Many of us have lost sight of what we really desire in life. We probably need to remind ourselves of the importance of rediscovering our desires and regaining the spark which makes life worthwhile.
If we fail to do this we will just settle for mediocrity and never make the most of our potential. Of course, illness or death can spoil our dreams but if we have tried our heart out up till then we will have nothing to regret.
Steve Prefontaine, the great American 5000 metre runner, is one person who did not settle for less than his best although sadly he died before he could achieve all his dreams.
I recently watched the film of his life and found it moving to say the least. Above all, the film showed what focused desire can achieve even when it is interrupted by death.
At sixteen, Steve Prefontaine was clear about his dream. He wanted to run and win gold at the Munich Olympics. “No one is going to stop me.” Running became his life.
Bill Bowerman, head coach at the University of Oregon, wrote him a letter on the front page of a newspaper: “Dear Pre, If you want to come to the University of Oregon there is no doubt in my mind you will be the greatest distance runner in the world.” He understood what would appeal to the mind of a winner.
Steve went to Oregon at the time of the protests against the war in Vietnam. He appreciated his good fortune: “Man, if it wasn’t for running I’d be dodging bullets in ‘Nam instead of training for Munich.”
He visualized his success frequently both on his own and in the company of his girlfriend: “You really know how to sweet talk a girl.” Mac Wilkins, the great discus thrower, thought he was a “cocky little mother.”
But the head coach knew his cocky attitude was worth its weight in gold: “I’d like to bottle it and force feed it to the rest of you guys.” The coach knew Steve had the heart of a winner and was motivated by the desire to win.
His room mate commented: “Back then everyone had either dope or beer. Pre’s drug was winning at everything.” Steve’s words to the press were sometimes arrogant. The assistant coach told him that, as a result of his words, every athlete in the country would be gunning for him. “Bring them on.” Steve replied.
He always made time for kids “He saw himself in their little faces.” But he wouldn’t let a nine year old beat him in a race. “You can’t let a losing mentality creep in here (pointing to his brain). All my life people have said to me: ‘You’re too small, Pre; you’re not fast enough, Pre; give up your foolish dream, Steve.’ They forgot something: I have to win.”
His girlfriend commented about him: “He always had a great need; just an endless need; it came from somewhere.” Steve had a huge desire or need to win and to be the best. He is the only man to have held every American record between 2000 and 10000 metres. This has never been equaled.
At the Munich Olympics in 1972, Israeli athletes were taken hostage and then murdered. The Games continued nevertheless and Steve Prefontaine was given a chance to win gold in the 5000 metres.
Things didn’t go to plan, however, and he came in fourth. Viren of Finland who won the race was 23. Steve was 21. Steve was distraught. He just banged his head against the wall. “It’s my fault. I messed up.” The assistant coach said “You ran your heart out. You’ve got to let it go, Pre.”
Back home his girlfriend told him that she and the whole town were very proud of him. Steve was not convinced: “Yeah, sure; they’ll probably name a street after me. They’ll call it ‘Fourth Street’.”
He told his coach, Bill, not to retire but Bill had had enough: “He who runs against time has an adversary not subject to casualties. I’m 62. I’m getting too old for all this. I presided over the worst performance of the US team in Olympic History.”
Steve replied: “That wasn’t your fault. You couldn’t run those races for us. We were the ones that blew it. I blew it.”
Bill did not agree: “You could have run for the bronze or the silver. You ran to win. I couldn’t ask more than that from an athlete.”
Steve confided his feelings: “Its funny; these days I don’t know whether I want to train like hell and kick Viren’s ass or stay in bed.”
Bill Bowerman told him that he was a grown up now. No one would wipe his bottom for him: “If you want to run, you run. If you don’t, you walk away from it. No one can coach desire, Pre.” We all have to discover our own desire and, as adults, are the only ones who can follow up on our dreams.
It took a while but Steve bounced back and found his desire again. But he knew now that he needed to compete with the best to beat them. He fought for better support for American athletes after their college days were over. Eventually, this victory was won.
In the mean time he managed to organize a visit to Oregon by a Finnish team. Mac Wilkins was able to beat the world record holder at this meet.
At the after meet party, Mac Wilkins expressed his new found respect for Steve: “You know something. All those years to me you were a talented little jerk. I never understood you, but I now I do. I live and breathe the discus, Pre. I hate Christmas and Thanksgiving and Easter and anything that disrupts my routine.”
Mac had the same burning desire to be the best as Steve. In 1976 he broke the world discus record and also won gold at Montreal. Desire for gold makes athletes hate anything that interrupts their plans to win. It makes them get up early in the morning to train. Steve’s desire had returned but sadly he was killed in a car accident the evening after the farewell party for the Finns. He never had his second chance to win gold.
Bowerman commented on his life: “He was a rare runner – the kind a coach sees only once in a life time.”
His first love said sadly: “I realized that I had kind of settled for things when we broke up and he never did that.”
The assistant coach commented: “Let’s be honest. The only reason we’re sitting talking about Pre right now is that Pre was a winner People need winners. Pre went to Munich to win and Montreal, by God, he would have.
The funeral hearse went round the track at Hayward Field, Oregon. Bill Bowerman gave a funeral speech: “Pre ran every race as though it was his last. This is his last. This is the bell lap for Steve Prefontaine.”
The attenders at the funeral called out: “Go Pre! Go Pre!” as his hearse came past just as they had done in his running days. He never won gold at the Olympics but he left a golden example behind him. He showed us the mind of a winner whose desire or need to be the best was huge. We can all learn from this.
The powerful song “Forever Young” by Bob Dylan ended the film.