Oregon Running Legend Steve Prefontaine, by Paul C. Clerici. The History Press, 2022. Reviewed by trail runner Laura Clark. Laura is an avid mountain, trail and snowshoe runner who lives in Saratoga Springs, NY, where she is a children’s librarian.
Some people create with words, or with music, or with a brush and paints. I like to make something beautiful when I run. I like to make people stop and say, ‘I’ve never seen anyone run like that before.’ It’s more than just a race, it’s style. It’s doing something better than everyone else. It’s being creative. Steve Prefontaine
Despite being a household name even today, 47 years after his death, Steve Prefontaine remains an enigma, coming as he did in a period of vast political change—the Munich Olympics, the civil rights movement, Kent State, the Vietnam War…Most of us recognize him as a supremely talented track star, developed and encouraged by the Track Town USA mentality of the University of Oregon, home to the iconic Hayward Field and the birth of Bill Bowerman’s Nike Waffle Trainers. But in addition to owning every American record from 2,000 to 10,000 meters and 2 to 6 miles, at the time of his early demise at just 24 years old, there is yet another side to this athlete, one which author Paul Clerici captures in stunning detail.
Alongside vivid race descriptions and explorations of Pre’s personal life, Clerici unearths Pre’s lesser-known side. Most famous is his ongoing battle with the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) and its insistence that American athletes pursue their sport as a self-supported activity. Obviously, this hampered our country’s ability to compete with other nations’ fully-funded athletes. For the ladies, he chafed against the AAU’s ban on women’s competition, and while he did not live long enough to follow through, he did set the pattern for his followers to achieve his goals.
Less well-known is his volunteerism with motivational speaking at schools, camps and conferences. In a time when prisons were a non-issue, Pre worked to form a running program for the inmates at Oregon State Penitentiary. Always in touch with the volatile times in which he lived, he insisted that his beloved Oregon Ducks also adopt a logo that combined a White Disney-style Duck and an Afro Duck running side by side.
Back to the story we all know: On May 30, 1975, Pre’s open-top convertible skidded and flipped over. Pre was not wearing a seat belt. One can only speculate where his dedication, devotion to his country and passion for inclusion would have led him. As fellow U.S. Olympian, Marty Liquori, commented, “When Pre died, we realized that nothing is guaranteed in this life.”
Not only the track world, but the world in general was in mourning.
“Over the years, I’ve given myself a thousand reasons to keep running, but it always comes back to where it started. It comes down to self-satisfaction and a sense of achievement.” -Steve Prefontaine