Focus On The U.S. Men’s 1500 Scene

Many of those who chased Matthew Centrowitz across the line in a close ’18 USATF meet figure to be major players again this time around. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

IT’S NOT OUTLANDISH to project that one of the most-anticipated events at June’s Olympic Trials will be the men’s 1500. There is a certain addiction fans have to the magic of the mile, even in its metric morph.

The organizers and the broadcasters know this. Why else would the event be scheduled in the penultimate slot on the final day? That’s prime time, baby.

Perhaps it’s all because the “mile” is the basic building block for every fan who ever ran cross country or distances in track. Everyone’s got a PR. Everyone’s got an opinion. And everyone seems to have a favorite to root for, whether it be their hometown hero or that runner with the great kick they’ve only ever seen in live-streamed track meets.

Here’s a brief look at the lay of the land for our 3¾ lappers.

The Usual Suspects

In any gathering of U.S. 1500 men, Matthew Centrowitz will always head the list — a gold medal has that effect. Since Rio, the now-31-year-old has been on a bit of a roller coaster ride, with just one national title and a best of 3:31.77. In his only international championships since then, he got stuck in the heats in London ’17 and finished 8th in the Doha ’19 final. Yet there continue to be signs that the crafty tactician is still extremely dangerous.

Ole Miss alum Craig Engels is a bold racer. Now 26, he brings good speed to the game with a 1:44.68 PR for 800. Last time around he doubled, with near-misses in both. This time he will bring the experience of being a World Champs finalist.

The oldest of our top prospects is Ben Blankenship, now 32, who finished 8th in Rio. Despite the promise he has shown in longer races, he has unfinished business in the 1500 and he has the experience to know exactly where he needs to be when the kicking starts.

Late-blooming former steepler Josh Thompson is nearing 28 and has gotten faster in the 1500 for each of the last 4 years. An indoor best of 3:34.77 in ’20 followed his first national title. He’s shown a devastating kick on the final straight, an attribute that could be very advantageous at the Trials.

Drew Hunter, 23, is a wild card. He U.S.-Ranked as high as No. 2 in ’18 and has a 3:35.90 PR from that year. He tells us that he’s open to either the 1500 or the 5000. “The plan is to be prepared for everything.”

Oregon alum Sam Prakel, now 26, has developed into a consistent racer under the tutelage of Andy Powell. He has U.S.-Ranked two years in a row, hitting No. 5 in ’19. That puts him on the radar.

Journeyman miler Eric Avila, 31, made his first U.S. Ranking (a No. 6) in ’19. That came the year after the alum of the NAIA’s Southern Oregon won the Millrose mile. A 13:18.68 last year showed a big jump in strength and possibly Trials options in the 5K.

In ’19, two years after making the World Champs final, Oregon alum Johnny Gregorek sandwiched a disappointing 10th at nationals with solid speed, most notably a 3:49.98 indoor mile and a 3:35.32 in the 1500. The 29-year-old opened up this season with a 7:49.40 PR at 3000 and said, “It’s time to rip some 1500s!”

A U.S. ranker in ’16 & ’17, Colby Alexander, now 29, seemed poised for more but was knocked out for 17 months for bone spur surgery and a long recovery. In a pandemic-abbreviated ’20 campaign, a 3:37.12 showed that he is on his way to being a contender again.

Now 26, Izaic Yorks is coached by Danny Mackey of the Brooks Beasts and showed steady improvement through his last outdoor season in ’19, when he PRed at 3:36.52. He ranked No. 8 among Americans that year. After an injury in ’20, he says he is back at 100%.

Brannon Kidder, 27, trains with Yorks and had a nice breakout year in ’19, when he PRed with a 3:35.27. He also has 800 skills (1:45.39 PR) and represented the U.S. in Doha, making it to the semis. Could show up in either event, or both.

Virginia alum Henry Wynne, 25, hit a PR 3:35.14 in ’19 before finishing 8th in the USATF race. Another one of the Brooks Beasts, he reported having a good off-season and is poised to improve on his U.S. No. 10 Ranking in ’19.

Vincent Ciattei, a 26-year-old Virginia Tech alum now running for the Nike Oregon TC, improved his best by more than 3 seconds to 3:36.35 during the pandemic season. He’s on a promising trajectory.

Robby Andrews, 29, made the ’16 team with a fast finish, but since ’18 has struggled with injury and Lyme Disease. His PR remains a 3:34.78 from ’12. He reports to be back to training well, just having finished a stint at altitude.

Fierce-kicking ’17 USATF winner Robby Andrews is looking to bounce back from several tough years. (MIKE SCOTT)

The Other-Event Guys

Not that we expect this cast of characters to go after the 1500 as a primary event this year, but we’d look dumb if they do and we neglected to mention them.

Donavan Brazier made it clear he has oodles of potential last summer after running a 3:35.85 that looked like child’s play, but he’s sticking to the 800 for now.

Clayton Murphy has also nabbed some nice 1500 rankings in the past, but lately seems to be focused on the event he won a Rio bronze in.

Eric Jenkins, 29, has also turned in 1500 performances that put him at the cool guys table (PR 3:35.94), but he is a much stronger candidate at 5000 or 10,000, where he has run 13:05.85 and 27:22.06.

Young Bucks

Experience and strength are important in the 1500, so we typically don’t expect to see an overnight sensation turn up in a Trials final, but there are some promising young ones to watch all the same.

The Oregon team boasts at least three to watch: Cooper Teare at 21 has already run a Collegiate Record mile of 3:50.39. Cole Hocker, 19, was just a step behind in 3:50.55. Teammate Reed Brown, 22, is at 3:56.61. And the season is still very young.

Elsewhere in the college ranks, Notre Dame’s Yared Nuguse is the reigning NCAA champion. His PR is still short of the Trials qualifier at 3:38.32 but he has shown himself to be a savvy racer with a great kick.

The ultimate young buck is of course, Michigan prep Hobbs Kessler, who won’t turn 18 until March but is already the owner of a 3:57.66 mile. A likely contender in an OT final? Probably not, but it would be fun to imagine. After all, a few years back a high school junior named Jim Ryun made the team.

Whoever shows up on the starting line at Hayward Field, rest assured the guys will put on a great show. As Blankenship says, “I’m pretty big on watching races. I think you learn a lot from them. I think you’ve got to kind of always be aware of what everybody else is doing.

“Now I think 1500m guys have to be kind of watching what 5K guys are doing, as well. I think you have to be pretty well-versed in strength and speed,” says Rio team vet Blankenship.” We have guys moving up from the 8. I think you kind of have to think on both sides of the coin.”

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