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While many track fans across the country were sleeping last night, Cole Hocker turned in a wicked final kick to win the 1,500m at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon. The University of Oregon sophomore ran his final 400 in 52.38, but it was his explosive surge down the homestretch that allowed him to edge defending Olympic champion Matthew Centrowitz, Jr. to secure the win in 3:35.28 and earn a likely place on the U.S. Olympic team.
While the two emphatically downplayed any chippy, smack-talk rivalry between them, both clearly had more than top three in mind, and their performance rivalry spurred an exciting demonstration of racing excellence.
Just two years removed from a successful career at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, Hocker has emerged as one of the premier milers in the U.S.
“If you would have told me last year at this time that I was going to win the 1,500 at the Olympic Trials, I would be lying to say I wouldn’t have been shocked,” said Hocker, who turned 20 on June 6. “But throughout the season, I was proving to myself that I can run here and I belong here.”
Hocker repeatedly proved he belonged over the past several weeks, even if he had to do so more by way of raw talent than seasoned racing tactics. He won his opening-round heat on June 24, and placed second to Centrowitz in the semifinals on June 25, but in both cases he relied on a strong final kick to get him out of harm’s way.
Centrowitz, meanwhile, looked the savvy veteran that he is. The 31-year-old reigning Olympic champion ran three tactically smart races, and aside from getting caught by Hocker in the last 50 meters of the final, was otherwise flawless in his execution.
“It was one of the most exciting races I’ve ever been a part of, especially domestically,” Centrowitz said. “I didn’t know what to expect going into the race. I didn’t know if it was going to be fast, if it was going to be slow. I just tried to have all kinds of race plans, but all consisted of me having a presence in the front. It kind of went the way I wanted it to. I had pole position going into the last lap and was able to be in good position with 100 to go.”
The race was originally scheduled to begin at 4:40 p.m. PDT (7:30 p.m. EDT) but it was delayed by five hours after the entire meet was halted due to the extreme heat at Hayward Field. Just as the 1,500-meter runners were about to start warming up, heptathlete Taliyah Brooks had to be wheeled off the track after nearly fainting during the javelin competition. That’s about when the air temperature in Eugene reached its afternoon peak of 110 degrees, though it was reportedly closer to 125 degrees on the track.
While most runners welcomed the delay or were at least OK with it, it just added to the intense nervous energy for all runners, including Centrowitz. It was still warm when the race started, but the sun had set and that took the edge off a bit.
A Clinic on Race Tactics
As with all 1,500m championship races, the biggest factors were race tactics and positioning. And for most the race, Centrowitz looked like a seasoned pro putting on a master class on how to be in contention for a victory by never getting caught in the congestion. Hocker, meanwhile, looked like the young collegiate runner he is, often getting boxed in with no ability to break out until the very end. Unfortunately for Engels, who entered the meet with the fastest time this season among Americans (3:33.64), he found himself in the same dilemma and didn’t break free to start his final kick until it was too late.
While almost every other runner seemed to be in a bad position at some point in the race, Centrowitz’s experience kept him out of the fray. He was content to start slowly, running second-to-last in the 12-runner field after the first 250 meters. He stayed on the outside and calmly moved up, but ran the next lap entirely in lane two as unsung runner Colby Alexander took the lead. Content to sit just off his shoulder, Centrowitz looked smooth and relaxed near the front as Hocker and Engels tried to force their way into a better position long the back stretch with 700 meters to go — but both found themselves trapped and unable to move out and around.
With 450 meters to go, Centrowitz calmly surged to the front and looked comfortable as he accelerated into the start of the final lap. Behind him were an unlikely trio of Alexander, Sam Prakel, and Josh Thompson, partially because Engels and Hocker were still badly boxed in along the rail. Centrowitz seemed prepared to match any challenger along the way as he calmly upped the pace, but none of the eight runners jostling for position came after him.
At 150 meters out, Centrowitz was still in control as Nuguse swung wide and looked as if he would surge into second, but the space he created was quickly filled by Hocker, who switched gears and sling-shotted out into lane two near the end of the turn. As they approached the final straightway, Centro turned his head ever so slightly to see if anyone was coming and, sensing a gap, he went for the win with 100 to go. But that’s precisely when Hocker was ramping up into yet another closing gear and began a furious sprint down the homestretch.
Hocker caught Centrowitz with 50 meters to go, and, with arms flailing wildly, put enough daylight on him to edge him by .06 seconds.
Meanwhile, Nuguse was in third position for the entire final 100 and kicked hard enough to hold off Engels, who was finally able to get in the open by following Hocker, but he couldn’t muster enough of a jolt to challenge for third down the stretch. It’s no doubt a big disappointment for the 27-year-old Engels, who placed fifth in the 1,500 at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials after his junior year at Mississippi.
The 22-year-old Nuguse is no fluke and, in fact, has raced liked a veteran in recent weeks. Not only did he set a new NCAA record of 3:34.68 (with a solo effort during a semifinal race of the ACC championships on May 14), but he ran well through the preliminary heats at both the NCAA Championships.
“The big strategy in a race like that is to get comfortable towards the front, especially when you approach the last 400 meters,” Nuguse said. “You have to be in a position where you can strike at the end. If you’re boxed in or if you’re in last, it doesn’t matter how good of a kick you have, you’re not going to finish in the top three.”
Hocker downplayed getting boxed in for part of the race and said he felt confident while biding his time for the final sprint.
“It was the most competitive race I had ever been in and there were a lot of nerves leading up to it,” Hocker said. “I think biggest thing today was to be able to stay relaxed. I was comfortable the entire race, was just focused on positioning and staying relaxed and calm because I knew if I was feeling good with 200 meters to go, I’d be able to find a gap and use the finishing speed I’ve been using all season.”
Silencing the Talk
As Hocker crossed the line, he put a single finger to his lips as if to shush the crowd. Later, he said it wasn’t an intentional act of arrogance or out of disrespect to Centrowitz.
“Honestly that was kind of an in-the-moment thing,” Hocker said. “Last year, I was nowhere near this level and I felt this year I was kind of proving myself to the world, but also proving my talents to myself. There was a lot of negative talk out there and I just wanted to silence everyone.”
Both Hocker and Centrowitz downplayed any notion of a heated rivalry that seemed to play out on Instagram this spring. There was no smack talk between the two at all, especially not in the final meters of their semifinal race when Centrowitz appeared to smirk at Hocker and say a few words. In his post-race interview, Centrowitz said he couldn’t remember exactly what he said, but the sentiment was ‘we’ve got this, no need to press.’
Both exited the track quickly after that exchange, but Centro laid to rest any question of animosity between them as they made their way through the tunnel on their way out of the stadium. “We were pretty much giving each other kudos,” Centrowitz said. “I think Cole mentioned that it has been an honor racing together the past couple of days, and I told him, ‘I have the utmost respect for you and what you have accomplished the past year.’”
If anything, Hocker’s success as an Oregon Duck motivated Centrowitz, who emerged as one of the country’s best milers 10 years ago in a very similar fashion. Centrowitz won the 2011 NCAA title in his final season at Oregon and then used that momentum to win the U.S. championships that year and a bronze medal at the world championships in Daegu, South Korea.
Centrowitz feels that the record-breaking success of the current Ducks and other young runners has invigorated the event. “It’s been exciting, not just as a fan of the sport, but as a competitor, it’s elevated my game,” he said. “This year has been super exciting and has definitely motivated me throughout the year to make sure I get my shit together and bring my “A” game for this championship.”
Still Not Certain on Olympic Team
Centrowitz, who runs for Nike’s Bowerman Track Club, entered the meet with the 3:32.81 qualifying time he ran at the 2019 World Championships, while Nuguse earned the Olympic-qualifying mark when he set a new collegiate record of 3:34.68 back in May.
As Monday morning dawns, though, there’s a small bit of drama about Hocker’s status, because he still hasn’t yet surpassed the Olympic-qualifying standard of 3:35.00. However, USA Track and Field officials said late Sunday night they believe Hocker’s world ranking — which the IOC also considers as well as times to determine if an athlete is qualified — will be enough to allow him into the Olympics so he doesn’t have to race an impromptu time trial before Tuesday’s deadline. Currently, Hocker is ranked 42nd in the system which weighs performance times, place and level of competition.
That means Hocker will presumably join Centrowitz and third-place finisher Yared Nuguse, the record-setting Notre Dame senior who finished second behind Hocker at the June 12 NCAA Championships at Hayward Field, on the U.S. Olympic team heading to Tokyo in July. If Hocker’s ranking doesn’t qualify him, Engels does have the standard. Stay tuned.