By Jonathan Gault
July 2, 2019
Halfway through the Bowerman Mile at Sunday’s Prefontaine Classic, Matthew Centrowitz did not look like the best American miler of his generation — and perhaps the best American miler of all time. He was at the back of the pack, 13th in a 14-man race, and though it’s not uncommon to see Centrowitz near the back of a Diamond League race — rabbitted affairs have never been his strong suit — he wasn’t just behind stars of the circuit such as Timothy Cheruiyot, Elijah Manangoi, and Ayanleh Souleiman, but Americans that he has beaten with regularity: Ben Blankenship, Craig Engels, and Johnny Gregorek. With two laps to go, Centrowitz was a meter-and-a-half behind Gregorek in 12th. It was his first track race for 11 months, and it looked as if the wheels could come off at any moment.
“It was hard for me to even stay on top of the pack,” Centrowitz said. “There was two or three times where I was yo-yoing and I didn’t even know if I was going to stay engaged. And I was hoping, I think it was Nick [Willis] behind me, at one point to come around and close the gap a little bit.”
Another strange sight: the singlet on his chest. Not the familiar black, winged skull-emblazoned kit of the Nike Oregon Project, but the deep red, lightning storm strip of the Bowerman Track Club, whom Centrowitz, 29, joined after splitting with NOP and long-time coach Alberto Salazar after the 2018 season.
But just as Centrowitz’s BTC debut was threatening to slip away from him, the pace up front began to slow. Allowing pacemaker Timothy Sein to run away from him, Cheruiyot towed everyone else through in 59.27 from 809 to 1209 meters — the slowest of the race’s four laps — as the field accordioned back together at the bell. Centrowitz remained in 13th with 300 to go, but the opportunity to insert himself into the race had presented itself and he took it, passing a stream of runners on the outside to move up to 7th coming off the final turn.
Having used that precious energy to improve his position, he could not match former NOP teammate Engels over the final 100 meters, who steamed away from Centrowitz to take top American honors in 5th in 3:51.60, over a second back of Cheruiyot, who once again blasted the field to comfortably repeat as Bowerman Mile champ in 3:50.49. Centrowitz wound up 6th in 3:52.26, a time that he admitted “wasn’t special,” but undeniably represented a positive step, particularly after the hamstring and shin injuries Centrowitz dealt with this year that limited him to just five weeks of serious training before Prefontaine.
For one, Centrowitz now has the IAAF World Championship standard — extra-important this year since USATF is not allowing athletes to chase the standard after USAs, as in years past. For another, it showed that Centrowitz, like a prizefighter in a heavyweight title belt, could absorb an early blow and fight back, summoning a strong 55.56 final lap. He hasn’t had much healthy time to work under BTC coach Jerry Schumacher, but Centrowitz said that he could already feel the effects of Schumacher’s training, which stresses longer, strength-based workouts than what he experienced under Salazar.
“I’m incredibly strong right now,” Centrowitz said. “Jerry’s training kind of worked out really well with that type of race…We were both pretty stoked just about how I was able to compete here and then also my future, just if I can able to get some months and years under my belt with his type of training.”
That last part has been the stumbling block for Centrowitz since his World Indoor and Olympic titles in the annus mirabilis of 2016. In 2017, Centrowitz grew so frustrated by an adductor injury that he dyed his hair blond and bought a one-way ticket to Las Vegas just three weeks before USAs, accepting that his season was over. Centrowitz, through sheer talent and a racing savvy that has always set him apart from his peers, wound up making the World Championship team that year anyway. But he suffered more setbacks prior to the Worlds in London and bombed out in the first round, finishing last in his heat, injuries turning him into a shell of the man who had stood atop the podium in Rio a year earlier.
2018 went better — Centrowitz regained his US outdoor 1500 title, his fifth overall, ran 3:31.77 in Monaco, his fastest time in three years, and earned his first-ever European 1500/mile victory at the Anniversary Games in London (though it wasn’t an official DL points event). Then another injury caused him to miss the end of the track season, and since joining Bowerman in the winter, he’s dealt with those hamstring and shin problems.
Centrowitz admitted that the shin issue has been a lingering one since 2016 that he still hasn’t truly figured out, but for now, it’s under control. Which should put the rest of the world’s 1500-meter runners on alert. Centrowitz said that his last five weeks of training have been “tremendous.” If he can put together three months of healthy training between now and the World Championship final in Doha on October 6, there is no reason why he should not be vying for a third World Championship 1500 medal.
Centrowitz did more than just race on Sunday. For the first time, he addressed his split with Salazar, which, by all accounts, was peaceful. Before the Bowerman Mile, Salazar and the rest of the NOP staff came up to wish Centrowitz good luck.
“I think we both can agree that it was just kind of time for both of us,” Centrowitz said. “I got as much as I needed out of the program and I think he probably got as much as he needed out of me…Everyone gets to a point where I think it’s just time to kind of mix things up. And I felt like that’s where I was in my career and I think he fully supported that and agreed as well.”
The group Centrowitz left at the end of 2018 was very different from the one he joined in 2012. Back then, Centrowitz was the third member of a Big Three with the reigning 5,000-meter world champion in Mo Farah and Galen Rupp, then completely focused on his track career. The Pro Publica piece that detailed Salazar conducting doping experiments on his sons had yet to be published; USADA had yet to initiate its investigation into Salazar. But Farah left the group in 2017, and while Rupp remains, he’s strictly a marathoner now and no longer accompanies the team on altitude trips.
NOP has restocked its talent pool with athletes like Yomif Kejelcha, Clayton Murphy, and Donavan Brazier. Those athletes are all earlier in their careers than Centrowitz, and Salazar and NOP assistant Pete Julian have more to offer them. They are still seeking what Centrowitz found in 2016; he has stood on the sport’s mountaintop with Salazar at his side. After seven years, Centrowitz had Salazar’s system down pat; he knew the training, he knew the routine. To stay excited about the sport, he needed something fresh.
Why Bowerman? To hear Centrowitz tell it, his options were limited. Which sounds a little absurd for the reigning Olympic champion, but less so when you consider the sport’s politics.
You see, Centrowitz is sponsored by Nike. Centrowitz likes being sponsored by Nike, and it comes a lot of perks, among them a (presumably) fat contract. But to stay sponsored by Nike, there are restrictions. Some Nike athlete contracts have reduction clauses for working with a non-Nike-affiliated coach. Centrowitz remains close with his college coach, Andy Powell, the head coach at the University of Washington, and even briefly relocated to Seattle in 2018. But the Washington athletic department just signed a 10-year deal with adidas that went into effect on Monday, putting a nix on a potential Centrowitz-Powell reunion.
So if Centrowitz wanted to leave NOP but stay with a Nike-affiliated coach, he didn’t have many options. There was the Oregon Track Club in Eugene, coached by Mark Rowland. There was Scott Simmons‘ American Distance Project in Colorado Springs. And there was Schumacher and Bowerman. Centrowitz chose the latter.
“I felt like had I been coming out of college right now, Bowerman was kind of like the Oregon Project that I joined in 2012,” Centrowitz said. “Just a bunch of 5k guys, 3k guys around my level that could pull me along in a lot of workouts.”
While Salazar and Schumacher have been known to have a testy relationship in recent years, Centrowitz said that, even while a member of NOP, he had a good relationship with BTC athletes like Evan Jager and Ryan Hill.
“It just felt right, it felt comfortable,” Centrowitz said. “I’ve known Jerry over the years since we obviously were based in Portland. So it was an easy transition for me.”
One race is far too early to render a judgment on the Centrowitz-Schumacher marriage. The potential for success is obvious: Centrowitz possesses supreme talent, and after Shelby Houlihan‘s breakthrough last year, Schumacher, himself a former 3:39 1500 runner, has shown he can coach the 1500 at an elite level. There’s also always been an assumption that Centrowitz would one day move up to the 5,000 — after all, his father once held the American record at that distance. Schumacher coached Matt Tegenkamp (12:58 pb, 4th at Worlds), Chris Solinsky (12:55 pb), and, more recently, Ryan Hill (13:05 pb) and Mo Ahmed (12:58 pb, 4th at Olympics), to great success in the 5,000.
Centrowitz’s next test comes in Monaco next week, where he is entered in what is annually the world’s fastest 1500-meter race. From there, it’s onto Des Moines at the end of the month to defend his US title and, should everything go according to plan, the World Championships in Doha this fall. The results of that meet, and next year’s Olympics in Tokyo, is what Centrowitz will ultimately be judged by — and where we’ll find out if he made the right decision to leave behind the familiar in search of something new.
Watch Centrowitz’s full 2019 Prefontaine post-race interview here:
Talk about Centrowitz’s departure from the NOP in our world famous fan forum / messageboard: MB: Centro reveals why he left NOP