RIO DE JANEIRO — “Welcome to the club.”
Those are the words Matthew Centrowitz heard from Sebastian Coe as he stood on the victory podium after winning the men’s 1,500-meter at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Coe was Olympic champion in 1980 and 1984 in the 1,500 and is now president of the IAAF, track and field’s global governing body.
The club only had two U.S. members before Saturday night. Centrowitz became the first American to win a gold medal in the metric mile since Mel Sheppard in 1908, who followed James Lightbody in 1904.
“I’m just, happy to bring gold back to the U.S.,” Centrowitz said. “Having a bit of history along the way is very humbling.”
Centrowitz was not to be denied this time.
Four years after finishing fourth in London, he led at every split, and then held on down the straightaway against a tough field.
Centrowitz finished in 3 minutes, 50 seconds flat, about 20 seconds off his personal best in the tactical race.
He held off several challengers and ran a last lap of 50.62 seconds to edge Taoufik Makhloufi of Algeria, whose time was 3:50.11. Nicholas Willis of New Zealand, the silver medalist eight years ago in Beijing, was third in 3:50.24.
Centrowitz said he was also congratulated by Hicham El Guerrouj, the world record holder. Hours before the race, he woke up from his nap to an good luck email from Jim Ryun, the former world record holder who lost his bid for gold in 1968 to Kip Keino and the altitude in Mexico City.
“He’s been my biggest inspiration,” Centrowitz said of Ryun. “Three of my idols reached out to me today.”
And then there’s the two-time Olympian who has had the biggest influence on Centrowitz’s career: his father Matt, who competed in the 1,500 in 1976 and would have run the 5,000 in 1980 if not for the U.S. boycott.
“On my victory lap, I saw my dad and my sister on the backstretch,” Centrowitz said. “I looked at my dad and I yelled out, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
His dad answered back in kind. “And then I said, ‘Are you kidding me’ again and we just kept going back and forth,” said Centrowitz. “It hasn’t sunk in. I think we’re both absolutely astonished right now.”
For the senior Centrowitz, the accomplishment will sink in deeply soon – in ink. He’ll have a tattoo that corresponds to one his son got a couple years ago.
“I felt my dad was a huge reason my success,” said Centrowitz, who won the world championship bronze medal in 2011, the silver in 2013 and was indoor world champion this year. “I wouldn’t be here without him, he brought me to the sport, whetted my appetite year in and year out. We have the same name, both went to Oregon, both school record holders, sociology major, the list goes on.”
The tattoo on Centrowitz’s chest says, “Like Father, Like Son.”
“A couple of months ago, he said, ‘If you get a medal, I’ll get a tattoo as well. Depending on the color, the more say you have.’”
Said Centrowitz, “I’m thinking, ‘Like son, like father.’”
But going into Saturday’s race, Centrowitz wasn’t confident he would be able to boss his dad around to the highest level.
“I thought on the best day, I could maybe get a silver medal but, sure, in the back of my head I thought I could get gold. I would have been really happy with a silver and coming away with gold is unbelievable."
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He was particularly worried about Asbel Kiprop of Kenya, who had the fastest time this year of 3:29.33.
Centrowitz said he had five different strategies playing out in his head depending on how the race unfolded. He knew he wanted to get out in front, but was surprised when he stayed there.
“I wasn’t confident,” he said. “I was thinking someone was going to come by me on the backstretch. No one did. I was like, ‘Here comes someone. Someone’s gotta come.’ My legs felt great until the last 20, until it felt like I was buckling a little bit. I was like, ‘Come on, man, you’re right there.’
“As soon as I crossed the line, I literally was looking at the board like, ‘Did somebody go by me?’ Did I really just hold that caliber of a field off in an Olympic final. I could not script it any better.”
The last Team USA athlete to medal in the 1,500 was Leo Manzano, who won the silver at the London 2012 Olympic Games, but did not make the U.S. team this year, finishing fourth at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field.
In London, Centrowitz was the runner placing fourth, just off the podium.
“Different field; was a different athlete than four years ago,” Centrowitz said. “It’s so hard to compare the two. I came into this championships with a different mindset. I’m in great shape. I wanted to just run to my capability. It wasn’t a redemption thing for London. It was about being the best I could on this day.”
He now plans to race in Europe and pursue the American record. But if he never gets it, that’s OK.
"I don't think there is any achievement in the sport that tops a gold medal, no world record, no (other) medal. I mean the Olympics is the pinnacle of track and field,” Centrowitz said. “It's the best it gets.
“Hey, I could retire right now. I could literally physically never make another team, do well in another race and it doesn’t matter because I have the Olympic gold.”
He laughed. “That’s just a joke. Obviously, this leaves me hungry for more and more things in the future.”