T&FN Interview — Matthew Centrowitz

The ’16 OT winner, Matthew Centrowitz will likely be favored to cross the line first again in June. (MIKE SCOTT)

WE’RE FEATURING U.S. MILERS all month, to culminate with a thorough focus on all the players to keep an eye on as the Olympic Trials draws near. While the young collegiate bucks have torn it up indoors this winter — more coverage of that coming very soon — we’d be remiss not to check in with defending Olympic champ Matthew Centrowitz, he of 5 USATF title wins since ’11, the season in which he also claimed the NCAA crown as an Oregon Duck.

Now in his third year of training with Bowerman TC coach Jerry Schumacher, two-time outdoor Worlds medalist Centro’s five career World Rankings appearances came in the seasons through ’16 — the year of his thrilling run to gold in the tactical Rio final and World Indoor victory. (Continued below)

Having placed 8th (first American) the last time elite 1500/mile men met for a title showdown, at the World Champs of ’19, Centro admits in the chat below to following “up and down bumpy roads since 2016” yet assures mile fans he is all in to “get back to that stage and improve myself” in a milieu where Kenya’s 2-time World No. 1 Timothy Cheruiyot has signaled rivals must be ready for anything — including hell-for-leather pacing from the gun.

“Under-raced” in ’20 per his own assessment (a sadly common plight), Centro got in a 5000 racing lick to finish the pandemic year on an up note with a 13:32.92 win over collegian Cole Hocker at December’s “The Track Meet” in Southern California. The run was validation for the still-developing benefits of Schumacher’s strength-oriented program, as was the 13:00.39 PR Centro turned out with distance mates shortly before Doha ’19.

Centro shared his thoughts on all of this by phone from a Bowerman altitude camp in Flagstaff.

T&FN: How are you doing? Hanging in there through this still-weird time?

Centrowitz: Yeah, doing all right. I think this is probably the most confident we’ve felt in the last year or so that the Olympics will go ahead. So I think having that confidence in knowing that it’s going to happen kind of lets us all feel a little bit more confident in our training and reassured that we’re training for something, you know — not just kind of going through the motions like last year. But yeah, I think things are going pretty well. I had a pretty good, a pretty solid fall and early winter, probably the best I’ve had under Jerry Schumacher. So that hopefully bodes really well for the summer.

T&FN: You ran a decent 5K at the very end of the year there in December. You had current Oregon Duck Cole Hocker right on your tail but held him off.

Centrowitz: Yeah, I was very happy with that. One, I was happy that Jerry let me race it, but two, our team was just like super, super-fit and ready to go this fall. I don’t even think I finished one workout in the fall with the team and I was just kind of under-raced in 2020. So Jerry allowed me to race it and I didn’t really know what to expect going into it as I was just kind of gaining fitness with each week and, you know, just kind of using it to kind of get into a race again.

I feel like I kind of lost that feeling of what it feels like to compete with someone down the last straightaway, you know? So I was very happy with it and then obviously months later seeing Cole Hocker ended up running really fast makes me feel a little bit better about my fitness. But personally I was very happy with coming away with — I think it was like the third fastest 5K I’ve run.

T&FN: I get it. Anyone who has ever raced the middle distances or distances at any level understands there is a process to getting race-ready, race-sharp. There’s nothing like racing. You said you were kind of getting your butt kicked by your teammates during the fall. Did you have health issues or was it that you came into the fall undertrained?

Centrowitz: I feel like at my age, I’m always gonna have a little something going on just trying to maintain it as best as I can. But yeah, I was going to race a meet on the East Coast, I believe in August, and my hip flexor, something popped up. And then I was kind of forced to take some downtime and that was pretty much the last track race that was on the schedule for the rest of the year.

So I just kinda had a slower buildup than the rest of the team and then they all raced throughout the summer. So I was just kind of behind those guys in terms of sharpness and fitness. And most of the guys are kind of 5K/10K oriented. We have like maybe two or three milers. So a lot of the fall workouts that we do are definitely geared towards [true distance runners]. Some of the guys do up to 10-plus miles of work, and as a miler, that’s quite a bit. So for me it was just kind of hanging in there as best I can. I mean, I was probably doing portions of what everyone else was doing.

T&FN: Do you feel that by now, after two years working together, you and Jerry have had time to get completely on the same wavelength or are you still learning each other?

Centrowitz: Yeah, I think we’re still learning each other. I think with a coach–athlete relationship, you’re always constantly learning something new each year with each other — no matter how long or short you’ve been together. But, yeah, I think Jerry kind of has a much better idea of what I need.

And now, having been part of the group for over a couple of years now, I’m starting to reap some of the benefits of a lot of the strength stuff that I hadn’t done in my whole career. Like we do 2M repeats on a consistent basis, and I’ve never seen many mile repeat workouts in my career, let alone 2M intervals. So that was a huge jump for me. But I think obviously the fast 5K I ran back in 2019 and then also just opening up with a 3:52 mile that season kind of shows that there’s just plenty of ways to kind of get to where you want to get to, through the strength and speed and whatnot.

T&FN: You were on the startlist for the New Balance GP 1500. You ended up not racing. What drove that decision?

Centrowitz: I was actually really, really bummed about missing that one. I had pretty high expectations going into it. I just kind of tweaked a hip flexor or something I hadn’t really had any kind of injury or issues with in the past. So I think both Jerry and I were just super-cautious. It’s a long year and we just kind of decided to play it safe and just to kind of take a little bit of downtime to make sure it’s 100 percent before getting back into things.

Yeah, it was a tough decision to make because I certainly felt like I was ready to go. And it was very last-minute when this thing popped up, so unfortunate timing. But you know, had it not been an Olympic year, maybe we would have kind of pushed through and tried to compete, but there’s definitely a lot of bigger meets and bigger things that we want to do down the road.

T&FN: You mentioned that you were training earlier today. Just easy stuff or is the hip flexor soreness subsiding?

Centrowitz: Yeah, the hip flexor has gotten a lot better and it has allowed me to train. Maybe not up to what I was doing before it kind of flared up on me, but certainly enough to kind of maintain the fitness. Yeah, today was just an easy day anyway. A lot of the guys were getting ready for a 10K later this week. So we just had recovery runs coming off of the long run that we had on Sunday. So today was just kind of an easy jog with the guys and just getting ready for tomorrow’s session.

Centro used his consummate racing skills to garner gold in Rio 5 years ago. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

T&FN: When you go for a long run, what’s a long run for you these days now with Jerry?

Centrowitz: That’s a good question. Jerry’s very much on — they’re called “Jerry miles,” which are like 7:00 miles, right?

T&FN: Famously so, yes.

Centrowitz: So everything is just really minute-based with Jerry. So the group will either do 90 minutes. Not many guys; probably the milers will do 90 minutes, maybe a couple of us. I would say the majority of the group does an hour-45. And then a couple of the guys, the more 10K/marathoner guys will do up to 2 hours. So for me, it varies. I probably, I would say I’ve done 90 minutes most weeks. That’s kind of what I found to be a really good amount of time on my legs and allows me to recover to get ready for some of these hard workouts that we have later in the week.

T&FN: Gotta find what works for you. Are you chomping at the bit to get racing? I mean, to get that race feel back in your head and your body?

Centrowitz: Yeah. I definitely got a taste in that 5K that we were talking about earlier, and I certainly want to do a lot more races leading into the Trials and Olympics this year. So we’ll see.

You know, I’m aware of a couple of meets on the board. There’s that Austin meet at the end of February. There’s LA in early March, and then I’m hearing another meet like mid-to-late March. So I think I’m just going to take a one week at a time, but certainly, when my body’s giving me the green light, I’m certainly gonna try to dip my toes in there and kind of mix it up with some of these guys that are obviously really, really sharp. I mean, the times across the board from here in the U.S. and in Europe, it’s just been phenomenal. It definitely has me itching to kind of get out there and see what I can do.

T&FN: Sure. That makes sense. What do you think about two Oregon guys running 3:50 and a third at 3:53 this winter?

Centrowitz: Oh, man! I don’t know the list, but they’re obviously all-time, like ever. Not just like they broke Collegiate Records, but [broke into the territory of] all-time professional runners. So that’s let alone very impressive in itself, and then their ability to do it with just each other is obviously even more impressive. They didn’t really have anyone pushing them, and then the last 300m was kind of on their own. So, yeah, I mean, being an Oregon alum, obviously it’s nice to see other guys carrying on the, the miler tradition. And after the departure of Andy Powell it looks like the program’s in good hands with [Duck men’s distance coach] Ben Thomas there.

T&FN: Speaking of Andy Powell, Sam Tanner, whom Powell coaches at Washington, then broke Hocker’s 1500 Collegiate Record the very next day.

Centrowitz: It really is insane just how well the college kids and high school kids are running these days. I mean, I’m definitely gonna sound like an old fart, but if you’re running close to 4:00 in the mile — when I was in high school, like that was something, you’re getting written up, you’re kind of dubbed as the next big thing. And now you have kids that are just breaking 4:00 like every single year.

You know, track in the U.S. right now is very, very deep and competitive at the high school and college level. So I think it’s gonna be interesting to see who’s going to pan out and who’s going to be continuing running as well as they are down the road, and see what they go through. (Continued below)

T&FN: Speaking of crazy-fast performances, what about Doha and the World Championships final in 2019? That was a different kind of race. Timothy Cheruiyot just took it to you guys. 55.01 first lap and there you were in 3rd, 55.80 at 400 yet effectively gapped at 3:29 pace.

Centrowitz: Specifically in my race, I think a lot of the guys were expecting Cheruiyot to kind of do what he did, but when you look at all the performances across the board, in the women’s events and other events, middle and long distance, there were unbelievable meet records being broken. We’re talking after two and three grueling rounds.

I think we’re all expecting — it being so late, in October — that people would kind of be burnt out. But I think a lot of people obviously trained and peaked at the right time, but that track also had such a cool controlled environment aspect to it where they could set the temperature to the stadium to be what they want it to be. So the athletes actually weren’t that hot. I think a lot of people were worried about, “Oh, Doha in October, and it’s going to be over 100 degrees, and the humidity.” But they did such a good job of controlling the temperature in the stadium, and the track was just such a fast surface. And I think that kind of made for a really exciting meet.

T&FN: Tell me about it. I was up in the press section. I literally had to put on a long-sleeve shirt at one point because — we’re not racing, right? We’re just sitting at our desk for the whole session, and all of a sudden it’s like, “Wait a minute, it’s actually getting cold in here.”

Centrowitz: Almost every race, every final had a National Record or a personal best, certainly a season best, or even a world leader, which is pretty incredible at a championship meet, you know? So, yeah, it was definitely a crazy, crazy week. One for the books, for sure.

T&FN: You ran your fastest race of the year there.

Centrowitz: Yeah, I ran my season’s best. I’m not even kidding you. I think I would go on to say [more than half the guys] either ran a season best or PR in that final, so yeah, it was nuts.

T&FN: True. Any takeaways that will influence how you will approach Tokyo, assuming all goes well at the Olympic Trials?

Centrowitz: Be ready for a fast race. Be ready for guys to be obviously fast, that can close really well but obviously be strong enough to run a National Record or a season best or PR by the third round. Like these guys, I think I kinda went into it obviously knowing what Tim Cheruiyot was gonna do, but if you would’ve told me that I would have run 3:32 in the final, I would have guessed that I would have been a lot closer to medaling than finishing 8th, you know? So I think I kinda just have to throw the book out the window and just train my ass off and expect that everyone’s going to be ready to compete. They’re not going to care whether you’re going to run 3:30 or 3:36 — everyone’s going to be in it.

T&FN: Right, right. Looking back at your career, you’ve always struck me as a consummate racer in so many situations. Are you still the man here in the U.S.? In the world? Two different questions, with full respect to your Olympic gold.

Centrowitz: Yeah, I was definitely gonna say I definitely don’t see how I’m not in the U.S. but in the world. Obviously I have had up and down bumpy roads since 2016 and I definitely have to get back to that stage and improve myself, for sure. But, yeah, in the U.S.

You know, since I’ve been winning U.S. championships in 2011 there’s been guys that kind of come and go and I feel like I’ve kind of been the only guy in the 15 to kind of keep to that top 3. I’ve basically been in the top 2 every single year, so I don’t see that anyone right now in the past couple of years has dethroned me in the U S certainly. But in the world, I definitely have a lot of work to do.

T&FN: When you’re racing, you always look so calm until it’s time to go and even then you look calm. Is that how you feel when you’re out there on those first three laps or whatever it is until things go? Are you as confident as you look?

Centrowitz: I will say this, I definitely feel calm. One thing that I noticed is my arm carriage doesn’t look like I’m flailing or like I’m sprinting. But in my body it feels like I’m going all out. So that one, for sure. (Continued below)

T&FN: Here’s a question we’ve asked a lot over the last year. Has there been anything you’ve done during the COVID pandemic that’s been a big departure from your normal routine? In training or your off-track life to stay sane?

Centrowitz: You know, it’s funny because this past year with obviously COVID and having the quarantine, I feel like as a professional track & field athlete this is kind of how we live our lifestyle anyways. Especially when we go to training camps, it’s not like we have the day off and we can go hike a mountain or go drive somewhere really cool and spend a day somewhere else.

It’s pretty much train hard on one day, recover the next, and then you’re back at it the following day. So like recovery being key, you’re just kind of like sitting around and hanging out with teammates, watching movies, Netflix, or playing board games, reading, or playing video games, whatever it is, to kind of pass the time.

But [in a pandemic] you’re certainly just kind of cooped up in your house. Some of the girls on the team definitely get into cooking a little bit more, but I feel like, yeah, this past year was, was kind of no different for me.

I built a PC, which was really fun, and got to play some video games with some friends that maybe I hadn’t been able to kind of play or stay in touch with because of, you know, everyone’s work schedule. So that was kind of nice being able to do that this past year, but we didn’t really get a chance to travel all that much. And obviously we kind of had to stay inside and stick with our teammates and buddies. So it was just pretty much like a normal year, to be completely honest.

As boring as it sounds, it’s what we kind of do, you know? We travel to these really, really neat and exciting cities and countries around the world. And everyone’s like, “Hey, how was it?” And I’m like, “Oh, I got to see my hotel room for 20 hours of the day and then I finally went out to go to the track.”

But yeah, you don’t really get to do a whole lot as a professional athlete. In the off season, I do want to clarify that you definitely can. We travel a lot more and we’re able to do some of those things, but certainly while you’re in the midst of training — which when quarantine hit, we were — you’re kind of just living that quarantine lifestyle.

T&FN: You built a PC. As a guy who just springs for a new laptop when the old one gets too far out of date, I’m curious. Did you set out to build a killer gaming box?

Centrowitz: Basically, as pretty as that sounds, yes! I built it mainly to play some video on, but actually my laptop is over a decade old, so it’s kind of nice to be able to do a lot of other things on this PC.

I kinda got into a little bit with the stock market and was trying to teach myself how to do some options trading. That was a lot easier having dual monitors and being able to do that, kind of like a guy in Wall Street, you know? There definitely were some other upsides to having a new PC; its main purpose was for video gaming.

I should clarify, actually that I had this PC built, but I actually didn’t do it myself. I had a friend that put all the specs together. ’Cause I’m actually clueless, I’m not tech savvy at all. When I say I had this PC built for me, I customized it but I actually didn’t build it myself. So let me just clear the air for that because anyone that knows me knows that I can barely even figure out how to turn on and off a modem, let alone build a PC.

T&FN: Can you change a tire on your car?

Centrowitz: No, no, it’s sad. I hate to even admit that. I blame that on bad parenting. My dad never taught me how to change a tire. I don’t think my dad even knows how to fix a toilet.

We never had a handyman growing up. We always had our neighbors or their friends come by and like, you know, “Oh yeah, you’re visiting. While you’re here, can you go fix this and this and this?” So yeah, I’m definitely already on that path. I was gonna say I’m kind of heading that way, but I’m already there.

T&FN (laughing): OK. I’ve met your parents. They both seem to have other talents. We definitely look forward to this Olympic year and hope everything plays out. I think there will be a Trials, there will be a Games. I don’t know how many fans or even us media will be able to be there, but I’m starting to hope at least some of that will happen. Fingers crossed.

Centrowitz: Yeah. I mean, obviously with other sports we’re seeing them being able to put some games on and get through it. The Super Bowl was quite packed for a game. So I don’t know, in a few months I’d like to think that we would get to the point where like, “If they’re able to do it at the Super Bowl, why not at the Olympics and the Olympic Trials, you know?” So we’ll see.

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