Yet on Saturday he did. With a stunning kick in the homestretch on the 1,500 final at the U.S. track and field championships, Centrowitz ran down four-time world champion Bernard Lagat to claim an improbable U.S. title with his finish in 3 minutes 47.63 seconds. He will represent the United States in the event at the world championships in Daegu, South Korea in August, if he can achieve the necessary qualifying time (3:35.00) before the meet.
“I don’t think it’s sunk in yet,” said Centrowitz, who was a five-time All-Met selection. “Competing against the caliber of athlete those guys are, guys I looked up to like Lagat, it means everything. . . . It’s just awesome. Right now, I’m taking it all in.”
Lagat, who will not run the 1,500 at the world championships to focus on the 5,000, sought out Centrowitz after the race. Three weeks ago, Centrowitz claimed the collegiate title.
“How old are you?” Lagat, 36, asked.
Centrowitz told Lagat he was 21. Lagat, amused, started counting out the difference in their ages on his fingers.
“I had like 15 fingers to get the difference in the age,” Lagat said in disbelief. “He’s really strong.”
The son of American University head track Coach Matt Centrowitz — a four-time U.S. 5,000 champion and two-time Olympian — the younger Centrowitz has won three straight Pac-10 1,500 titles and took fifth at the U.S. championships in his first appearance last year. But despite that impressive finish, he didn’t bank on success here.
“I’ve been watching this meet [on TV] or going home,” he said. “At the beginning of the season, you write down goals. . . . It’s unbelievable.”
Centrowitz bided his time in a slow-paced race, overtaking Lagat over the last 60 meters. Lagat finished in 3:47.96, ahead of Leonel Manzano (3:48.16) and Andrew Wheating (3:48.19).
After the race, Lagat immediately sought out the distraught Wheating, who has run the fourth-fastest 1,500 in U.S. history, to offer him his world-team slot. Only the top three in each event here get to go. Lagat, who won the 5,000 Friday night, said the schedule would not permit a 1,500-5,000 double, so he was happy to inform Wheating he could go to Daegu.
Wheating, who bruised his left shoulder from an attempt to dive over the line for third place, shed tears over the gesture from Lagat.
“My intention has always been to run the 5,000 meters,” Lagat said. I said, “You finished fourth — you made the team. He was quite emotional.”
Centrowitz, who has run a personal best of 3:36.92, will have to pursue a qualifying time for worlds at professional meets in Europe. Wheating figured he would not have too much trouble getting it.
“When I saw Centrowitz at NCAAs,” Wheating said, “he looked so good.”