When people prioritize sports in the United States the top three are usually football, basketball and baseball. These sports receive a lot of media attention making the athletes superstars and heroes to many kids. Sports such as distance running don’t receive attention and it’s heroes are not known as well.
Distance running in the United States has had many athletes that have achieved legendary greatness. One such person is Jim Ryun from Kansas. While in high school he was the first prep miler to break four minutes in the mile. He also won three State mile run titles and set the high school record for the mile of 3:55.3, which stood for 36 years.
When Jim finished high school he continued to set records on the track. He held five world records during his career and was named the youngest Sportsman of the Year in 1966. Jim Ryun was also a three-time U.S. Olympian in the 1500 meters and earned the silver medal in the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games. Jim Ryun has been a four term congressman since retiring from the sport.
Billy Mills is another hero in our sport. Billy is a native Indian who came from an impoverished background and defied many odds to be successful. He is best well known for one of the greatest moments in Olympic history. At the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan a virtually unknown American athlete stunned the world by winning the Olympic gold medal in the 10,000 meter race.
With a lap to go Billy Mills was one of three runners that were competing for the Olympic gold medal, when he was pushed out to lane three. Billy kept his composure and work his way back up methodically to the other known runners. In the final 100 meters he sprinted past the other two runners to win the gold medal. After retiring from the sport, Billy Mills became a successful life insurance salesman and also is a professional motivational speaker.
Our next sports hero is Bill Rodgers. Bill Rodgers is known as the most celebrated men’s distance runner of all time. Bill was a four-time winner of the Boston and New York City marathon. Track and field News ranked Rodgers #1 in the world in the marathon in 1975, 1977 and 1979. He was also a member of the 1976 U.S. Olympic marathon team.
Bill Rodgers has won many awards including Tiffany’s Man of the Year (1989), the New York Runners Club Abebe Biklla Award (1989), and the Ct. sports writers Alliance Gold Key award (1994). Rodgers still holds five American records and one current world record. Bill Rodgers currently is a spokesperson for Etonic shoe company and is the owner of the Bill Rodgers Running Center. He still runs and has many speaking engagements he attends.
One of the most popular and greatest running legends of American distance running is Steve Prefontaine. Pre was born in Coos Bay, Oregon and attended Marshfield High School. He was undefeated in Track and Cross Country his junior and senior year. As a senior at Marshfield he broke the American record for the two mile run. His outstanding performances got the attention of Bill Bowerman a legendary coach at the University of Oregon.
Steve Prefontaine attended the University of Oregon in 1969 and became an instant celebrity. He would fill the University’s Hayward Field to capacity with fans that would cheer for him when he entered the stadium. Pre won seven NCAA titles : three in cross country and four on the track. He held eight collegiate records and his 3 mile and 6 mile records are still standing. Prefontaine also broke his own and other American records 14 different times.
After college Steve Prefontaine continued to train and was in the 1972 Olympic Games held in Munich, Germany. During that race he was content to stay with the pack of runners for the first two miles. With a mile to go he took the lead and start picking up the pace. With 600 meters to run Pre was passed by Finland’s Lasse Viren. Prefontaine gave it everything he had to stay with Viren, but fell short of the gold medal and finished fourth.
Steve Prefontaine was the epitome of toughness. His confident personality and gutsy performances was what people were attracted to. Steve Prefontaine was killed in a car accident on May 30, 1975. It shocked the distance running community world wide. He was 24 years old and was cut down in the prime of his running life. Prefontaine till this day has an impact on distance running. Many high school and collegiate runners have quotes from Pre on the back of their shirts. There is also a track meet in his honor every year at Hayward Field called the Prefontaine Classic.