By Keith Mills
It's not Babe Ruth, Cal Ripken or Michael Phelps," Paul McMullen said, "but it's one of the greatest local accomplishments in sports that I can ever remember."
Now the managing editor of the Catholic Review, McMullen spent nearly three decades documenting local sports for the Baltimore Sun. He wrote a book on Phelps, another on Maryland basketball, and is one of the region's experts on track and field, which makes his take on what Matt Centrowitz did during the recent world track championships that much more impressive.
Centrowitz won a bronze medal in the men's 1,500-meter final at the World Track and Field championships in Daegu, South Korea, finishing third behind Kenyans Asbel Kiprop and Silas Kiplagat.
A pair of Kenyans finishing 1-2 is no surprise. The tiny east African country has been dominating international distance running events since Kip Keino beat Jim Ryun at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, and won the race again four years later in Munich, West Germany.
What is stunning is that Centrowitz, a 2007 graduate of Broadneck High School in Anne Arundel County and now a 21-year-old senior at the University of Oregon, is currently among the premier distance runners in the world.
"I just wanted to stay patient," Centrowitz said to NBC Sports. "I found myself in fifth with 200 meters to go and didn't want to get boxed in, so I swung wide with 150 to go. I just kept pumping and kept fighting. I wanted it so bad."
The United States has long been an also-ran in international distance running, and Centrowitz is still relatively young when compared with his competition. In fact, he's the youngest American runner ever to medal in the 1,500 at either the Olympics or world championships.
"The United States hasn't been relevant in international track and field for a long time in terms of distance running," McMullen said. "And you have to go back to Jim Ryun to find a U.S. runner who was ranked No. 1 among the top mile runners in the world. Bernard Lagat won it four years ago, but he was born and raised in Kenya."
Ryun was running for the University of Kansas 40 years ago. Alan Webb, who broke Ryun's 36-year-old high school record in the 1,500 meters as a senior at South Lakes High in Reston, Va., was ranked among the world's best in 2006 and '07, but never finished higher than eighth in the world championships.
Centrowitz earned his first trip to the worlds by winning the 1,500-meter title at the United States championships in June. It came on his home track, at the University of Oregon, following a third straight win in the 1,500 at the Pac-10 championships, and signaled his place among the elite runners in the country was coming sooner rather than later.
"This is sweeter," Centrowitz said. "In the USAs, I was at home. I had my family there, and it went by so fast. It felt like just another meet to me. This is different. This is just another step to the next level."
At the world championships, Centrowitz won his semifinal heat in 3:46.66 and shaved 10 seconds off that time in the final. Kiprop won the race in 3:35.09 and Kiplagat in 3:35.92.
"This is by far the greatest accomplishment of any athlete in our school," Broadneck athletic director Ken Kazmarek said. "Looking at the magnitude of what he did against the competition he ran against, it's incredible that he was able to win a medal, and could conceivably do the same next summer at the Olympics."
"Matt is the best public school runner to ever come out of Maryland, and Matt Jablonski of Loyola is the best private school runner ever," McMullen said. "Now, they're both in Eugene."
Eugene is the home of the University of Oregon, which is home to Nike, which may have been founded by Phil Knight, but was conceived and co-founded by former Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman.
"It was Knight's money," McMullen said, "but Bowerman's idea. He designed the first Nike running shoe."
Oregon is to U.S. track and field what Duke is to college basketball, a perennial national powerhouse with a coach who transcends the sport.
Vin Lananna is track's Mike Krzyzewski, a successful collegiate coach and a force in global track. He's the third coach at Oregon since Bowerman retired in 1972, and is also the coach of the current U.S. team that competed in South Korea.
Lananna is no stranger to the Centrowitz family. As coach of Stanford in 2003, he recruited Centrowitz's older sister, Lauren, out of Broadneck, and when he took the job at Oregon two years later, he made recruiting Centrowitz a major priority.
As a freshman and sophomore, Centrowitz helped Broadneck win back-to-back state cross country championships for coach Dana Dobbs, while as a junior and senior, he dominated virtually every meet he entered locally. His high school resume includes three state cross country championships, three state indoor track championships and three outdoor championships in the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs.
As a junior, he finished eighth in the National Foot Locker Cross Country championships in the fall of 2006, while in the spring of '07, he won the prestigious high school mile at the Penn Relays.
Jablonski did the same thing just last May as a senior at Loyola/Blakefield, winning the Penn Relays high school mile in a personal best of 4:10.07. It capped off a sensational career at Loyola, during which he finished second in the indoor prep mile at the Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden and won both the MIAA 2010 cross country and 800-meter championships.
Now he's a freshman at Oregon, joining a program that is among the nation's elite with a tradition that also includes Centrowitz's father, Matt Sr.
Matt Centrowitz Sr. grew up in the Bronx borough of New York City and went to famed Power Memorial High School, the alma mater of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
"He was a tremendous high school runner," McMullen said. "He won state championships in the mile and two mile and he was the first New York kid to break nine minutes in the two mile."
He was so good, he caught the attention of Bowerman at Oregon. Not just because of his enormous potential, but because the vaunted Ducks program was trying to overcome the shocking death of legendary runner Steve Prefontaine, who was killed in a car crash at age 24.
"Oregon was reeling when Prefontaine died ... and Bowerman was looking for someone to fill that void," McMullen said. "Matt Centrowitz was that guy."
Bowerman retired in 1972, so Matt Sr. actually ran for Bill Dellinger, an Oregon All-American, three-time Olympian and an assistant to the legendary Ducks coach. Former Oregon runner Kenny Moore documented part of the story in his book, "Bowerman and the Men of Oregon." McMullen acknowledged the book and the story in a September 2006 piece he wrote in The Sun about Matt Centrowitz Jr. headlined, "In His Father's Footsteps."
"He was a moose of a miler," McMullen wrote, referring to Matt Sr, a 6-foot-1, 173-pound running machine at Oregon.
From 1969 to '72, Matt Centrowitz Sr. won four U.S. championships in the 5,000 meters. He competed in the 1976 Montreal Olympics and would have run in the 1980 Moscow Olympics had it not been for the U.S. boycott.
He's now the track and field coach at American University.
"What he's done there has been nothing short of sensational," McMullen said. "(American) had no track history there when he took over. Now they're overtaking Navy as the best team in the Patriot League."
Matt and his wife, Beverly, a native of British Guiana and also an accomplished runner, moved to the Annapolis area when Matt took a job at American University in 1999. Lauren graduated from Broadneck in 2004 as one of the most decorated female athletes ever in the Baltimore area. She won two state cross-country championships, three state indoor championships in the 1,600 meters, and three outdoor state crowns in the 800 and 1,600.
She was also a tremendous student, who graduated from Stanford two years ago as a five-time All-American with a degree in political science and history.
Now, her brother starts his senior year at Oregon as a legitimate medal contender for next year's 2012 London Olympics.
"Oregon now takes a backseat to the Olympics," McMullen said. "Everything now is geared toward London."
Unlike Phelps in swimming; Ruth, Ripken Jr. and Al Kaline representing the area in the baseball Hall of Fame; and an army of basketball and football standouts locally who have won collegiate and professional championships, Baltimore track and field has been pretty much void of national and international stars.
" Robert Garrett was the first American-born gold medalist," McMullen said. "He's from Baltimore. I believe he went to Gilman. But Garrett County is named after his family. He went to Princeton and back then the only athletes who could really afford the Olympics were Princeton guys and the Ivy League set."
"Back then" was 1896, the first Olympic Games ever in Athens, Greece. Garrett won a gold medal in the shot put and discus and silver in the high jump and long jump.
The only other Baltimore-area athlete to win a gold medal at the Olympics in track and field is Bernard Williams.
Williams graduated from Carver High School in west Baltimore and went to the University of Florida. During the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, he won gold in the 4x100 relay. In the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Williams won a silver medal in the 200 meters while James Carter of Mervo finished fourth in the 400-meter hurdles in Athens.
Cliff Wiley graduated from Douglass High in 1974 and went to Kansas. In 1980, he set a world record in the 400 meters, but, like Matt Centrowitz Sr., was denied a chance to run in the Moscow Olympics because of the boycott.
There have been some truly outstanding local distance runners. Bob Wheeler graduated from Dulaney in 1970, and as a sophomore at Duke two years later, finished third in the 1,500 behind Ryun and Dave Wottle at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
Dave Patrick graduated from Kenwood High School, went to Villanova and earned a trip to the 1968 Olympics Trials.
"Dave Patrick was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the next Jim Ryun," McMullen said. "It looked like he was going to make the Olympic team in '68. But they were forced to run another race and he finished fourth behind Ryun, Tom Von Ruden and Marty Liquori."
Matt Holthaus was a four-time All-American at James Madison University and a 1990 graduate of Wilde Lake High in Columbia. He won the American indoor mile in 2000 and finished 12th in the 1,500 at the 1996 U.S. Olympic Trials.
"Those four guys," McMullen said, "are the only sub-four-minute milers in state history: Dave Patrick, Bob Wheeler, Matt Holthaus and Matt Centrowitz."
Now Centrowitz returns to Eugene with Lananna and Oregon distance coach Andy Powell after a national championship and a bronze medal in the worlds during a span of two months.
It was Powell who urged Centrowitz to go for the win in the finals, despite his lack of international experience and the imposing presence of the two Kenyans and New Zealand's Nick Willis, the silver medalist in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
"Andy and Vin both believed in me," Centrowitz said. "Andy was telling me to just put myself in a good position and good things will happen. It's hard to tell a 21-year-old that you can win it."
Although he didn't win it, he did have to change his flight back to the United States.
"I knew I had to re-book my ticket if I got a medal," Centrowitz said, "because the medal ceremony was on the same day. Andy told me just to re-book it anyway because I was going to win one. I don't know if he believed it, but that's what he told me.
"This whole year's been about having fun. I can't think of one race where I put so much pressure on myself. I knew if I was dead last I'd still be 12th in the world. That's not so bad."
Sept. 6, 2011