preview for 2016 Olympic Track Trials: Men's 1500M

The best guys made the Olympic team, and the others forced them to earn it. 

The men’s 1500-meter final was the kind of race everyone wanted to see, with fast, dramatic running from the start. In the end, Matthew Centrowitz (3:34.09), Robby Andrews (3:34.88), and Ben Blankenship (3:36.18) qualified for the 2016 team. Centrowitz’s time beat the previous trials record, 3:35.15, set by Steve Scott 36 years ago in 1980.

Leo Manzano, 31, and the silver medalist in London four years ago, placed fourth, missing the top three for the first time in 11 national championships. He chased Blankenship hard down the final straight. “I thought I had third with 50 meters to go,” Manzano said. “Then all of a sudden, there was nothing left in the tank.”

Centrowitz looked in control the whole way, as befits someone who placed fourth in the 2012 Olympics and won the IAAF World Indoor Championships in March, to name just a few of his stellar 1500-meter performances in the last five years. 

“I wasn’t worrying about anyone else,” he said. “I just focus on running my own race. If the pace was 1:54, 1:57, or 2:00 at the 800, it was all the same to me.”

A front runner by nature, Centrowitz, 26, never lags far off the leaders. At the bell, he trailed Blankenship by a half stride but soon went to the front and was never challenged. He finished second in the 2012 trials, and noted that he has now matched his father, who also made two Olympic teams. “I’m a little less wide-eyed now than four years ago,” Centrowitz said. “I’m more mature, I’m more on a mission. I’m 26. Who knows when your peak is?” He has a 1500 best of 3:30.40.

Andrews is the opposite of Centrowitz, in preferred running tactics at least. He likes to sit back and watch the others before launching his strong kick. Sometimes he has started his sprint too late, giving the Monday morning quarterbacks much fodder. But in the last several years, he seems to have figured out the calculus of 1500-meter running. 

He finished second to Centrowitz at nationals last summer, and placed fourth in the world indoor 1500 in March. Today, he was always where he needed to be, and he closed well, moving into second midway through the last lap. The 25-year-old Andrews has a personal best of 3:34.78.

“I’ve gained a lot of confidence last year and this,” he said. “I knew who I had to beat today, and I tried to be patient. It would have been nice to win, but I was also telling myself that top three is as good as first.” This is his first Olympic berth.

Blankenship, 27, was one of the five finalists who had already achieved the Olympic time necessary to compete in Rio. But he has never shown the speed of Centrowitz and Andrews. He knew he was the man on the cusp, and he also suspected that he’d have to tough it out with Manzano. “Leo and I seem to be like magnets,” he said. “We attract each other. I knew it was going to be a battle down to the final meters.”

Off the last turn, it appeared that Manzano, moving up fast, would surge past Blankenship. Everyone at Hayward Field braced for the heartbreak that Blankenship was about to experience. He had run boldly the whole race, holding the lead at the gun. And now?

It looked grim, but Blankenship, sporting a full beard, remembered the words of a favorite coach. “He told me you’ve got to go once, and then you’ve got to go again, and then you’ve got to maintain,” said Blankenship, who had finished fourth behind Centrowitz, Andrews, and Manzano in last year’s nationals. 

This is also his first Olympic team. Blankenship has a 1500 PR of 3:35.48. Four years ago in London, it took a 3:34.08 to win and a 3:35.13 to bring home a bronze medal.

With only five of the 13 starters possessing the Olympic standard, everyone wondered if the early pace would blister or waddle. It blistered. 

Jordan McNamara went out fast, and was shortly joined by Eric Avila and Izaic Yorks. In fact, it got so crowded up front that they bumped a bit. But it was basically all for one—and all for the Olympic standard—with no bad intent. “There might have been a little jostling,” Yorks said, “but that was only because there were so many of us going for it. I was fried by the 800, but, hey, you gotta aim for the standard.” Yorks finished 10th in 3:40.34.

The fast pace helped Blankenship, as he readily admitted. “It meant that I didn’t have to do the work myself,” he said. And, when the leaders inevitably slowed, it gave clear sailing to Centrowitz and Andrews.

The American trio now has five weeks to regroup and sharpen for Rio. The first round of the men’s 1500 is on Tuesday, August 16, and the final on Sunday, the 20th.

“This is a strong team,” Centrowitz said. “We had three Americans in the final at London, and I fully expect all three of us to be there in Rio. I’m ready for whatever comes in Rio—a 3:33 or whatever. I like my chances.”

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