Steve Prefontaine, a Coos Bay, Oregon student, is too small to play most sports but becomes a talented distance runner. He enrolls at the University of Oregon in 1969, and meets fellow Oregon Ducks track and field athletes Pat Tyson and Mac Wilkins. With coaches Bill Bowerman and Bill Dellinger, “Pre” wins three national cross-country championships and four consecutive 5,000-meter runs, breaking the U.S. record in the latter. Prefontaine gains fame as an aggressive runner who likes to be out front from the start, rather than biding his time until a strong finish.
Prefontaine accompanies other top American runners including Frank Shorter and Jeff Galloway to the 1972 Munich Olympics, where they witness the terrorist attacks of the Munich Massacre which interrupt and almost cancel the games. In the 5,000-meter, after leading with only 150 meters to go, three different runners including the winner, Finland’s Lasse Viren, pass Prefontaine and he does not win a medal.
After his college career ends, Prefontaine prepares for a rematch with Viren at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. The strict amateurism rules of American non-collegiate sports force Prefontaine to turn down a lucrative offer to become a professional runner, instead working as a bartender while living in a trailer home. He becomes an activist to help American athletes compete against better-funded international rivals. On May 30, 1975, after drinking alcohol at a post-meet party, Prefontaine is killed when his MG convertible flips while driving. After his death, the Amateur Sports Act of 1978 gives athletes more control over their sports’ governance.