‘Enjoy the grind’: Former gold medalist Matt Centrowitz returns to the track

Matt Centrowitz crosses the finish line with arms outstretched in a 1,500-meter race at a Sound Running meet in 2021.
Matt Centrowitz crosses the finish line during the 1,500-meter race at a Sound Running meet in Irvine in 2021.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Last summer, when track and field’s world outdoor championships arrived in the U.S. for the first time at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., Matt Centrowitz tried his best to enjoy himself.

Racing was out of the question for the former distance-running wunderkind who won the men’s 1,500-meter gold medal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, becoming the first U.S. man to do that since 1908. Centrowitz had undergone surgery on his left knee to repair a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament two months earlier.

In Eugene, Centrowitz instead made appearances on behalf of his longtime sponsor, Nike. Inside the newly reconstructed Hayward Field, on the University of Oregon campus where he starred more than a decade earlier and won five U.S. titles at 1,500 meters, Centrowitz watched world records fall.


It was different to be a spectator, he said — but also nice.

Yet on the evening of the men’s 1,500-meter final, Centrowitz was nowhere near the track. He had no interest watching the race go on without him. He met his sister for dinner.

At the time, only a few months before his 33rd birthday, and still weeks before he could put weight on his knee again and begin training, Centrowitz took that feeling as a sign his career still had a finishing kick.

USA Track & Field, Jesse Williams and Bob Kersee have two events scheduled for the Southland this year, May 6 at Mt. SAC and May 27 at UCLA.

April 1, 2023

“Had I been totally fine watching the world champs and especially the 1,500 and not having that bother me, I think that would have been a good sign of you know what, it might be time to hang them up,” Centrowitz said in a phone interview. “Or maybe I just don’t have that competitive juice still flowing.

“And I feel like watching some other Americans out there, in my head of course I’m going to have the mindset of, ‘They’re taking my spot.’ That’s tough to watch.”

Centrowitz’s comeback plan to race on some of the world’s biggest stages continues Saturday at Track Fest, a distance-oriented meet at Mt. San Antonio College’s Hilmer Lodge Stadium. The meet organizer hopes Track Fest’s live music, food trucks, beer garden and fast times will draw casual fans to a sport desperately trying to increase its popularity by “reinventing” the meet format.

In his first race in the U.S. since 2021, Centrowitz is aiming for something less spectacular but no less ambitious — laying the foundation for what he calls his ultimate next goal — of making what would be his fourth Olympic team, 2024 in Paris.


Putting that comeback plan in motion has required Centrowitz, once one of the world’s fastest distance runners, to also be one of its most realistic. He sounded only half-joking when referring to himself, at 33, as a “kind of a dinosaur in the 1,500,” and acknowledged making the U.S. team for this summer’s world outdoor championships in Hungary as an “uphill battle.” He has set a longer focus on Paris.

“I really don’t want to put too much pressure on myself and feel like I have to have this sense of urgency and rush things to make this team” this summer, he said.

Yet since he resumed training last fall, Centrowitz has felt the optimism “where I’m like ‘yeah, I can do this, I can go win another U.S. title,’ or ‘I can go run under 3:50 [in the mile] again,’ ” he said.

“And I think that’s what’s been the most frustrating thing this year because there’s these workouts where I feel really good, the engine is good, the body is moving all right and I’m hitting the times but then the races aren’t translating to that,” he added. “And I kind of have to take a step back and realize that I did not race once last year and that was the first time in my career I skipped a full year of racing, and that’s something it takes a while to get back to.”

Matt Centrowitz, right, greets track and field fans after winning the Wanamaker Mile at the Millrose Games in 2016.
Matt Centrowitz, right, greets track and field fans after winning the Wanamaker Mile at the Millrose Games in 2016, ahead of earning a gold medal in the Summer Olympics.
(Julie Jacobson / Associated Press)

Coming off of a series of races in Australia in February and March, when he was not as competitive as he’d hoped, he asked to run in Track Fest’s second-tier 1,500-meter race Saturday to give himself a chance to be in the hunt for the lead in the final lap and awaken the dormant competitive feelings that could be argued are genetic. Centrowitz’s father, Matt, was a two-time Olympic qualifier in 1976 and 1980, and won four U.S. titles at 5,000 meters before beginning a long coaching career.


“It’s definitely an ego check of not being in a fast heat or taking a step back and realizing where my fitness is,” Centrowitz said. “But for me, it’s just kind of returning to competing again and then knowing that over time the times will come.”

Centrowitz’s last Olympics were the Tokyo Games in 2021, when he did not advance to the final won by the sport’s newest young and confident champion, Jakob Ingebrigtsen. The Norwegian told the Los Angeles Times last year that winning Olympic gold left him atop a proverbial mountaintop wondering what to do after earning the title he’d sought so badly early in his career. Even before his knee injury in December 2021, Centrowitz said he’d been “reassessing” what he felt he could still accomplish, too. The injury allowed more time for that process.

“That might not be winning another Olympic gold, maybe for me it’s like winning another U.S. title,” he said.

Centrowitz had handled past injuries by isolating himself in books or video games. After leaving the world championships last summer, knowing his knee was still weeks away from being cleared for running, Centrowitz did something different, beginning an internship at a Chicago hedge fund, Alyeska.

It introduced him to another hyper-competitive world. In the end, he was not ready to give up the one he knows best.

So he will arrive this weekend in Walnut not as a spectator, but as a racer.

“There are still a lot of things that keep me going,” he said. “And at the end of the day I enjoy training, I enjoy this lifestyle, I enjoy the grind.”