Matthew Centrowitz is no longer the eager first-time Olympian who yearned to soak up every sight and sound at the 2012 Games in London.

He came here with a clear mission to improve on his fourth-place finish in the 1,500-meter final four years ago. And he's treated each workout and preliminary race as a step on that singular climb.

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"Save my best for last," said the former star runner of the Broadneck Bruins, who will line up for the race of his life Saturday evening at Joao Havelange Olympic Stadium.

Broadneck grad Matthew Centrowitz qualifies for 1,500 final in Rio

Matthew Centrowitz finished third in his semifinal heat Thursday to earn a spot in Saturday night’s Olympic 1,500-meter final.

Centrowitz knows few track experts are picking him to win gold against a field that includes Kenyan Asbel Kiprop, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist and three-time reigning world champion at 1,500 meters, and Algerian Taoufik Makhloufi, the 2012 Olympic champion. He would be the first American to win the event in 108 years.

He knows his best times suggest he can't beat Kiprop, Makhloufi and several other talented African runners if they're at their fastest.

He also knows speed is but one factor in a major head-to-head race. Anything from a disagreeable afternoon meal to a barely perceptible mid-race bump could change the picture. After all, the tall, blade-thin Kiprop finished last in the 2012 final as he tried to run on a sore hamstring.

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"Everybody is on pins and needles because anything can happen," said Centrowitz's father, Matt Sr., himself a two-time Olympian. "This is the fun part. We've gotten rid of all the make-believe guys."

Centrowitz, 26, is primed in every way possible. Last month, he ran the fastest 1,500 in the history of U.S. Olympic Trials, and he's healthier and more battle-tested than he was in 2012. He has also prepared under the guidance of legendary marathoner Alberto Salazar, one of the most successful coaches in the sport.

"I feel strong. I feel fast," he said after finishing third in his Thursday evening semifinal. "Workouts indicate that I'm in better shape than I've ever been. … The best guys on paper made it through so it's obviously going to be quite a final."

Centrowitz finished just .04 seconds away from a bronze medal in 2012, a terrific result in the context of his career to that point but one that left him deeply unfulfilled.

"I was tickled pink that he made the finals," his father said. "But there were certain things that went on in the race that he could've done a tenth of a second faster and that could've made the difference in winning a bronze medal. That was what he trained for."

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Centrowitz is one of the few Olympians who can truly say he was born into his event.

His father also qualified for two Olympics, running the 1,500 in 1976 but staying home in 1980 (when he would've run the 5,000) because of the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games. Matt Sr. is entering his 12th season as the track and cross country coach at American University.

He was a powerful, sometimes exacting, influence on his gifted son. But the younger Centrowitz has always made it clear how grateful he is for his father's guiding hand. He had the phrase "Like father, like Son" tattooed on his chest, lest anyone miss the point.

Centrowitz was one of the greatest high school distance runners the Baltimore area had ever seen when he competed for Broadneck. He was The Sun's High School Athlete of the Year in 2007, following in the footsteps of his sister, Lauren, who won the award in 2004.

He did not follow her to Stanford, however, opting instead for Oregon, the traditional track and field powerhouse where his father ran. He won an NCAA championship there before turning pro in 2011.

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Centrowitz's father and sister have stayed a few houses down from him in Rio, doing their best to keep him relaxed and entertained in the long hours between his races.

Matt Sr. hasn't felt the need to say much about his son's preliminary races, two neatly controlled performances that easily put him in the Saturday final.

"He knows how to race," he said. "I'm not going to tell him how to tie his shoes."

Centrowitz said that in some ways, his dad is like any other parent, filled with tension over all the things he can't control for his boy.

"I notice when he gets a little more nervous than me, he's kind of texting me a little more," he said. "Like any parent, they get nervous. But yeah, he does a pretty good job. Obviously, being a former athlete, he understands the boundaries."

Lauren and Matt Sr. plan to do one last thing Saturday before the race. They will hike up to the famous statue of Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio and perhaps try to put in a few good words.

"Right now," Matt Sr. said, "I'll do anything."

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