ongoing tributes within the running community.
Happy 60th Pre.
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