By Michelle R. Martinelli
Matthew Centrowitz casually describes winning his Olympic gold medal as if it were any other race — like he recently competed in the Maryland track state championships and not on an international stage in Rio de Janeiro.
He was the first American to win the men’s 1,500 meters since the 1908 Games, and three months later, part of him lingers in shock, as he admits the reality of his accomplishment has yet to sink in.
It’s still “weird” to think of himself as an Olympic champion.
But his success and nationwide fame hasn’t changed him as a person, said his father, Matt Centrowitz, a two-time Olympian who competed in the 1,500 at the 1976 Games. He remains dedicated to his sport — tirelessly training for the indoor season with the Nike Oregon Project — and remembers it wasn’t long ago that he was a teenage runner at Broadneck High School in Annapolis with a big ambition and a zealous drive.
“It’s humbling,” Centrowitz said of his newfound prominence, “especially when I went back to my high school about a week ago. I’m driving in, and kids are running after the car. You feel like a celebrity, which, I don’t view myself like that at all.
“I’m just another guy that, I guess, fulfilled his potential and reached his lifelong goal,” he said, nonchalantly, Monday at the National Press Club.
He missed the podium by .04 seconds in London in 2012, finishing fourth.
In an unassuming, black sport coat and tie with thick-rimmed Prada glasses masking his boyish looks, Centrowitz detailed the 3-minute 50-second race that earned him Olympic gold and why, at 27, his goals are not yet complete.
Competing again in the 1,500 — or even in the 5,000 meters — in the Tokyo 2020 Games remains in his sights, and potentially racing on American soil in 2024 in Los Angeles would be the “ultimate dream” realized. But with another Olympics in the distant future, for now, Centrowitz is chasing the American record in the 1,500 to solidify himself as the best American miler ever.
His father — who has been the cross country and track coach at American University for more than a decade — isn’t surprised with his son’s ambitions, especially in a family of competitive runners.
Despite Centrowitz’s “Like father like son” tattoo across his chest, his father is sure to differentiate their accomplishments, although they often work together as a team.
“I can’t say he’s followed in my footsteps because he’s blazing his own [trail],” Matt Centrowitz said. “Similarities [are] definitely there, but he’s his own person, and his own individuality has strengths. Obviously, I never had a gold medal.”
Centrowitz tossed credit for much of his success back to his father, who has encouraged him since his first 5K at age 10 through self-doubts as a professional.
Without his father’s guidance and positive spin during challenging times, it’s likely Centrowitz wouldn’t be the champion he is now with the humility he’s always had.
“My dad was always there at the right time,” Centrowitz said. “He knew exactly what to say, and I think that was the key piece with him in our relationship. More than workouts, we’ve had endless talks.”
Having a bond that began with mutual trust, his father watched nervously as Centrowitz attacked the metric mile for the second Olympic Games. When his son crossed the finish line first after leading most of the race, his emotions “exploded in [his] head.”
His father said it’s hard to describe just how proud of his Olympic champion son he is. But just as Centrowitz’s tattoo is a nod to their special father-son, coach-runner relationship, Matt is getting his first ink Friday. Of what?
“Christ the Redeemer, and Christ will be wearing a gold medal from Rio.”