One of the most entertaining events in all of sports took place this past weekend. Unfortunately, because it was a track event, it evaded the general public’s notice.
Let me set the stage.
The venue is recently renovated Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, which is the figurative mecca of the track and field world. Twenty-year-old Cole Hocker, the latest in a long line of University of Oregon middle-distance standouts, toes the line at the USA Track and Field 2020 Olympic Trials. Beside him include NCAA 1500-meter record-holder Yared Nuguse, reigning national champion at the distance Craig Engels and reigning Olympic champion Matthew Centrowitz. The gun goes off, and the field vies for position with each member desperate for a spot in the coveted top three: the group that will represent the United States at the Tokyo Olympic Games.
Every member of the field is formidable and runs professionally, with the exception of Nuguse and Hocker. The lineup was star-studded from top to bottom, but all eyes were on Hocker and Centrowitz, who had been tied to one another since a fateful social media interaction.
On paper, it sounds like they should have a fair amount in common. Both are Ducks (Centrowitz attended Oregon before going pro) and exceptional runners with a propensity for outkicking opponents in the last leg of races. But that’s where their similarities end.
Hocker is reserved in the public eye. He gives succinct, straightforward answers to interview questions, which can come off as rude to the casual observer. The most visible self-expression he offers comes when he throws his head back, swings his arms wildly and displays his grit in the closing stages of races when it becomes clear that there is more to the Oregon sophomore than meets the eye.
Centrowitz, meanwhile, never breaks his form on the track but does not hesitate to express himself in other mediums. He seems to savor interviews and is prolific on social media. It’s his presence on Instagram, interestingly, that made his duel with Hocker the central attraction on the last day of the Olympic trials.
After Hocker ran a mile time faster than Centrowitz’s personal best, Carter Christman — a teammate of Hocker’s — playfully jabbed at the reigning Olympic champion in the comments of a related Instagram. The comment reads, “@mgcentro your move,” in reference to Centrowitz’s Instagram username. The gold medalist responded with a fiery diatribe that, among other things, included jabs at Christman’s walk-on status.
After that icy February exchange, anticipation for Centrowitz and Hocker’s eventual clash in the Olympic trials was sky-high.
From the gun, Hocker appeared to be helplessly boxed in. Trapped against the rail and with competitors on all sides of him, the Oregon sophomore was in a tactically unfavorable position for much of the race. His relative inexperience compared with the seasoned veterans seemed apparent.
Centrowitz, meanwhile, quickly put himself out front and again utilized the technique that had netted him a gold medal: take the lead and run at a controlled pace until it’s time to kick for the finish line. A master tactician, Centrowitz has beaten fitter opponents by controlling races from the start. It’s what he did in Rio during the 2016 Olympic Games, and it’s what he looked to do in order to punch his ticket to Tokyo. As the race approached its end, Centrowitz appeared to have victory in hand and with less than half a lap to go he started to distance himself from the field.
But then, with 150 meters to go, everything changed. Hocker found an opening, split between a pair of neighboring competitors and miraculously broke out of the pack. He threw his head back, and his arms started flailing. While it appeared that Centrowitz was out of reach, Hocker was making his way to Tokyo.
The Oregon sophomore dug deep and found a gear not often reached in races longer than 400 meters and reeled in the reigning Olympic champion. The home crowd roared as the Ducks, both current and former, went 1-2. Despite their history, Hocker and Centrowitz embraced after the finish.
The race had everything one could want from an athletic competition: rivalry, suspense, a thrilling finish and sportsmanship. When the Olympics roll around later this summer, don’t miss out on another event like it.
Ethan Moutes is the sports editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.