DON KETCHUM is a native of Phoenix. He was a sportswriter for The Arizona Republic/The Phoenix Gazette for nearly four decades. He covered high school sports on several occasions as well as the Arizona Diamondbacks, Arizona Cardinals and Arizona State sports. From 2008-14, he was a staff writer for, the web site of the Arizona Interscholastic Association.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Late legend Prefontaine still motivates runners

When Xavier Prep competes in the Division I state cross-country meet on Nov. 4 at the Cave Creek Golf Course in north Phoenix, it will do so in the spirit of one of the greatest American distance runners in history.

Steve Prefontaine was an Olympian (Munich, 1972) and set numerous American records. Some believe the Oregon native was one of the reasons why the sport of running became so prevalent among everyday people during the 1970s and since. He also was around when Nike shoes (based in Oregon) were developing into the rage they became for several decades.

In May of 1975, Prefontaine, who also was a University of Oregon student-athlete, was killed when he rolled his car not far from campus. He was only 24, and the running world was shocked.

Over the years, the accident site became a “shrine’’ of sorts. A tribute marker was placed alongside the road and came to be known as “Pre’s Rock.’’ Runners and fans from all over visit the site and leave some sort of meaningful trinket or emblem from their school on or next to the rock to honor Prefontaine.

That’s where Xavier’s Gators come in. Coach Dave Van Sickle, who was in high school at the time of Prefontaine’s death, joined his runners for a visit the site in mid-October in Eugene when they were competing in a meet near Salem, the George Fox Invitational.

“Obviously, these girls weren’t even born yet, so I don’t think it really sunk in at first, what it was all about,’’ Van Sickle said. “Then it started to get quiet and they looked at all of the things that were left there and gained more of an understanding.’’

The girls left a Xavier Gators patch/emblem at the front of the rock (see photo).

The Xavier Prep cross-country team left a school emblem at the site of "Pre's Rock,'' a tribute to late running star Steve Prefontaine. The Oregon athlete died in a car crash in 1975. (Photo courtesy of Dave Van Sickle).
“We were able to go out of state and fly to a different location and were able to see this, and it was interesting, a real thing,’’ said senior Caroline McClelland.

“It was kind of cool do go up there and see it,’’ said senior Annika Nielson.

The atmosphere, with the leaves on the surrounding trees starting to change color, was not quite the same as what the girls were used to.

“I guess it was kind of hot for other teams, but not for us. The weather was cool,’’ said senior Kate Straneva.

The group, which also included seniors Caroline Liddy and Abbie Conrad, discovered that the site is updated and maintained on a regular basis.

The Xavier runners also viewed a few inspirational videos telling about Prefontaine’s outstanding career. In one race, he crosses the finish line first and takes a quick look over his shoulder to see where his other competitors are.

Amazingly, no one is even close. Not for dozens of yards.

Wouldn’t that be a great way to win a race?

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