Saturday, July 9, 2016

Steve

In honor of today's men's 5,000m final at the US Olympic T+F Trials,
I am reposting my story of what happened between
Steve Prefontaine and me the day he won
the 1972 Olympic Trials 5,000m


It’s the last day of the 1972 US Men’s Olympic Track and Field Trials. 

The organizers at Eugene’s legendary Hayward Field were no fools. They scheduled the men’s 5,000m race as the last event of the 8-day program.

It featured Steve Prefontaine, the young man whom Sports Illustrated named, while he was still in high school, “America’s Distance Prodigy,” and George Young, the venerable veteran, the three-time Olympian trying to make his 4th Olympic team.

In an epic race that would see both men break the American Record, Prefontaine and Young went at it, lap by excruciating lap, and the issue was in doubt until the 9th circuit, when Prefontaine edged ahead, inexorably, and led Young to the finish.

Prefontaine (13:22.8) and Young (13:29.4) both broke Pre's American record of 13:29.6.

It would be a cliché to say that the crowd went wild.

But it did.

The sound of that last lap lives with me still. 

The roar was deafening as Prefontaine approached the finish stripe, but the sound when he crossed it is unlike any I have heard before or since.

If there’s one word I associate with that day, it’s “spectacle.”

The spectacle of Gerry Lindgren bounding from the stands with his memorable “Stop Pre” t-shirts, a lasting symbol of the Sparrow’s impish sense of humor.

The spectacle of the race itself, of seeing this prodigy realize the next stage of his potential.

The spectacle of what followed.

A lengthy victory lap, an ovation sustained, an achievement shared. What was so appealing about this young man was his generosity - his willingness to share his joy and, indeed, his triumph.

The celebration continued well into the evening, though it became more personal in nature. It shifted to an area on the east side of Hayward Field, where temporary bleachers had been erected to accommodate the overflow crowds. There a media platform had been built.

On it, young Mr. Prefontaine held court.

The television lights were blinding, the camera bulbs kept flashing, and person after person, kid after kid, asked something of him.

Long after the friends I had watched the race with decided their evening was over, I knew mine wasn’t finished.

For the previous nine months I had embarked upon a running career, such as it was, of my own. I had started running in Bill Bowerman’s beginning jogging class in the fall of 1971, a week after Bowerman had been named head coach of the US Olympic track and field team.

Bowerman’s “Hamburgers” shared the track with Gary Barger, Todd Lathers, Pat Tyson, Arne and Knut Kvalheim, future Olympic discus champion “Multiple” Mac Wilkins, US Olympic decathlete Craig Brigham, and Steve Prefontaine himself.

I was captivated and missed but one meet in five years.

When you run on the track inhabited by the likes of these memorable Ducks, no matter how slowly in comparison, you do get to know them. One of them, Coach Pat Tyson of the Mead and now Gonzaga University cross country programs, remains a friend to this day.

When it came to young Mr. Prefontaine, we saw each other 4 or 5 times a week during the first year I ran. I was from the wilds of Western Massachusetts and knew little of him when I began running. He seemed to like the fact that I never got caught up in the myth of Pre, and that we used each other’s first names was a bond of its own.

That I saw him as a new compatriot, special in terms of his ability but otherwise in many ways like everyone else, created the framework of our passing relationship, and formed the basis of what we Yankees call a 'nodding acquaintance.'

Indeed, the one time, the only time, I asked him for an autograph - not for me but for the 8-year-old son of a friend I had in tow - he grew quite impatient with me. It took me awhile to realize I had violated the boundary. It was the only time in his presence I had bought into the mythic “Pre.”

Fortunately, he forgave me.

So, as he sat surrounded by worshipping kids and an adoring, and yes, fawning press, I wanted to watch the rest of the spectacle.

I made my way up the temporary bleachers, sat in the corner closest to him, and watched. Watched for over an hour as Steve sat there with the patience of a saint, even though he wasn’t one, and did not claim to be.

Every now and then he’d cock his head, look up at me and wonder what on earth I was doing there.

Come to think of it, for someone known for his strong opinions and sometimes colorful language, “what on earth” were probably not the words he was thinking.

Yet he was curious, inquisitive, clearly wondering.

It got dark.

Fortunately, the scoreboard operator had a sense of the moment and didn’t turn off the lights. The darker it got, the more clearly etched into the evening sky was Prefontaine’s new American Record.

I can see it today, just as clearly, more than half a lifetime later.

Finally, there were only a couple of families left, little kids waiting for their moment of magic. I scurried up the rickety bleachers, down to the track, and waited while he completed his hero’s duties.

He smiled in recognition, still with that quizzical look.

*   *   *   

The kids are gone now, and it’s just the two of us with his drug tester in attendance. We exchange greetings and I offer my congratulations. I’m delighted to sense his receptivity, in spite of how long his day has been.

He actually has a few moments left, for me.

Well, I say, I’ve watched this spectacle unfold this afternoon, and now this evening.

He nods.

I’ve seen many people approach you and ask for many things.

He nods, as if to say this is not news.

An autograph, a photograph, an interview, a moment, even, with you.

Yes.

But Steve, I say, for all these people have asked, and all you’ve given in return - one thing has not been said today.

One thing is missing.

What’s that?

Thank you.

He clutches my forearm with both hands.

He will not let go.

Tears come to his eyes.

We both just stand there, at ease in the moment.

When he can speak, I wish him success in the Olympics, and he wishes me good luck in the summer all-comers meets.

Off he scampers across the track and onto the infield. Before he vanishes into the enveloping darkness, he turns and gives me a huge, full-body wave.

I wave back.

Off he jogs into the underbelly of the now gloomy West Grandstand and to his appointment with destiny in Munich.



copyright 2016 Mark Cullen. All rights reserved.

10 comments:

  1. Great story. Thank you for sharing!

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  2. Pre actually ran a sub 13:30 5K two months before the trials running 13:29.6 on April 29, 1972.

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  4. Another great story, as usual!

    Thank you.

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    1. Thank you, Jack! I'm headed for Eugene and the Olympic Trials at the end of next week.

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  5. Wow, great remembrance. I "only" met him once, but it was clear he was a sincere, authentic, caring person.

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    1. Agreed, TSG, he was just as you describe. Let me know if you'll be at the Olympic Trials... we can meet at the Bowerman statue and share some stories.

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  6. Thank you for this, Mark Cullen! At age 12, I was there that day when Pre out-dueled Young. I didn't stick around for the Q&A but experienced plenty of Pre's generous spirit other times. He used to visit my school, Roosevelt Junior High, and I got to play basketball with him once. It was a game in which the students played the faculty, and we got to have Pre on our side. I don't remember which side won, but I remember how competitive Pre was--he scowled at me after I shot three straight clankers from the outside and told me to pass the ball, which I did from then on!

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    1. Funny story about your basketball game, Anthony - thanks for telling me! Let me know if you'll be at the Olympic Trials - we can meet at the Bowerman statue and share some stories.

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