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THE LEGEND LIVES ON : Even though Steve Prefontaine died almost 10 years ago, the memory of his life and controversy surrounding his death are as alive as ever

May 06, 1985|GERALD SCOTT | Times Staff Writer

It has fallen to McClure, now an insurance salesman, Prefontaine's father, Raymond, and the other members of the Prefontaine Memorial Committee to try to raise $13,500 to establish a Prefontaine Gallery in the Coos Art Museum. The proposed gallery would house all of the Prefontaine memorabilia currently making the rounds of local banks and insurance offices.

The undertaking is no small task. The economy is supposed to be improving but you can't tell it by Coos Bay. Its unemployment rate hovers around 18% and demand for the city's principal industries, lumber and coal, is off.

So the drive is as much a struggle for the town as for the memory of Prefontaine. He brought widespread attention to the town by setting a then-national record of 8:41.5 in the two-mile run at Marshfield High, now Pre's People are trying to give the attention back.

To understand Coos Bay's dedication to Prefontaine, one need look no further than the Prefontaine Memorial Committee's reasons for commissioning the town sculpture:

"By honoring Steve Prefontaine in this manner, the citizens of Coos Bay honor themselves. If it is true that young people reflect the environment which surrounds them, each of us can take some personal satisfaction in Steve's accomplishments and the quality of his life."

Ron Sherriffs, Steve Prefontaine's academic advisor at the University of Oregon, tells the story about the time that author Erich Segal went for a run with Prefontaine in the early 1970s. "Segal was just coming off of the wealth of 'Love Story,"' Sherriffs recalled, "and when he asked Pre about his diet and training regimen, Pre told me Segal was surprised to find that he could afford to eat meat only twice a week." The love affair between Oregon's second-largest city and Steve Prefontaine began at a dual meet between Oregon and UCLA in 1970, when the knowledgeable Hayward Field crowd took note of the precocious freshman who won both the mile and two-mile runs, even though the home team lost.

Later that spring, Prefontaine was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, touted as America's distance running prodigy at the age of 19. That summer, he gained further attention by winning a 1,500-meter race at Moscow.

Under Oregon track coaches Bill Bowerman and Bill Dellinger, the 5-foot 9-inch, 145-pounder quickly established himself as America's premier distance runner.

Despite such immediate success, Prefontaine apparently took his acclaim in stride, living a Bohemian-student life style in a trailer near the Willamette River through most of his collegiate career. He was also once a bartender in what little spare time he had.

Before his death, Prefontaine set American track records 14 different times, broke the four-minute mile nine times, ran 25 two-mile races under 8:40 and 10 five-kilometer races faster than 13:30.

He also finished fourth in the 5,000-meter run at the 1972 Olympics. Only 21, Prefontaine challenged eventual winner Lasse Viren of Finland right to the end when fatigue overtook him as much as the other runners.

What apparently set Prefontaine apart from his peers was his character as much as it was physical talent. "Man imposes his own limitations, but limitation was not in Steve's frame of reference," Walt McClure said in his eulogy. "He was continually extending the boundaries of his frontier."

Said 1973 Boston Marathon winner Jon Anderson, whose father Les was mayor of Eugene during the Prefontaine years: "Oregonians have a certain nature, I guess, and people here saw a lot of Oregon in Pre. Many people really lived their glory through him and I think that's what made his death difficult for some to accept."

Columnist Bud Withers, writing in the Eugene Register-Guard, reflected on that same idea in 1984: "Pre may have died, but we did not easily let go. I think a lot of us saw in him some qualities we wished for ourselves.

"We liked his sass and his independence and his willingness to speak out against the AAU or the smog in L.A. or the Russians."

Despite a reputation for being track's angry young man, however, Prefontaine seemingly never lost his sharp sense of humor.

Once, he even took a victory lap in one of the "Stop Pre" T-shirts that someone had brought to the track to make light of the "Go Pre" chant that the Eugene crowds had quickly made a tradition. Another time, he ran a race with his track jersey inside-out so that OREGON read NOGERO.

Prefontaine figured that by the time he graduated from Oregon in 1974, he had run more than 20,000 miles, averaging at least 4,500 miles a year from 1969-1974. He knew that his high standards could be met only by himself, if at all.

Noted Mary Slaney: "I first met Prefontaine in 1973 while touring on a European senior team. He took a great interest in my career after that and warned me about over-racing or over-training. He laid the groundwork for the success of a lot of people in our sport."

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