The legend of Steve Prefontaine is etched forever at ‘Pre’s Rock’ in Eugene, Oregon
Eugene, Oregon, is a place head over heels in love with the past, a city that romanticizes a specific athlete to an obsessive degree – his ghost, his legacy, found everywhere you watch these world championships.
Teve Prefontaine has been dead for 37 years, but if you walk 20 minutes from Hayward Field, up the tree-lined hills overlooking the Willamette River, you’ll find a quiet spot that isn’t just a memorial; it is a sanctuary. Pre’s Rock is where the late great distance runner crashed his car and lost his life on May 30, 1975 and it pays homage to the James Dean of distance running – a sports rock star who died. at the age of 24.
It’s where runners lay down their medals or their shoes, their running t-shirts or their spikes, to remember a man immortalized by the nuggets of inspiration he left behind, like his belief that “to give less than the best is to sacrifice the gift”. On the sole of a Nike shoe on the site, there is a handwritten line: “Only when you make a place a home are you allowed to leave.”
And few called “Pre” home, as he was known to adoring Eugene residents. Some of Pre’s best quotes are scattered around Hayward Field, coming your way in random places such as bathroom walls.
The stadium here has undergone a very expensive facelift in recent years (estimated cost: $270 million): creaky wooden seats ripped out and replaced with plush, cushioned armchairs, rickety bleachers that shook in the sound of “Pre, Pre, Pre” chants crumbled, replaced by a stunning new-age structure that’s a wealth flex appropriated by its main donor, Phil Knight, the Nike founder whose love for the sport is as deep as his pockets – he has an estimated net worth of $40 billion.
It’s Tracktown USA, but it’s also Niketown, and for decades the brand has been inseparable from its roots at the University of Oregon, Prefontaine’s alma mater. Pre never won an Olympic medal, finishing fourth in the 5,000m at the Munich Games in 1972, but he set American records at every distance from 2,000m to 10,000m.
But it was his attitude, more than his time, that captivated the crowds. On my first visit to Pre’s rock, during the 2014 World Junior Championships in Eugene, I met Prefontaine’s sister, Neta, who painted a very different picture of the late great athlete and ultra-confident person that the world knew.
“Below, he wasn’t quite sure about things,” she said. “I always saw him as being very humble. When he knew something, however, he was very confident.
Pre was a notorious prankster, his sister remembering the time he walked through the mall in Valley River. “He put a bag over his head, got undressed, ran through the mall and out the back door. When he came out the other side, his college coach [Bill Dellinger] was waiting for him. Steve thought no one would recognize him with the bag on his head.
She laughs tenderly at the memory. “He could be so innocent. He just enjoyed life.
A month before her death, she dreamed that Steve was killed in a car accident. Frightened by the experience, she called him to ask if he was okay. “I’m fine,” Steve said. But in the early hours of May 30, 1975, the phone rang in Neta’s house. It was his father, Ray. “Are you seated?” He asked.
“No why?” she says.
“Well, sit down,” he said before breaking the news. Prefontaine had been drinking that night – the police report said his blood alcohol level was over the limit – but no one knows what caused his car to hit a rock and overturn, with another motorist being there for the incident fleeing the scene. Decades later, his family preferred to think of Préfontaine’s life rather than his death.
“The number of people he has touched is incredible,” Neta said. “To this day, I would give anything to have one more hug from my brother.”