EUGENE, Ore. — There’s something to that old Hayward magic. In a town that’s fanatical about running, where 20,000-plus fans fill the stands at Hayward Field even on rainy week days, Oregonians love running. Their hero is Steve Prefontaine, the legendary University of Oregon runner and 1972 Olympian who was killed in a car wreck in 1975 on a hill that overlooks Hayward. And they revere long-time Oregon coach and Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman, his visage enlarged to billboard-size-proportions on backdrops at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials here.
And Hayward fans especially love their own runners — the men and women who come to the University of Oregon to run like a Duck.
Urged on by a roar that reverberated through hearts and souls, Matthew Centrowitz and Andrew Wheating, two former Ducks, flew to the finish of the men’s 1500. They made the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team, along with race winner Leo Manzano.
“It was a tough race,” said Centrowitz, 22, who is racing his first year as a pro. “Everyone was in it to win it and make the team. I just wanted to put myself in a good position and come away with the top three spot.”
It’s the first Olympics for Centrowitz and a continuation of his breakout 2011 season, where he won the bronze medal in the 1500 at the 2011 World Championships and broke the University of Oregon record in the 1500 (3:34.46). It’s also the continuation of the Centrowitz legacy. Matthew’s dad, Matt (also a former Duck), made the 1976 and 1980 Olympic teams. The elder Centrowitz also once held the Oregon record for the 1500 — 3:36.70, over two second slower than his son.
Matt Centrowitz, now the track & field coach at American University in Washington, D.C., was in Eugene for Olympic Trials.
“He came out a few days before the Trials to make sure my head is in the right spot,” said the younger Centrowitz. “Sometimes it wanders off with girls. He’s been very helpful keeping me relaxed, talking good stuff in my ear that reinforces, ‘Yeah I’m all right, I’m doing well.’”
The elder Centrowitz was on the track during the men’s victory lap but held his pride in reserve.
“He always likes to be like a tough dad,” said Matthew. “He’s proud of me but doesn’t show too much happiness.”
For Wheating, his third place finish was proof that 2008 was no fluke. The 6’5” Vermonter rode the Hayward wave at the 2008 Olympic Trials in the men’s 800, finishing second after an enormous kick down the home stretch. A college sophomore at the time, Wheating was so surprised when he crossed the line that his facial expression matched the big ‘O’ on his singlet.
Since 2008, Wheating, now 24, has finished college, won two NCAA outdoor titles (800 and 1500 in 2010), run the sixth fastest 1500-meter time in the U.S. (3:30.90), and endured an injured hamstring. He also started making goofball videos with his friend and training partner Russell Brown. From Hanover, N.H., across the Connecticut River from Wheating’s hometown in Vermont, Brown moved to Eugene to run.
Their videos, posted on www.behindthestands.com, lampoon elite athletes with clips like, “What Mario, Luigi, and WaLuigi would be like the morning before a Mario Kart race,” and a “real life” Mario Kart race at a Go-Kart track while they were training in Arizona earlier this spring. They even pulled 2012 Olympic decathlete Ashton Eaton into the mix, staging a mock fight in the street outside Eaton’s home while wearing ridiculous hats (is that a green pig on Eaton’s head?). The site bills itself as, “Just two guys being weird.” Or three.
They made many of the videos this winter when Wheating was nursing his hamstring. He wasn’t able to run without pain until two months ago. Then at the Pre Classic in early June, he finished last in the Bowerman Mile. He sulked for two hours, then turned his focus to the future. The next weekend, he won a National Track League 1500 in Vancouver.
“Everybody is allowed to have bad races,” Wheating said. “Pre was one of mine. You kind of define yourself by how you respond to a bad race. I used the next race after that to put my mind back on track.”
On Sunday afternoon at Hayward Field, Wheating’s mind was not on his hamstring. Or even on the miracle race four years ago — back when he was “like a kid in a candy store, on a whim, wide-eyed, really excited,” and not expecting to make it past the first round.
This time, he was a pro, and he had to make it past the first round. Otherwise, he would be remembered as the lanky Duck who somehow made the 2008 Olympics.
But he did not expect the crowd to be as enthusiastic as they were in 2008.
“I came into that home stretch, and it was like nothing changed,” he said.
On the bell lap, Wheating could feel the crowd cheering.
“I knew they were all on their feet. I knew there were cheering. I could hear them from 300 out to 200, then you come to the homestretch. What’s that movie, Spinal tap? Crank it up to 11? They turned it all the way up.”
The Hayward magic is huge, he said. And he no doubt hopes the Olympic Trials return to Eugene in 2016.
“Honestly, if this was the same race, and you put me in Des Moines or California or some other track, I don’t think it would be the same kind of kick,” he said. “The crowd here, it really does take 10 percent less energy for me to get down the homestretch because they push me the other 10 percent.”
WOMEN’S 1500 TEAM
Fastest 1500 meter runner in the world in 2011. Former world bronze medalist. Reigning world champion.
These are the credentials of Morgan Uceny, Shannon Rowbury, and Jenny Simpson, the U.S. women’s 1500-meter team that qualified for the 2012 Olympics today.
“The last Trials I came away with a fourth and sixth place finish, and I was like, ‘I have four years to wait,’ it seemed like a long time,” said Uceny. “Then this morning, I was like, ‘Holy crap, it’s today!’
“I was able to control my nerves. I was looking at the screens, and I knew that we were going to be the top three. I wanted the win, and I’m really glad I could come away with it.”
Rowbury competed in the 2008 Olympics, making the final in the 1500, and the next year won a bronze medal at Worlds. Uceny and other runners credit her medal with bringing middle-distance running in the U.S. to the next level. More successes followed (Uceny’s breakout 2011 where she was the fastest 1500 meter runner in the world, and Simpson’s gold at 2011 Worlds), and now they are fueling each other.
“They watched me run four minutes, make the Olympic final, get third at World Championships and were like, ‘I can do that,’” said Rowbury. “Then I watched them do better things, and I’ve said, ‘I can be there.’”
Rowbury and Simpson are now two-time Olympians, though Simpson competed in steeplechase in 2008, not the 1500.
“One of the joys of being a 1500-meter runner is so many more people understand better what I do,” said the former steeplechaser, who no doubt was tired of telling people that she did not ride a horse.
Now another joy of running the 1500 is being on a team of women who are favored to bring home Olympic medals.
“The U.S. team, as it says on the posters, is the hardest team to make,” said Rowbury. “I can’t think of a better U.S. women’s 1500-meter team to be sending. Watch out, world!”
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.