The Showdown: Centrowitz, Hocker, Engels, Nuguse
Men’s 1,500m Olympic Trials Final Preview
When: 4:40 p.m. PST, Sunday, June 27, 2021
TV Coverage: The men’s 1,500-meter run final will be shown live on NBC during its broadcast from 4–5:30 p.m. PDT/ 7–8:30 EDT
At the conclusion of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, Craig Engels was stoked for summer to begin. So much so he bought a camper van from a Craigslist post and started plotting a long road trip back to Oxford, Mississippi.
Engels had just completed a long collegiate track season with a stunning performance at the Trials. Just a week after the NCAA Championships in Eugene, he ran a total of six races over nine days, mixed it up the America’s best professional athletes and placed fourth in the 800-meter run (1:46.03) and fifth in the 1,500 (3:37.66).
He didn’t really think he had a chance to make the Olympic team when he entered the meet, he was just interested in competing at the highest level — and he sure did. So not long after the 1,500m final, you couldn’t blame him if all he cared about was hitting the road in his new, well-used van.
“Yeah, man, it’s been a long year,” Engels told me behind the old south stands of the old Hayward Field. “This was a fun meet, but I’m done for now.”
Although his 2016 Trials were as carefree as could be, he set PRs in both events and got the first hint of what his running future might hold in store. Five years later, the 27-year-old, fourth-year pro with the Nike Oregon Project says he’s definitely feeling the stress of the job and has been trying to channel his happy-go-lucky ways of 2016.
Engels said he wanted to try the 800/1,500 double again this year, but coach Pete Julian insisted he only run the 1,500. He has looked fresh in the fast in the first two rounds, especially after winning the first semifinal heat in 3:38.56 on Friday evening.
“Now that it’s my job, there is so much more pressure to perform that it makes it a little bit less fun,” says Engels, who says he’s as fit as he’s ever been. “There was no pressure in 2016. I had another year of college left and I didn’t even know pro running was a possibility. I feel so much more stress now. So I just have to remember what happened in 2016 so I can keep it fun.”
Rivals Head to Head
One thing we’re starting to recall from 2016 is the championship form of Matthew Centrowitz Jr. Since he won gold at the Olympic Games in Rio, Centro has had a lot of ups and downs — his best result has been his 8th place finish at the 2019 World Championships — but he seems to be peaking perfectly for the 1,500 final.
The 31-year-old looked sharp winning the second semifinal heat on Friday, running relaxed and matching every move in the race before running strong to the finish alongside 20-year-old University of Oregon freshman Cole Hocker, the 2021 NCAA champion who seems to have race savviness well beyond his years and should be a factor in the final.
In that final stretch, Centrowitz looked over at Hocker and said something that made them both smile — ruefully. Neither appeared at the post-race press conference, so no one knows for sure what passed between them. But there seems to be a bit of a chippy feud between the two that has played out online since February. But mostly around the two rather than between them.
After Hocker posted a photo about his 3:50.55 indoor mile, his Oregon teammate, Carter Christman, commented “Your move” and tagged Centrowitz. Centro responded, calling out Christman’s lack of creds and laying down some smack talk of his own: “I don’t need to move. I already have the Olympic standard and more importantly the hardware.”
It’s been a bit of a low-brow, sophomoric spat ever since (like all social media spats) with hundreds of runners taking sides. While a lot of younger runners stood up for Hocker and started to suggest Centrowitz was washed up, plenty of posters have backed Centrowitz, too. That was especially so after Centrowitz decisively won the 1,500m race at the Sound Running meet on May 15 in 3:35.26, a race broadcast live on ESPN2.
They’re both running with top form, and, lucky us, we get to see them head to head. Any question about credentials or respect should get settled on the track — perhaps adding a bit more incentive to make a statement beyond making the team.
— Team USA (@TeamUSA) June 25, 2021
Right there in that mix is Notre Dame senior Yared Nuguse, who set a new collegiate record in May but finished as the runner-up to Hocker at the NCAA Championships. Nuguse looked good in preliminary heat and semifinal race (3:38.60) while chasing Engels to the line.
“It’s been really fun,” Nuguse says. “I’m happy to be among the best in the United States and fight for one of those three spots on the Olympic team. I have carried over the mindset of trying to keep getting better in every race. The only thing I felt I could have done better in the semifinal was kick faster.”
Aside from Engels and Centrowitz Jr., the only other runners returning from the 2016 1,500 final are Colby Alexander (7th, 3:38.90) and Eric Avila (11th in 3:41.21). Alexander is 30 and Avila is 31, but both lowered their PRs to the mid-3:35 range and seem to be running as well as anyone heading into the final.
Joining those guys, there’s a bunch of hungry, unsung runners who seem to have more youth and speed than experience. And that could be the secret sauce that gets someone like Josh Thompson, Henry Wynne, Vincent Ciattei, David Ribich, Sam Prakel or Waleed Suliman on the Olympic team.
As for Engels, he spent his first several nights in Eugene last week sleeping in his camper — not the one he bought after the 2016 Trials, which is long gone — but a new-to-him camper on the back of a 1994 Ford F-250 truck. He channeled his road-tripping zest as long as he could, but eventually succumbed to the powers that be and moved into house his Nike team rented in town.
“It’s so much less stress than staying in my RV, trying to find a place to dump my sewage and hook up my electricity,” Engels says. “Staying in the house has been great, with the coaches cooking meals and hanging out with my teammates. That’s got me fired up, just being here. Now it’s time to see what I can do in the final.”
Men’s 1,500-Meter Field
By hip/bib number, with season-best time.
- Vincent Ciattei, 26, Eugene, Ore., Nike Oregon Track Club Elite, 3:34.57
- Craig Engels, 27, Portland, Ore., Nike, 3:33.64
- Henry Wynne, 26, Seattle, Wash., Brooks Beasts Track Club, 3:34.08
- Colby Alexander, 30, Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., Empire Elite Track Club, 3:35.81
- Cole Hocker, 20, Eugene, Ore., Oregon, 3:35.35
- Eric Avila, 31, San Diego, Calif., Adidas, 3:35.60
- Matthew Centrowitz Jr., 31, Beaverton, Ore., Nike Bowerman Track Club, 3:35.26
- Josh Thompson, 28, Beaverton, Ore., Bowerman Track Club, 3:35.88
- David Ribich, 25, Seattle, Wash., Brooks Beasts Track Club, 3:38.75
- Yared Nuguse, 22, South Bend, Ind., Notre Dame, 3:34.68
- Sam Prakel, 26, Seattle, Wash., Adidas, 3:36.86
- Waleed Suliman, 22, Seattle, Wash., Brooks Beast Track Club, 3:36.53