The joke already has hardened into Centrowitz family lore, a burst of hilarity tucked within a moment of joy.
On July 10, Matthew Centrowitz stood victorious on the Hayward Field track in Eugene, Ore., holding a miniature American flag in his right hand as he began an interview. He had not only qualified for the Rio Games. He had set the U.S. Olympic trials record in the 1,500 meters, finishing in 3:34.09. He had become a two-time Olympian, a television reporter intoned, just like his dad decades before.
“Like father, like son?” the reporter asked.
Centrowitz grabbed the bottom of his tank top with both fists and lifted the shirt to his chin, revealing a tattoo inked across his chest, script of those precise words. “Like father,” Centrowitz said, as if using his body as a cue card, “like son.”
The camera cut to his father, Matt, in the crowd, as he fiddled with the top of his royal-blue American University pullover, then cut back to Matthew on the track. “Impeccable timing,” Matthew said later, chuckling. It looked to viewers — as a dozen incredulous text messages from Matt’s friends would soon confirm — as if dad was about to reveal his own, matching ink.
The truth? Matt was taking off a microphone. The humor in the whole thing? Matt can’t stand tattoos, not even the one his son got in his honor, and at 61 he can admit he no longer has a middle-distance runner’s torso to show off.
“The last thing I would do on national TV is take my shirt off, I assure you,” Matt Centrowitz said. “That would not be good for his career or my social life.”
The levity, in the aftermath of Matthew Centrowitz’s qualification for Rio, blended with deep relief. Making the Olympic team for the London Games in 2012, at age 22, had meant celebration for Matthew, the Arnold, Md., native and former Broadneck All-Met runner whose father has coached American’s track team for 17 years. Making the team for Rio meant the fulfillment of expectation.
Centrowitz worked for four years to return to the Olympics, to make up the 0.04 seconds by which he missed a medal in London. It meant he would share one more thing with the father who attended the same school (Oregon), ran the same race (the 1,500) and has the same first name (although Matt is quick to point out that his son has a middle name and he doesn’t. “Everybody started the Junior [stuff],” he said. “We couldn’t take it anymore.”).
This year will be different. In 2012, Centrowitz was in the midst of a professional breakthrough, good enough to compete against the world’s best but doing it for the first time. Now he ranks among the favorites, a runner in the “sweet spot of his career,” Matt said. He won the 1,500 meters this year at the indoor world championships.
Centrowitz understands and welcomes his place in U.S. track and field. He spent three hours filming a segment for NBC earlier this year, and he has modeled Nike products. He is used to the pressure of expectation, having followed the path of his Olympian father. He views the promotional aspects as opportunities rather than obligations. Chris Kwiatkowski, his old roommate at Oregon, said Centrowitz feeds off activity, his focus sharpening the more packed his schedule becomes. As he crossed the finish line in Eugene, he patted his chest, then spun and waved his arms in an X.
“I kind of embraced that kind of role as a favorite,” Centrowitz said. “That’s where everyone wants to be. It’s certainly harder to stay on top of the mountain than to get up there. My personality, I’ve embraced and enjoyed the spotlight.”
In 2012, Centrowitz attended the Opening Ceremonies in London and posed for photographs with his favorite athletes, particularly savoring a shot with fellow Marylander Kevin Durant, who towered a foot above him. He lived in the Athletes’ Village and soaked in the atmosphere. He plans this time to arrive in Rio on Aug. 7, two days after the Opening Ceremonies, and bide his time at a private hotel with his coach, Alberto Salazar.
“He’s much more calm about everything,” said Kwiatkowski, now an assistant coach at American. “The conversations that we have, he doesn’t talk about running as much. You can just kind of tell he’s got this cool confidence going on.
“I think he knows the position that he’s in. He’s the most confident he’s ever been. He’s in the best shape that he’s ever been [in]. The best part about him is, he’s just a tenacious competitor. You put him on the line healthy, it’s going to be exciting.”
Centrowitz said he has not allowed his near-miss in London to shape his mentality. “Quite honestly, I kind of didn’t think about it the last four years,” he said. “I let it fuel the fire, but I didn’t let it get to me.”
For the elder Centrowitz, recent news brought new frustration. In late June, Spanish authorities raided the hotel room of coach Jama Aden, found EPO and other performance-enhancing drugs, and arrested him. Aden has coached a stable of high-profile athletes, including Algeria’s Taoufik Makhloufi, the 1,500-meter gold medalist in London. Centrowitz’s father was not shy about connecting the dots between Aden and Makhloufi and the fact that Centrowitz may already be an Olympic medalist if Makhloufi hadn’t run.
“It was devastating to us, the realization that, almost 100 percent sure, someone cheated ahead of him,” Matt Centrowitz said. “His coach just got busted. Just the realization kind of made him grow up, that there are legitimate cheaters here.”
Matthew, it seems, moved past the news with little consternation, focusing instead on the task ahead.
“When that story busted a couple weeks ago, by that point, we’re almost four years removed,” he said. “It’s something that I think if you spend too much time thinking about it and wondering, it wears on you a little bit. I let things fall in place, and I worry about myself. At the end of the day, that’s all I can control. I worry about, ‘How can I find myself on that podium?’ Whatever happened with him and his coach, there’s going to be many more things like that people will experience in the future.”
Centrowitz will experience everything with his father alongside him. He relies on Salazar to map out his training, but Matt is involved, always there for advice. In Eugene, Centrowitz found his father in the crowd and exclaimed, “We got the record!” It was an inside joke about how they share everything — the U.S. Olympic trials mark belonged to a Matthew Centrowitz, so it belonged to both of them.
In 2014, Matthew was forced to rest with a condition that caused inflammation in the walls of his heart. The time off got him thinking and gave him an opportunity to think about a second tattoo. (On the back of shoulder is the word “CITIUS,” Latin for “faster.”) He decided he wanted to honor his father, and the bond they shared over the difficult work their sport requires.
“Oh, God, man. He was not about it,” Matthew said. “It’s not his cup of tea.”
Still, Matt started making Matthew reveal the tattoo, to show friends or well-wishers or even strangers at bars. Matthew sensed unspoken pride. “I think he’s definitely come around,” Matthew said. He has tried to persuade his father to make a deal, that if he wins gold in Rio, he’ll get his own tattoo. Matthew teases his dad that he has an idea of what it would look like. It would say, “Like son, like father.”