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May 22, 2018

Stories Behind The Singlet: Steve Prefontaine’s Iconic Race Kits

Steve Prefontaine’s path can be told by his singlets— each represents a step in his journey. His high school singlets cloaked a fierce fighter wrought with insecurity. His college singlets adorned an invincible adonis. His international singlets speak of heroic folly, and his last singlet marked him for death.

The young Prefontaine warmed benches at Marshfield High School. He was too small for any team sports, so he took to cross-country with self-conscious vigor. The first varsity jersey he wore was a glossy-purple cross-country singlet with a winged “M,” slightly off-center. He finished 53 at state championships but charged out with the leaders, eager to prove himself against the older athletes. Though not yet unbeatable, young Pre had already developed his gasping, desperate finishing face, as well as the impish grin of someone who knows he is destined for great things.

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steve prefontaine oregon singlet

In college, Steve Prefontaine became iconic. He took races out at impossible paces and with a thunderous crowd pushing him to spectacular finishes. He’d answer their call with a cock of his head and an arch of his spine, charging down the last straight with his mouth agape and his eyes rolled back. So epic, so inevitable, were his battles that he began to seem supernatural to fans. When he stepped onto the track, clad like the sun in an ethereal Oregon singlet (the first to ever feature heat-pressed logos), the clouds would part for his presence. At Hayward Field, Pre began his ascension to mythical figure.

steve prefontaine oregon track and field
steve prefontaine usa singlet
Abroad, however, Pre fought monsters he couldn’t slay with a hard start and relentless charge. Whenever Pre donned an America singlet, he met tragedy after tragedy, watching the heels of Europeans fly away from him, invincible to his tricks. At the Munich Olympics, Pre lost the most important race of his life. He ran it race like a boxing match, observing, biding his time, then releasing a vicious flurry of surges, trading haymakers with Lasse Viren all through the final mile. With one hundred meters to go, Pre sagged into third place, then stumbled to fourth at the finish line. The most dominant runner in America, in an oddly low-cut USA singlet, walked off the Olympic track a statuesque testament to tragic effort.
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In his final race, for the only time in his life, Pre put on an ominous black singlet. Before a Hayward Field crowd of seven thousand, he fought Frank Shorter over five kilometers. Restless after eight laps, Pre left Shorter behind and simply sailed out of sight. He finished less than two seconds off his American record, wrenching his body through the finish line. He died hours later, fittingly fighting for oxygen as his flipped car crushed the air from his lungs.
Through his life, Pre never lost a race over a mile at Hayward Field.
steve prefontaine last race
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