SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Robby Andrews was as surprised as anyone when he came charging down the straightaway in the 1,500-meter and passed Olympic champion Matthew Centrowitz at the tape.
Andrews started the final lap in fifth place at the 2017 USATF Outdoor Championships, then started picking off his competitors.
“At one point I was racing for third,” Andrews said. “And then I was like, ‘Oh, I can get him. I’ll go for second.’ And then I’m like, ‘I can win this thing.’”
And so he did, running in Lane 2 while Centrowitz hugged the inside.
“Matthew’s Olympic champion," Andrews said. "I’m not going to take anything for granted."
But he also made sure his last 50 meters was the best of the race.
Andrews finished with a time of 3 minutes, 43.29 seconds, with Centrowitz – who two weeks ago hadn’t planned to race because of illness and injury – at 3:43.41. John Gregorek took the third spot for the team going to the 2017 IAAF World Championships at 3:43.99.
Olympian Ben Blankenship tried to pull away on the last lap, but faded to 12th in 3:46.42. Clayton Murphy, the surprise bronze medalist in the 800 at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, was trying to double at nationals. He was limping as he finished the 1,500 in 13th – and last – place at 3:50.55.
The national championships are part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Comcast, and are being televised on NBC platforms.
“Winning’s always fun,” Andrews said. “It’s been a while since I’ve won. I’m not going to lie. I’ve gotten second to the Olympic champion a few times.”
Centrowitz has won the last two U.S. outdoor titles, plus two others dating back to 2011.
“I’m not going to say it was a true battle,” Andrews said. “He’s definitely said he’s been banged up, but it feels really good to win a race.”
Even though Centrowitz was running after only about 10 days of training, he said he wasn’t trying to just eke out a place on the team by placing second or third.
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“The best way for me to finish third or second is just go for the win,” Centrowitz said. “And I tried as hard as I could today. Robby’s obviously in tremendous shape and the better man today.”
Andrews placed second behind Centrowitz at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field. While Centrowitz went on to become the first U.S. man to win the 1,500 title since 1908, Andrews was disqualified in the semifinals for stepping inside the rail near the finish line.
He does have a national indoor title, taking the 1,000-meter in 2015, but this is Andrews’ first outdoor crown.
And he did it in unusual fashion – at least for him. Andrews, who tends to stay back in the pack, took the lead and was running side by side with Centrowitz with two laps to go. The pack then absorbed him before he burst out in the final lap.
“I was running free today, man,” Andrews said. “It was just pure instinct today. I was over-thinking things a lot. I had a huge monkey on my back after the Olympics and we just said, ‘Let’s get in here and run free.’”
He’s not sure if he’ll go back to his old habits or remain a front-runner. “If that’s what it’s going to take to win races, maybe,” he said, “but I’m going to do what I’m comfortable with.”
He does have a sense of urgency to run fast by July 23. Andrews has not yet met the world qualifying standard of 3:36 this season. He has a personal best of 3:34.78 from five years ago and ran close to that last season.
“I’m going to try to get the standard as quick as I can and represent the country in London,” Andrews said.
Centrowitz is looking to complete his world championships medal collection. He already has a bronze from 2011 and a silver from 2013.
In 2015, Centrowitz was eighth, followed by Leo Manzano in 10th and Andrews in 11th.
In early June, he was so sure he wasn’t going to compete at nationals that he dyed his dark hair blonde.
“I was ready to can the season, to be honest with you,” said Centrowitz. “I was like, ‘No one’s going to see me. I’m done with my year.’
“I was ready to do the depressed thing that most people do,” he added. “Bleach it like Justin Bieber.”
After posting a time of 3:33 this season, he had a viral infection before the Prefontaine Classic in May. He recovered, then tore his right adductor. He had previously strained his left adductor.
“That might have just been from taking a whole week off and jumping back into workouts expecting I could be my 3:33 self,” Centrowitz said. “I obviously would have liked to come here with the win, but when you’re trying to qualify for the world championships, third is as good as first. I’m not very good at handling one injury, let alone three, but I didn’t want to talk about it because I didn’t want my competition to know. I’ve got five or six weeks to get ready and hopefully bring back another medal from worlds.”
Gregorek called his kick “a surreal out-of-body experience."
When he looked at the scoreboard, he said, "I asked myself if that really just happened. All I can do is my best and not worry about the other guys. They’re just bodies on the track that I’ve gotta get around.”
Just like Andrews did.