There’s “nothing” left for an Olympian like Matthew Centrowitz Jr. after winning a gold medal, the very thing he’d built his entire life for, according to his father.
“Except for setting records,” Matthew Sr., also an Olympian, said. “The American record would be the immediate one.”
Matthew Jr. came down hard and fast from the high of becoming the first American since 1908 to claim Olympic gold in the 1,500 meters at Rio de Janeiro. The Broadneck alumnus struggled through an indoor track and field season that was affected by a viral infection that spiked his heart rate, an adductor injury and a hamstring strain.
He had few highs and low lows: the two-time Olympian set a personal-best in the 2 miles in New York but was eliminated in the first round of the 2017 IAAF World Championships. He bleached his hair.
“I did all the right things to get myself healthy as soon as possible,” he said, “and when my body was ready to go, I had a slow buildup to get back where I was as one of the top 10 guys in the world.”
Sunday’s Fifth Avenue Mile in New York, which he won most recently in 2012, is a mile marker for him. A good outcome would represent all the progress he’s made this year.
“There’ll be some really good competition. I respect everyone in that race. My expectations for the race is getting a good effort in, leaving on a positive note before getting into those fall miles,” he said.
Over the winter, Matthew Jr. set a handful of goals: Reclaim his title in the 1,500 meters at the U.S. national outdoor championship. Compete at a Diamond League meet, one of the biggest international platforms of the year. Set an American record. Reascend to the top echelon of the world’s runners.
“I would say I accomplished everything I set out to do,” Centrowitz said, though he’s still hunting down an American record. “I would imagine that I'm going to end up the U.S. number-one ranked 1,500-meters runner.”
In June, Matthew Jr. absolved himself of last year’s second-place finish at the USATF national outdoor championship, winning his fifth title in the 1,500 in 3 minutes, 43.37 seconds — leaving him two titles short of having more than any other American man in history.
He then crossed the Atlantic Ocean to claim his first-ever Diamond League title, the 1,500, in the same London stadium he’d lost his first chance at Olympic glory six years ago. Two days earlier, he’d clocked his fastest time in the 1,500 since 2015 — 3:31.77.
Matthew Jr. describes 2017 as a “hole to climb out of.” To do so, he needed to do more than ice and rest. He moved from Oregon, where he’d trained since college, to Washington. He kept his father, who had stepped down from his post at American University, by his side for input on his training.
“I enjoy every step of it. Coming back from injuries are never fun, but if anyone knows my dad, myself, we like to make training as enjoyable as possible,” Matthew Jr. said. “I had a lot of fun this year having him at my practices every day. Working fast, getting down from below 3:30 in the 1,500. It was a lot of fun for a year that could have been full of disappointments.”
Tattooed across the front of Matthew Jr.’s chest is the phrase “Like father like son.” His father’s presence has motivated him, he said, back toward the place he wants to be.
Matthew Sr. doesn’t say much to his son. They both know that the 28-year-old is long past the days of needing to be molded and is instead at a stage where all he needs is encouragement.
“It's a process that you have to go through that's very frustrating. The main ingredient for getting through it is being patient. That's where a coach comes in very handy,” Matthew Sr. said. “All top athletes are very motivated. They don't like the idea of being human.”
Matthew Jr.’s revival started with the 4x800-meter relay in Boston, in which he placed third, setting a personal best time of 7:12.25. It set the tone for the year. He would, just two weeks later, return to his 1,500 and place first at the Sydney Athletics Grand Prix.
“I know it's a process,” he said. “At my age, to take that amount of time off is, you can't come back as quickly as when you're in your younger 20s and early 20s. I’m just kind of really excited for building on what I did this year next year and the following year.”
Matthew Jr. is used to both success and frustration. Besides his Olympic and USATF Outdoor accolades, he was the 2011 NCAA outdoor champion and a three-time Pacific-10 champion at Oregon.
In recent years, though, it’s been a little more of the latter. Most of Matthew Jr.’s personal bests came in another era; 16 out of 19 he set in 2016 or earlier, the year he won the gold in Rio. He also struggled, by his measure, to break 51 minutes at the Washington Cherry Blossom 10 Mile, something he knew he’d been able to do easily in college.
Matthew Jr. is keen on turning every loss, every “zero” on his sheet, into gold, especially now that he's lost precious time to injuries.
“I've won world indoor; I've won Olympic gold. I've gotten silver at the outdoors. I've never gotten gold,” he said. “Things that I still want to put on my resume to be known as one of the best 1,500-meter runners this country’s ever seen.”
Further on down the road, he has his third Olympics in his sights. No American has ever repeated the 1,500 at the Olympics; British runner Sebastian Coe was the first man to do it, in 1984, and only the second person ever, after Russian Tatyana Kazankina defended her 1976 victory in 1980. The few feats are a testament to, as Matthew Jr. said, just how impossibly difficult the event is, and yet it’s on his to-do list before his career is over.
That’s the son’s aspirations, anyway. For his father, his goals are simpler.
“The main part is that he got healthy. That might not be his main goal, but as his father, I'm just glad he's healthy,” he said. “It's all I care about. If he has good health, good things will happen.”