Matthew Centrowitz was not always certain he wanted to be a runner. Long before the Olympic gold medalist made history at the Rio Olympics in August by becoming the first American since 1908 to win the 1,500-meter race, Centrowitz had his mind set on conquering another sport — soccer.
He grew up dreaming of becoming an international star and idolized Brazil’s Pelé, widely regarded as one of the sport’s all-time greatest players. The fact that Centrowitz was a small, skinny kid from Beltsville, Md., did not dampen his lofty ambition.
“My screen name at the time was danextpele39,” the 27-year-old said Monday morning, drawing laughs at the National Press Club, where he spoke about his journey to becoming an Olympic champion.
“That just shows me, at 10 years old … how I was always goal-oriented, always putting my goals where I can see them. And that was something this past summer that was pretty key for me and my confidence going into Rio.”
With an Olympic gold medal in his possession, Centrowitz has his sights on cementing his status as one of the best American middle distance runners ever. If all goes to plan, he will finish his career as the U.S. 1,500-meter and mile record holder. He also said he intends to compete in the 2020 and 2024 Olympics in distances from 1,500-meters up to 10,000-meters.
“That’s kind of my next goal, just to be the best American miler ever,” he said. “I think in order to do that, I have the hardware for sure, but I definitely need the times to come with that. That’s on the to-do list, just kind of moving on to the next piece.”
Even though Centrowitz had gravitated toward soccer as a child, it was impossible for him to avoid being immersed in the sport of running. His father, Matt, was a two-time Olympian and all-American at Oregon who now coaches cross-country and track at American University. His mother, Beverly, ran for Hunter College and was inducted to the school’s athletic hall of fame. And his older sister, Lauren, was a standout runner at Stanford.
The bar was set at a daunting height.
“We enjoyed running and we enjoyed sports and I think that was the household,” Matt Centrowitz said Monday before introducing his son. “I think we can figure out that if you were at the Rockfellers’, evening discussion was money, how to make it and how to make more of it. When you went to the Kennedys’, it was how to win office. … But our house it was racing tactics, splits, freaking hilly courses, [stuff] like that.”
Centrowitz opted to play junior varsity soccer his freshman year at Broadneck High in Annapolis instead of joining the cross-country team in the fall of 2003. It was not until he placed fourth in the 3,200-meters in the state meet that spring that Centrowitz was inspired to embrace running. But once he did, he was fully committed.
“I said to myself, ‘If I want to be the best sophomore next year, the best in my class, or state champion even, I have to put down soccer and really do full time cross-country and have the full year,’ ” Centrowitz said. “What I loved about running was the competitive aspect. I loved that running was just on you.”
These days, the five-time All-Met and Oregon all-American trains with the Nike Oregon Project in Beaverton, Ore., led by Coach Alberto Salazar. The group includes some of the biggest names in running like Olympic champion Mo Farah of Great Britain and American phenom Galen Rupp.
Centrowitz credits Salazar’s notoriously intense workouts for helping him prepare for the Olympic finals this year. As he listed his six splits for a particularly grueling 400-meter repeat workout in which he averaged 51.3 seconds, the crowd at the National Press Club was awed.
During the workout, which was held in early August at altitude in Utah, Centrowitz ran his last repetition in 49.7 seconds. He ran his final lap of the 1,500-meter final in Rio in 50.5 seconds to finish the slow, tactical race in 3:50. Four years ago, Centrowitz finished fourth in the 1,500-meters at the London Olympics, and heading into this summer, Centrowitz said his dream was to make the podium. Winning was not something he thought was possible until “the last 10-meters” of the Rio finals. Salazar, Centrowitz recalled, felt otherwise.
“Alberto reiterated throughout the workouts, this is what it’s going to take to win an Olympic gold,” Centrowitz said. “He didn’t say this is what it’s going to take to get to the podium, [but] this is what it’s going to take to win Olympic gold. I think that was huge for me and started making me realize what I could accomplish in my potential in Rio.”
As one of the faces from the Rio Games, Centrowitz returned to the U.S. with a much higher profile than he had when he left for the Games. He has been honored by both the Baltimore Orioles and Baltimore Ravens and received a hero’s welcome at his high school. He has posed for countless selfies and heard from friends he hasn’t seen in years. In early December, Centrowitz will travel to Florida to be honored as the USA Track and Field male athlete of the year.
But throughout the celebrations, training for next season has already begun. He is currently running 105 miles a week and plans to add more 5Ks to his schedule next year. In four years, Centrowitz will likely aim to be the first back-to-back Olympic 1,500-meter champion since Great Britain’s Sebastian Coe in 1984.
“Honestly, I’m just enjoying the whole journey, this whole moment,” Centrowitz said. “Just enjoying this experience and really just taking it in, because although my gold lasts forever, this moment doesn’t. I’m really just soaking it all in.”