Centrowitz follows in father's footsteps on track

By Pat Graham

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Feb. 2 2012 3:55 p.m. MST

FILE - In this Sept. 3, 2011, file photo, From right, New Zealand's Nicholas Willis, USA's Matthew Centrowitz, Kenya's Asbel Kiprop, and Ethiopia's Mekonnen Gebremedhin compete in the men's 1500-meter final at the World Athletics Championships in Daegu, South Korea. Centrowitz has followed in his father's footsteps, attending Oregon to run track and now attempting to make the Olympic team. He captured a bronze medal in the 1,500 at world championships last summer and now has his sights set on the London Olympics. He makes his pro debut this weekend in Boston.

Lee Jin-man, File, Associated Press

Rising middle-distance runner Matthew Centrowitz is chasing his father's footsteps with a chance for everything to come full circle on Oregon's famed oval track.

It was at Hayward Field, nearly 36 years ago, that Matt Centrowitz — a brash kid from New York brimming with confidence — became a surprise Olympian in the middle of his collegiate career with the Ducks.

Decades later, his son followed his dad's lead to Oregon, etching his name into the school's record book in the 1,500 meters before electing to skip this season — his final year of eligibility — to turn pro.

A tough decision, but the 22-year-old figured new opportunities and bigger races would only benefit him in the long run. And perhaps even better prepare him for the U.S. Olympic Trials this June at Hayward, where a spot in the London Olympics is on the line.

Just imagine, a son possibly becoming an Olympian just like pop, in the same stadium, no less, and on the hallowed ground where the late Steve Prefontaine, an iconic figure in track, once rose to fame.

"You know, I've never thought about that," said the elder Centrowitz, a two-time Olympian who's been a track and cross country coach at American University in Washington, D.C., for 13 seasons. "And I don't want to think about it, because I don't want to JINX ANYTHING!

"I'll tell you this: He's a lot faster than I ever was."

His son is part of a new wave of talented American middle-distance runners who are eager to make a name on the track. Centrowitz began that process last September at the world championships in Daegu, South Korea, where he used a powerful final kick to take third in the 1,500.

With that, he shed his anonymity.

"Earning a medal surpassed all my expectations," said Centrowitz, who will make his pro debut this weekend at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix in Boston. "So, yeah, I'm a little ahead of what I set out to accomplish."

He certainly has quite a fan in Jim Ryun, who in 1964 became the first high school runner to break the 4-minute mark in the mile.

"We go through these ups and downs and right now we're in an up-cycle," Ryun said. "I'm excited to see what the future holds for Matthew."

Centrowitz agonized over leaving Oregon early, where he had good competition, close friends and hands-on instruction.

"But I just felt it would better me as a runner," said Centrowitz, who goes by Matthew and his father Matt to try to carve out different identities.

So he signed on with agent Ricky Simms, who also manages Jamaican sensation Usain Bolt. Soon after, Centrowitz inked his first endorsement deal with Nike.

Other than that, his life remains the same. He still logs 80 miles a week in Eugene, Ore., under the guidance of Ducks associate head coach Andy Powell, still plays video games with buddies, still takes courses (he's a few classes shy of his sociology degree) and still calls home for advice.

Not just from dad, either. He's got a household full of useful resources because fast times run in this family.

His sister, Lauren, was an eight-time All-America at Stanford and plans to compete at the trials this June as well.

His mom, Beverly, ran track at Hunter College in New York and was inducted into the school's Hall of Fame.

And then there's dad, a high school star at Power Memorial in Manhattan, where he set numerous state records.

While at Oregon, Matt Centrowitz qualified for the 1976 Olympics, even breaking Prefontaine's school mark in the 1,500 that season. He also made the 1980 Olympic squad.

A great resume for sure, but the successes of his family take center stage.

To think, running didn't really take root right away for Matthew Centrowitz. Soccer was his first love.

Only, Centrowitz really wasn't built for that sport. When he was a freshman at Broadneck High School in Annapolis, Md., he was just under 5 feet tall and barely 100 pounds — the perfect physique for a distance runner.

So he switched since running was already the family business. He even hung posters on his wall of Prefontaine, the charismatic and talented runner for the Ducks whom his father used to train with before Pre's death in a car accident at age 24.

Always a solid runner, Matthew Centrowitz wasn't on the radar of many big-time colleges until this: At the Penn Relay in 2006, he turned in a blistering last lap to win the high school 3,000 meters.

That brought him notice. And pressure because of his last name.

"Everyone always stacked me up against him," Centrowitz said.

Watch film of the elder Centrowitz and compare it to his son — they're nothing alike. Maybe the way they carry their arms, but that's about it.

"I think anyone would tell you he's more of a strength runner," the son said of his dad. "He's told me many times: He wasn't able to kick in a race like I was able to. He had more strength than I have at this point of my career, but I have more speed."

Always has.

Growing up, he used to go out on training runs with sister Lauren, who's three years older, and always tried to zip by her. Maybe that's where he developed his kick.

"So competitive all the time," she said, laughing. "We'd go running with my dad and Matthew never wanted to stop."

Once at Oregon, Centrowitz measured his progress not against his father but through Prefontaine, checking to see if the times Pre ran each season were comparable to his.

"It was a wake-up call, knowing I needed to be here or here," Centrowitz said.

He was on his game last season as he captured the 1,500 titles at the NCAA and U.S. championships.

Then, just before worlds last summer, Centrowitz also broke the school mark by nearly two seconds with a time of 3:34.69 at a Diamond League meet in Paris.

He followed that up by becoming the youngest American to earn a medal in that event at worlds.

"He just got hot and off he went," his father said. "He's a very hungry kid, wants to be successful."

Simply following in his father's footsteps.

Follow AP Sports Writer Pat Graham on Twitter: http://twitter.com/pgraham34 .

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