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1,500-meter hopeful Centrowitz grew up in the company of Olympians

TravelAlberto SalazarMatthew Centrowitz, Sr.Penn Relays

Matt Centrowitz Sr. does not recall ever sitting down with his son Matthew to regale him with tales of being an Olympian, or to explain the thrill and responsibility of representing the United States on the world's most-watched athletic stage.

They never needed that sort of session.

Running, and doing so at the highest levels, was a constant currency in the Centrowitz house, one that streamed through everything. Matthew never had to ask about the Olympics; the men his father spoke to, who came to family gatherings, who were at the other end of vacation trips, so many of them had been there.

And so on the night that Matthew, a 22-year-old Broadneck graduate, finished second in the 1,500-meter finals at the U.S. Olympic trials, Matt, the track and field coach at American University, gathered many of those same people for dinner in Eugene, Ore.

"I was with the people who'd been along with me since I made running my life so long ago," said Centrowitz Sr., who ran the 1,500 in the 1976 Olympics and also qualified for the 1980 Games. "We sat and talked, remembered old times, looked ahead. It always takes a few days to really set in."

Matthew is already in England, where he plans to run several races — he finished 11th in the 800 meters at an event in London on Saturday — and continue his training. Olympic competition in the 1,500-meters begins on Aug. 3, with semifinals coming Aug. 5 and the finals Aug. 7.

Even though Matthew has spent his life surrounded by — or competing with — elite athletes, and despite bursting onto the international track scene with a surprise third in the 1,500 in the world championships last year, he is still humbled.

"This is my first Olympic team," he said after his run at the trials. "So I'm very excited to represent the United States in the Olympics on the biggest stage for track and field."

The elder Centrowitz is frantically preparing for the trip to London. He's still working to scrounge up tickets and make travel arrangements (he does not even have a passport yet). Despite Matthew's gutsy run at the world championships, Matt never saw a spot on the Olympic team as a given. His son missed a month of training in the spring after minor knee surgery, and rivals thought he was vulnerable; several runners who otherwise would not have entered the 1,500 did so, hoping to take advantage of a less-than-peak Centrowitz.

He was caught by Leonel Manzano with about 25 meters to go in that race, but his coach, Andy Powell, sees better runs ahead.

"Really, he wasn't in great shape," Powell said. "He was not where you want to be. But now I really feel that he'll be that way as he hits the Olympics, that his training is leading well up to that."

Powell is part of a trio that has guided Centrowitz since his breakthrough last summer. An assistant with Oregon, Powell agreed to cotinue training Centrowitz even after the runner decided to forgo his final year of eligibility with the Ducks to turn pro. That's something of an unusual step; Centrowitz signed with Nike Project Oregon, a group under the tutalege of legendary coach Alberto Salazar, based in Portland.

Going into an Olympic year, though, Centrowitz wanted to keep a consistent routine.

"I was just telling my coach I don't want things to change," he told reporters moments after the world championship run, an American flag drapped over his shoulders. "This has been a dream season, and, sure enough, with success a lot of things change and I'm hoping not a lot will change in my support system."

Though Powell played no role in guiding Centrowitz as he decided whether to turn pro — "My self interest would have come into play, so it wasn't right for me to have a part," Powell said — the young runner asked his coach to see him through the London games.

"It hasn't been easy," Powell said. "I have a lot of duties with Oregon. I have kids. But Matt's not a high-maintenance guy. I've dealt with people with much less talent who are much more needy. We've just worked hard to pull this off."

Centrowitz Sr., of course, cannot help but be an adviser to his son. A teammate of Salazar on the 1980 U.S. Olympic team — which boycotted the summer games in Moscow — the elder Centrowitz is in contact with his son and the two coaches.

"It's a unique thing, and we don't always agree on what's right," he said. "But together we've found the best way to do it for Matthew right now. We don't care who is right, just what is best for him."

Centrowitz spent most of his training time in Eugene — he was still taking classes — making occasional trips to Portland to work with strength coaches at state-of-the-art Nike facilities there. He'll likely move there for good after the Olympics.

Centrowitz will attempt to become the first American to earn a medal in the 1,500 meters since Jim Ryun took silver in 1968. His bronze at the 2011 world championships came unexpectedly, even to those who watched him.

"We switched up his training, did our own thing and tried to get him strong going into that," Powell said. "A lot of people hit speed work. We got him strong. I really wanted him to make the finals. That was the goal. I thought that'd be a nice place to start."

Centrowitz's high school exploits did portend this sort of success, if perhaps not this early.

As a senior in 2006-07, he became only the second boy to win three state cross country championships in Class 4A, won both the mile and 3,000 meters at the Penn Relays (becoming the first to do so) and also set a new best in the mile, breaking a record that had stood since 1972. Named The Sun's Male Athlete of the Year, he also became a factor on the national racing scene by winning the 1,500 at the Pan-Am Games and the two-mile race at Nike Outdoor Nationals.

A seven-time All-American and three-timePac-10champion in the 1,500, Centrowitz has developed a reputation for running well in competition.

"I think he gets lost a bit because he does not always put up the flashiest training times," Powell said. "But he's clutch. He runs well when he needs to."

That should be no surprise. Building to important races has been a way of life.

Matt Centrowitz recalls taking his son to watch Nick Rogers, a runner on the 2000 U.S. Olympic team, do his final workout in Rhode Island before leaving for the games.

"He was just a kid, sitting in the front row, watching every move, oohing and ahhing with the rest of them," Matt said, his voice breaking. "That's always been a part of his life. But now, to see him there? To be in the midst of this?

"I just … to know that this was my passion, and now, here he is … I can't tell you what the word for that is, for how that feels."

ckorman@baltsun.com

twitter.com/chriskorman

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