Olympic runner's short life inspires teen book
By Cynthia Henry
Inquirer Staff Writer
Author Bree Donovan dons a baseball cap and grabs a tennis racket - she's an athlete. Next she's wearing glasses and carrying a stack of books 10 high – she's the brain. Finally she's draped in a feather boa behind designer shades talking about whom she wants to date - the popular girl.
Donovan explores caricatures to help kids ask: How do they see themselves? How might it be different from the way others see them?
"There are gems inside us that shine - maybe even after we've left this world," Donovan tells students in what she calls her "Pre talk," a motivational message based on her new book, Rocketman, the story of Olympic distance runner Steve Prefontaine (Lulu, $14.95).
At the heart of her talk is Prefontaine's challenge to himself and everyone he met: "To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift."
"There was a lot more to Pre than just being a good runner," says Donovan, 40, of Oaklyn, a substitute teacher for Collingswood and Haddon Township schools and Haddonfield Friends.
Prefontaine's story - his gutsy pursuit of gold in the 5,000 meters in the 1972 Olympics, his reform of the amateur runner system, his contribution to the launch of Nike shoes, and his untimely death in a car accident - will likely be back in the news this week as the U.S. Olympic trials open Friday in Eugene, Ore., where Prefontaine raced in college.
Donovan, a runner herself, first heard of Prefontaine years ago from a boyfriend who admired him. Then last year she was reminded of his story when the movie Without Limits appeared on HBO. Determined to learn more, she read Tom Jordan's biography, Pre, but found nothing written for children.
She knew she had a project. She abandoned the novel she was writing – and ultimately her job as a social worker – to research and write about Prefontaine.
The result is a 161-page narrative aimed at middle schoolers based on memories of Prefontaine's teammates, coaches and friends. The illustrator is Donovan's friend Sara Charmé Zane, 17, who graduated this month from Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia.
Donovan persuaded Prefontaine's sister Linda to cooperate with the project by pledging to donate the proceeds to the charity of her choice: the arts, music and sports programs at Blossom Gulch Elementary School in Coos Bay, Ore., where the Prefontaines grew up.
"We haven't had a PE teacher in 20 years," principal Jennifer Haliski said, although a grant may provide one next year. "Our teachers teach their own music and art. This book could help us bring back some of the things that Linda and Steve had when they were here."
Coos Bay is a rural, geographically isolated, high-poverty area, Haliski said. "We talk a lot about having dreams. The kids know a lot about Pre. It's the story of a kid from Coos Bay who never gave less than his best."
So far, the school has received about $800 in proceeds, which will be managed by the Prefontaine Memorial Committee in town, Haliski said.
Blossom Gulch also will benefit from sales of a CD ($5.90) featuring a reading of the first chapter by Prefontaine's lifetime friend Jim Seyler and a recording of Elton John's "Rocket Man" by Haddonfield's ChildrenSong.
Donovan was delighted when ChildrenSong, a 100-member, by-audition group, agreed to participate in the project, she said. The group's concert choir, consisting of 12- to 18-year-olds, practiced for two months beginning in August, then recorded at the Tatem School, where it rehearses.
ChildrenSong sings classical music, folk songs, jazz and spirituals in more than a dozen performances yearly, artistic director Polly Murray said. Recording "Rocket Man," she said, "the kids realized that pop may not be easier to sing."
"The song was written for a solo voice. Getting 38 voices to have the same nuances at the same time was the hardest part," she said.
Donovan researched the book by phone and e-mail. She plans to travel to Oregon for the first time in September for the 29th annual Prefontaine Memorial Run in Coos Bay to meet her sources and see where Pre lived and ran.
"I can't wait," she said.
Author Bree Donovan is scheduled to talk about Steve Prefontaine at 7:30 p.m. July 18 at the Collingswood Library,
771 Haddon Ave.
To order the book or CD, go to http://stores.lulu.com/
Learn more about ChildrenSong's role in the project by visiting www.childrensong.org or calling 856-216-1140.
For more information about Blossom Gulch Elementary School, go to www.blossom.