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Broadneck High graduate Matthew Centrowitz Jr. begins gold medal defense at Tokyo Olympics

Matthew Centrowitz is a savvy veteran and seasoned professional.

The Arnold native has been one of the top 1,500-meter runners in the United States for more than a decade and has a list of accomplishments a mile long.

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Centrowitz cemented his legacy at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, by capturing the gold medal in the 1,500. He pulled of somewhat of an upset by running a brilliant strategical race.

It was an historic moment as Centrowitz became the first American to win the 1,500-meter run since Mel Sheppard in 1908. No one cared that it was the slowest winning time in the event at the Olympics since 1932.

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For years, Centrowitz was the young gun chasing after established stars. He first qualified for the Olympics at the age of 22, finishing fourth at the 2012 London games. He grabbed gold in Rio at 26 years old.

Now the running shoe is on the other foot. Centrowitz will be a couple months shy of his 32nd birthday when he competes at the Tokyo Olympics this week. The Broadneck High graduate is the elder statesman of a U.S. 1,500-meter team that includes a pair of collegians.

Cole Hocker, who pulled off a stunning upset of Centrowitz at the United States Olympic Trials, is just 20 years old. The Indianapolis native claimed three national championships as a freshman at Oregon, winning the mile and 3,000 meters indoors along with the 1,500 run outdoors.

Yared Nuguse, who recently graduated from Notre Dame, was the 2019 NCAA champion in the 1,500 before getting beaten by Hocker this past spring. The Louisville, Kentucky, resident holds the NCAA record in the event with a time of 3:34.68.

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Nuguse placed a distant third at the U.S. Trials after Hocker used a strong finishing kick to overtake a surprised Centrowitz.

“Matthew has done the preparation and passed all the tests. He’s ready to go, both mentally and physically. Now all he needs to do is go out and execute,” said Matt Centrowitz Sr., who has guided his son’s career from the outset.

The elder Centrowitz was an accomplished distance runner in his own right, a four-time national champion in the 5,000 meters and a two-time Olympian. The former University of Oregon standout set the American record in the 5,000-meter run and still holds the New York state record for the mile after clocking a 4:02.7 while at Power Memorial High in the Bronx.

Matt Centrowitz Sr. was the head coach of track and field and cross country at American University from 1999 to 2017. He was named Patriot League Coach of the Year nine times in 18 years.

The elder Centrowitz resigned at American in order to play a more prominent role in his son’s training.

“We were together for a year and had a great time. We went down to Australia for a few months and did some sightseeing and some racing,” Centrowitz Sr. said. “I thought it was a great getaway and opportunity for Matthew to get refreshed.”

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 18: Ronald Kwemoi of Kenya, Ayanleh Souleiman of Djibouti, and Matthew Centrowitz of the United States compete in the Men's 1500m Semifinal on Day 13 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on August 18, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images) ** OUTS - ELSENT, FPG, CM - OUTS * NM, PH, VA if sourced by CT, LA or MoD **
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 18: Ronald Kwemoi of Kenya, Ayanleh Souleiman of Djibouti, and Matthew Centrowitz of the United States compete in the Men's 1500m Semifinal on Day 13 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on August 18, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images) ** OUTS - ELSENT, FPG, CM - OUTS * NM, PH, VA if sourced by CT, LA or MoD ** (Paul Gilham / Getty Images)

Gearing Back Up

Winning the gold medal and earning the title of world’s greatest 1,500-meter runner was a life-changing event for Centrowitz, who took a victory lap of sorts upon returning to the United States.

Broadneck High held Matt Centrowitz Day in November 2016 and the renowned runner signed autographs and posed for photos with his gold medal. During a private meeting with school staff, Centrowitz took the time to personally thank Dana Dobbs for being a trusted mentor at an important time of his development.

Dobbs was the track and field coach at Broadneck when Centrowitz first ascended to stardom, ultimately setting a meet record in the mile run at the prestigious Penn Relays and winning the two-mile race at the Nike Outdoor Nationals. He also set the Maryland record in the 1,500 (4:04.09) and garnered a gold medal at the Pan American Junior Championships.

Dobbs, who was an American sign language teacher at Broadneck, said his knees buckled and he cried as Centrowitz crossed the finish line first in Rio. They have remained close over the years, texting from time to time to catch up.

“It’s been a thrill watching Matthew’s career develop. I don’t think any former coach could ask for more,” Dobbs said. “He’s remained grounded and the same person he’s always been. He’s the perfect balance between an incredibly hard worker and a person who enjoys life.”

Eventually, it was time to get back to work as Centrowitz was committed to continue competing at a high level and determined to defend his Olympic gold medal. He’s found mixed success during the five years between Olympics.

Centrowitz captured his fourth United States Track and Field Association Outdoor national championship in 2018 and was the silver medalist in 2017 and 2019. He was a disappointing eighth at the 2019 IAAF World Championships in Doha, Qatar.

However, Centrowitz scoffed when asked during the press conference following the U.S. Trials whether he ever doubted he could qualify for a third Olympics. He noted the results spoke otherwise.

“I don’t know why people are talking about these ‘rough years.’ If rough years are finishing second at nationals, well OK I’ve had some rough years,” Centrowitz said. “What year besides [2020] when it was COVID, and no one was really racing, did I ever have a terrible year that made me think I wasn’t going to make the Olympics?”

However, various lower body injuries — most notably a nagging hip flexor — did cause Centrowitz some setbacks along the way. In an interview with Track and Field News, Centrowitz described the ailments as occupational hazards, especially considering he has been pounding the pavement almost nonstop for 10-plus years.

Due to a combination of coronavirus and injuries, Centrowitz said he was “under-raced” throughout 2020. He had to pull out of a meet on the East Coast last August then the pandemic canceled some other scheduled events.

“I feel like at my age, I’m always gonna have a little something going on. Just trying to maintain as best as I can,” he said. “I was kind of forced to take some downtime.”

Matt Centrowitz Sr. was hired as director of cross country and track and field at Manhattan College in 2018. That is when Centrowitz Jr. joined the Bowerman Track Club and began training under the tutelage of renowned distance coach Jerry Schumacher. Since becoming a full-time Nike professional coach in 2008, Schumacher has coached 19 athletes that have made Olympic or world championship teams.

Schumacher has a sizeable stable of distance runners, many who specialize in 5,000- and 10,000-meters. Centrowitz admits he was behind his Bowerman Track Club teammates in terms of sharpness and fitness because he had “a slower buildup” during the fall.

Strength training involving long-distance workouts is a trademark of Schumacher’s training regimen and Centrowitz acknowledged being unaccustomed to doing two-mile repeats.

That philosophy paid dividends when Centrowitz clocked a time of 13 minutes, 32.92 seconds in the 5,000-meter run in a December meet at JSerra High in San Juan Capistrano, California. He later ran the 5,000 in 13 minutes flat as part of a race featuring all of Schumacher’s distance runners that was held on the track at Nike headquarters in Portland, Oregon.

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Cole Hocker, left, who recently finished his freshman year at the University of Oregon, unleashed a massive kick to overtake reigning gold medalist Matthew Centrowitz and win the 1,500 meter final at the United States track and field Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore.
Cole Hocker, left, who recently finished his freshman year at the University of Oregon, unleashed a massive kick to overtake reigning gold medalist Matthew Centrowitz and win the 1,500 meter final at the United States track and field Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore. (Alexandra Garcia/The New York Times)

Focusing on Olympics

Centrowitz’s entire training program has been geared toward winning gold at the Tokyo Olympics. Victory at the U.S. Trials was not necessary to achieve that goal as the top three finishers all qualified.

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Extreme heat in Eugene, Oregon on June 27 forced the United States Track and Field Association to postpone the trials for five hours. As a result, the 1,500-meter final started just before midnight after originally being scheduled for 4:40 p.m. local time.

Temperatures reached 111 degrees at one point, breaking the record of 108 for the Eugene area that was set in August 1981. That heat scorched the track at historic Hayward Field, located on the University of Oregon campus.

“For me, trials are nerve-wracking. In many ways, they’re more nerve-wracking than the Olympics,” Centrowitz said. “It’s a relief every time you qualify for the next round because so much crap can go on during these trials.”

Having the 1,500 final postponed for so long and knowing the heat would be almost unbearable only made the situation more tense. Centrowitz was comforted by spotting his family — Matt Sr., mother Beverly and sister Lauren — in the stands prior to the race.

“I was super nervous and had a lot of anxiety. My heart rate was up. Trying to come down from something like that is not easy. Then having to gear back up… I’ll be honest I struggled with it,” he said.

“Having my family in the crowd, seeing my sister as I approached the starting line, gave me a little sense of comfort and helped calm my nerves a bit. It was special to have them there.”

Centrowitz moved to the front of the pack late in the second lap then began to stretch out the lead as he made the final turn. However, Hocker dug deep for a burst of speed and caught up to the elder statesman.

“One of the most exciting races I’ve ever been part of,” Centrowitz said afterward. “I didn’t know what to expect, fast or slow, so I had different race plans. They all involved me being at the front.”

Hocker and Centrowitz ran stride-for-stride down the home stretch before Hocker pulled ahead just before crossing the line. The rising sophomore at the University of Oregon won with a personal-best time of 3 minutes, 35.28 seconds with Centrowitz crossing at 3:35.34.

Centrowitz said after the race he was exactly where he wanted to be going into the final straightaway.

“I made a tactical error by punching it too soon. I had planned to save something for the last 50,” he said. “Sure enough, Cole had another gear that I couldn’t respond to.”

Matt Centrowitz Sr. noted that Hocker was in peak condition coming off a collegiate season capped by capturing the national championship in the event. Meanwhile, Schumacher has designed a program aimed at having Centrowitz Jr. peak at the Olympics this week.

“Matthew has a bullseye on his back, which is difficult to deal with,” the elder Centrowitz said. “When you’re the champion, it’s a much different viewpoint. You’re always fending off the up-and-coming challengers.”

The Centrowitz family poses together about 10 years ago. From left are: Matthew, Beverly, Marissa, Matt Sr., and Lauren.
The Centrowitz family poses together about 10 years ago. From left are: Matthew, Beverly, Marissa, Matt Sr., and Lauren. (Family Photo, Capital Gazette)

Parental Pride

Beverly Centrowitz marvels over her son’s ability to always show up and get the job done when it matters most. Dating back to 2011, Matthew Centrowitz Jr. has made every United States Olympic and World Championship team.

“Matthew has always delivered. He always finds a way to get ready and do whatever it takes to make the national teams. He’s just so tenacious,” said Beverly Centrowitz, noting her son has never complained about injuries or other ailments.

That said, the elder Centrowitz does believe the Tokyo Olympics being delayed a year was a blessing in disguise for his son.

“You can’t magically click your heels together and make it happen. There’s a process to preparing for a major competition such as the Olympics,” he said. “Matthew has dealt with some stresses. Throw in the virus that caused uncertainty with competition, and his flow and rhythm were thrown off.

“I give Matthew a lot of credit for digging in and figuring it out.”

Matthew Centrowitz Jr. has now been one of the world’s top 1,500-meter runners for a long time by professional running standards. He captured a bronze medal at the IAAF Outdoor Championships in Daegu, South Korea, at the age of 21.

“Matthew’s been at the world-class level for more than a decade and has become the most decorated American distance runner,” Matt Sr. said. “That’s incredible when you really think about it and something to be very proud of.”

Centrowitz recently completed speed training in Park City, Utah, and displayed the progress made in that department when he attempted to break the American record in the mile run during a staged time trial at Jesuit High in Portland.

Things didn’t go as planned, due largely to the fact the pacesetters (known as rabbits) all dropped out too early — leaving Centrowitz alone on the track for the final 500 meters. He wound up setting a personal record of 3:49.26, which ranks fifth all-time in U.S. history. Alan Webb’s record of 3:46.91, which was set July 21, 2007, still stands.

Schumacher publicized the mile record attempt to put pressure on Centrowitz, who believes the Olympic final in the 1,500 will be run at a fast pace. If that proves the case, early speed will be essential and Centrowitz has prepared to clock faster-than-usual splits.

“That was a brilliant last-second tune-up because the whole drill was to go out hard,” Matt Sr. said.

Beverly Centrowitz believes that impressive mile time gives her son “a ton of confidence” going into the Olympics. Distance runner Moh Ahmed recently opined that his Bowerman Track Club teammate enters the Olympic competition “in the best form of his life.”

Matt Centrowitz Jr. will begin to find out how he rates against the world’s best on Monday night (8 p.m.) when he runs a preliminary heat. Semifinals are slated for Thursday (7 a.m.).

Beverly Centrowitz, who now lives in Satellite Beach, Florida, responded “not often enough” when asked about the frequency of seeing her son. This year was special because they got together three times as Matthew visited Florida for Christmas then came back in March prior to participating in a race in Miramar. Of course, the whole family was together for the U.S. Olympic Trials in late June.

Matt Sr. and Lauren Centrowitz, a standout distance runner in her own right at Broadneck High and Stanford University, were in the stands to see the gold medal-winning run in Rio. Beverly Centrowitz did not make the trip and calls that decision “the only regret I will ever have in my life.”

All had originally planned to travel to Tokyo last summer and were forced to obtain airline and hotel refunds after the summer games were postponed. Families of athletes are not permitted to attend the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics.

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NBC has arranged to have both Matt Sr. and Beverly on camera during the 1,500-meter finals, which will be televised live next Saturday at 7:40 a.m. Beverly will watch from Universal Studios Florida, while Matt Sr. will be attending a watch party at a bar in the Bronx along with Lauren and a bunch of high school buddies.

The USA's Matthew Centrowitz celebrates winning the 1500 meters final at the IAAF World Indoor athletic championships in Portland, Oregon on March 20, 2016. He finished fourth in his heat at the Olympic trials on Thursday to advance to Friday's semifinals.
The USA's Matthew Centrowitz celebrates winning the 1500 meters final at the IAAF World Indoor athletic championships in Portland, Oregon on March 20, 2016. He finished fourth in his heat at the Olympic trials on Thursday to advance to Friday's semifinals. (MARK RALSTON / AFP/Getty Images)
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