HEADED TO TOKYO as the youngest U.S. men’s 1500 Olympian since Villanova’s Marty Liquori in ’68, Cole Hocker, 20, looks and sounds remarkably convincing when he describes the Olympic final he hopes to reach next month as “just another 1500.”
Hocker — the “pandemic redshirt” Oregon frosh who captured the NCAA Indoor mile and 3000 crowns before racing to the Outdoor metric mile title in June — acknowledges after catching Rio gold medalist Matthew Centrowitz at the line in the Trials final that he would have been shocked to see that outcome in a crystal ball a year ago.
However, this past school year the evidence of his running — training as much as racing —has been all he needs to feel confident he’ll belong when he toes the line for his Olympic heat come August 03.
“The main thing I attribute that to,” Hocker says, “is having [NCAA 5000 champ] Cooper Teare to train with, and Charlie [Hunter] and James West, like all those guys. I mean, they’re top in the NCAA, but they’re also top in the world. Just having world-class athletes to train with — I was kind of lagging behind them my freshman year [in the fall of ’19 and the pandemic-curtailed indoor campaign of ’20] and I was doing my best to stay with them. But as a freshman you’ve just got to stay patient and I knew I couldn’t jump into every huge workout that they were doing.
“But then this year I matured a little bit and I did, I just hung in with them every single workout. And that’s the main thing, I think, just having those guys to train with.”
That Oregon’s blue-chip mile corps presented an advantage is hardly a surprise. But another group, too, has fueled Hocker’s fire: the second-guessing Monday morning quarterbacks of the internet to whom he addressed that fingers-to-lips shooshing gesture after sprinting across the line at the Trials.
Specifically, Hocker wished to silence for good predictions he could not sustain his performance levels of the early winter (3:50.55i mile in February) through the summer.
“It has been a long season and that’s something me and coach [Ben] Thomas both knew,” he explains. “I mean, this was the goal. Trials was always on the calendar, and then we both believed that I had to have a chance at qualifying. So that was definitely in the back of his mind in setting up training-wise.
“And we had that opening meet at Hayward where I ran 800, a PR at around 1:46” [1:46.60 on April 03 after a 3:38.99 for 1500 the previous night].
“I don’t know, I heard a lot of people saying I was peaking too early in the season. But I knew that I was just doing strength at that point in the season and that kind of stuff.
“It really built up my confidence because I knew if I got to run that off of what I’d been doing, that it was going to be a good season. So we had always been preparing for this long season.”
Hocker says, “Without revealing my training, we have really good recovery built into our training, which I’m really confident in. And that allows for these long seasons that me and Coach Thomas prepared for.
“And then now it’s been a little over a month of no racing and that’s a big downtime compared to how much I had been racing in the season. So I was given like a couple of weeks of just relaxed, more chill running. And now we’re really sharpening and getting ready to go.”
Now with his journey to Tokyo set to commence in a week, and racing to begin 6 days after that, Hocker says, “I’m mainly excited, which I’m happy about. I’m not really nervous. At least not now. It’s way too far out to be nervous and caught up in all that. For sure, I’ll have my nerves once I’m there and before heading to the start line…
“I have some big travel, of course, and that there is another element, but yeah, I think I’m ready for whatever. And that’s sort of my mindset going into it.”
Hocker, who reportedly had a very mild case of C19 in the spring, will run the Tokyo travel gauntlet without vaccine protection. “I’m not vaccinated,” he says, “but I feel content with that decision. Yeah, I’m not really too worried about it going in.”
What Hocker is not doing is committing to a preferred scenario for the Olympic final. He says, “I’d hate to, I don’t know, make a decision mentally what I prefer and then if it doesn’t go that way, then just be mentally out of it.
“So I’m definitely preparing for whatever and I don’t really mind whichever way it goes. But I do have goals and yeah, I’m looking to, I really want to make the final. That’s a big goal. And then once I’m in the final, I think I just have just as good a shot as anyone.
“It’s just another 1500-meter race; just against really good guys.”