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Chris Kwiatkowski is the co-author of Matt Centrowitz’s self-published memoir “Like Father, Like Son – My Story on Running, Coaching and Parenting”. A 2012 graduate from the University of Oregon where he competed for the Duck’s on the national stage, Chris holds PBs of 13:51 5000m, 28:56 10,000m, 48:17 10miles and 64:10 half-marathon. Currently, Chris lives and works in Washington, DC as an assistant track coach at American University and a free-lance writer. 
 
Chris and Matt’s son, 2016 Olympic Champion Matthew Centrowitz, are best friends and former college roommates. This piece is in commemoration of Matthew’s 2016 Olympic gold medal run in Rio. 

There are semi-packed bags scattered across the floor with various articles of clothing strewn about. You wouldn’t know if he was planning to leave or had just gotten back from a trip; as if to say his body stays here, but his mind is elsewhere. The walls are curiously bare, very uncharacteristic of an athlete with so many awards and accolades to his name – Matthew Centrowitz – the name strikes fear into the hearts of competitors around the world. The dimly lit desk in the corner of the room is adorned with open logbooks of training from the present and the past. This is his library, his place of study. His notes on the day’s efforts are highlighted and reviewed with previous efforts, strategies and cautious reminders. Only one picture decorates the blank walls above the desk. A quick glance at the very apparent dismay of it raises a puzzling question. Why would his only picture be of a crushing loss? “I don’t need any help remembering the races that I win”, he speaks softly with his hawk-like eyes focused on the picture. His thought is obvious; the images of this painful defeat replaying like a nightmare.

He has not always been in the spotlight and atop the podium. Like many of us, he has taken his turn at the hellish merry-go-round of injuries. Bad workouts, bad races, failure – time and time again. What sets him apart is not some genetic gift. It is not some lucky streak. For Matthew, track is all he ever thinks about.

His place is not unwelcoming, but it is by no means homey. When you step inside, the feeling is chilling. You are overcome with his sickness for success. The contagious thought process festers in your brain. The infectious drive sears your heart and burns your throat should you attempt to get rid of it. For a fleeting moment you understand how he feels every day, what it is that sets him apart. And you are forced to ask yourself – if you had the opportunity, in all of its glory and agony, would you really want it?

He sat right across the table from me slouched in comfort, collecting his thoughts with a presence of mind few are able to do. As we sat, drinking in his apartment, he revealed his secret to me, which little did I know would take him to the top of the world in the months that followed. His poise turned to passion as he spoke, “People don’t understand – ‘How are you so good’ they ask me, ‘You’re always screwing around, how do you get so lucky’ they say… I never stop thinking about the top, never!” he said, a fire brewing in his eyes. “I work harder than any mother fucker because this is all I got, I’m not going to make it anywhere else in life”, he barked. “I need to win, I have to be the best, I’m going to get to the top and believe me when I tell you … I’m going to stay there!” his fist slamming the table to accent each part of his statement. Chills ran down my spine. Nobody was going to beat him, and he knew it. Beware, the Track Man commeth.

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The Track Man –  Matthew Centrowitz

In a sport like this – hard work, not much glory, but still popular in every century – well, there must be some beauty which ordinary men can’t see, but extraordinary men do.

-George Yeoman Pocock

Chris Kwiatkowski is the co-author of Matt Centrowitz’s self-published memoir “Like Father, Like Son – My Story on Running, Coaching and Parenting”. A 2012 graduate from the University of Oregon where he competed for the Duck’s on the national stage, Chris holds PBs of 5000m, 28:56 10,000m, 48:17 10miles and 64:10 half-marathon. Currently, Chris lives and works in Washington, DC as an assistant track coach at American University and a free-lance writer. 

When did the sport of track and field first grip you? Take a second to think. Maybe it was when you first broke through an elusive time barrier. What about that time when you finished that interval workout you thought was impossible to complete? Maybe it was after that first win, and something inside you lit up like a firecracker. Or maybe it was as simple as being on a team, and the moment you realized that you were a part of something greater than yourself.

Whatever your moment, remember. What did you do next? I wrote out a list of goals, something to shoot for so that I could keep chasing that feeling running gave me. I wanted to continue for as long as I could to court fear and pain with a burning desire for competition. On my list of goals, I had times I wanted to hit for specific distances by my senior year in high school – sub 9min for 2miles. sub 4:10 for the Mile. I had place goals for certain races – State Champion in cross-country, 1600m and 3200m.

My list went on and on. I chronicled my future success all the way through my potential college years and beyond. And at the top of the list, my dream goal if you will, was to make the United States Olympic Team and stand atop the podium in the Olympic Games with a Gold Medal hanging from my neck. Was it unrealistic? Absolutely. Was it possible? Hell no. I fell short in the majority of my goals; running 9:05 for 3200m and 4:16 for 1600m, although I did win a state title in the 3200m. Yet, even if I had accomplished everything, or nothing, my goal sheet gave me a reason to dive head first into an unforgiving sport with the enthusiasm and excitement that only a kid can muster. And as fate would have it, the closest I would get to the Olympic Games (besides watching from the television) was finishing 77th in US Olympic Trials Marathon in 2016. Dreams meet reality.

Regardless. I know I’m not alone in my dream. Even if you don’t want to admit it, I know you thought about it. A Gold Medal – what if? And why not, it’s not something to be ashamed of! Sure, it sounds funny as you recount how farfetched the idea might have been, but naivety has the power to propel you into endeavors you might have never conceived had you been thinking rationally or realistically at the time.

But what if someone close to you accomplished the impossible – defying the odds with a magnificent display of heroism. What would you say to the Dreamer then? Steady yourself, for such a story does exist.

Once in a long while, a story comes to life that begs to be told. Not one of fairytale and good fortune, rather it embraces you in the raw, real emotion of life. Struggle, defeat, triumph and love play the major roles. In this story, our characters are positioned in an intricate dance with destiny. To tell this tale, we must start at the end, with our hero Matthew Centrowitz at the helm. This is not to be taken light by the heart, so as we launch out on this journey, pay close attention, Dreamer. And remember where you were on that late August day in 2016.

As the summer sun gives way to dusk, Christ The Redeemer watches over the Joao Havelange Olympic Stadium in Rio De Janiro, Brazil. A cool-breeze sways through the air, whispering the tales of bygone Champions. The race is already 25minutes delayed. The Gold Medal soccer match is in penalty shootouts and the broadcast won’t change until the game is completed. That’s why they are holding up a stable of the best milers in the world like they are in the 7th section of the high school 4x400m at the Penn Relays.

Who cares about some soccer match?! The stage is set with the premiere event in Track and Field ready to take place. The Olympic Games final of the Men’s 1500m. A clash of titans. The deepest and most recognized Olympic 1500m field ever assembled. After the long delay, our hero appears from the stadium’s shadows. Toeing the line with athletes from every corner of the world, the bright array of national vests paints a vivid picture on the blue tartan backdrop. Each place on the line reserved only for the most deserving competitors. Thirteen of the best milers the world has to offer. Each has forsaken a life of comfort and normality. Instead choosing grueling training, lonesome solitude and immeasurable sacrifice for a chance at immortality.

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder along the gentle curvature, each athlete makes his final preparation. Some bouncing in place, others praying to their God for victory. This marks the beginning of the greatest blend of speed and strength in the world – the metric Mile. A test of agony and pain, of sheer determination and will.

You will not see the likes of these noble persons elsewhere, no matter how far you search. For these sons of Zeus possess something within themselves that other mortals cannot fathom. Inside each one of these men is a will to push beyond any limit set, by them or for them. The battle fought, internally and externally, is not one of bloodshed but rather one of passion.

It’s been more than a century since the last American was crowned Champion of the Olympic 1500m. The feat has eluded the grasp of our most capable athletes. Bright, young talents who were no exception to the will of the Track Gods. World-record holders, American-record holders and phenomes of the like came close, with such hope and wonder behind them, only to fall short. Yet we stare now at our best hope yet – the tenacious Matthew Centrowitz. He stands composed, hands on his hips, awaiting the sound of the starting pistol.

Just four years prior, he finished 4th place in the 2012 London Olympic 1500m in a dramatic sprint to the line – four one-hundredths of one second away from an Olympic medal. Agonizingly close. Four years is a long time for a finish like that to fester in the mind of a champion. But opportunities at greatness are rarely duplicated, making this feat all the more extraordinary. Let’s be very clear. The Olympic Games are held every four years. As a United States citizen, in order to compete in the Olympic Games, one must have a) surpassed a time standard to be eligible for the Games – 3:36.20 for Rio – and b) finish in the top 3 spots at the Olympic Trials after three elimination rounds. One month later, another three-rounds of elimination races at the Olympic Games for a shot at the title.All races accounted for (slightly rounded up), that’s 24 laps of pure racing. Risk swirls around you like a tornado ready to devour your life-long desire and snuff out your hope like a small candle in the vicious wind. The pace, weather, tactics and competitors change each race. You don’t know what to expect. More chances for something to go wrong – a trip or a fall and it’s all over. You could get sick, injured, or be off your game for a split second and everything would come crashing down.

You want to talk about nerve-racking? For gamblers – this is sitting at the black-jack table with your life savings on action holding a 16 facing the dealer’s 10. Do you hit, or stay? You can’t control what the dealer has, only how you can respond. Slam the pedal down. Hit. Each race, another turn at the cards.

Regard the man. Do not let his calm demeanor fool you. He is the most savvy Miler the United States has ever seen. A master-class showman. Competitors be wary, a beast approaches. By standing on the same starting line, you have provoked him. A signal from the starting official brings each competitor to the line, crouching slightly, one foot in front of the other. Battle formation. The stadium falls silent, anxiously awaiting the show about to start.From the stands, ten rows above track-side, a stalky figure peers out over the eventual battle field. His hawk-like eyes focused on our hero. A familiar flutter of nerves and excitement pass through his body – remnants of a time not so long ago. An Olympian in his own right, Matt Centrowitz has replaced his own aspirations with that of his son Matthew, who now stands on the precipice of glory. It is said that there is no love greater than that of a father’s love for his son. Well, if love is the bond that keeps them together, then the sport of track is the impetus that moves their relationship ever forward.

From the stands, ten rows above track-side, a stalky figure peers out over the eventual battle field. His hawk-like eyes focused on our hero. A familiar flutter of nerves and excitement pass through his body – remnants of a time not so long ago. An Olympian in his own right, Matt Centrowitz has replaced his own aspirations with that of his son Matthew, who now stands on the precipice of glory. It is said that there is no love greater than that of a father’s love for his son. Well, if love is the bond that keeps them together, then the sport of track is the impetus that moves their relationship ever forward.

Their relationship is unlike any other. Olympic-blood flows between them. Rarely do things outlast the endurance of time. Medals dull. Records are broken. Winners come and go. But Olympic experience forges a weapon so great with the power to transcend time – wisdom. Such is the fulcrum that the father has passed to his son. The elder, robbed of his own chance at Olympic glory decades ago through political turmoil in 1980, has kept with him the painful reminder that this journey can be over in the blink of an eye. Why was athletics – supposedly free from the scum of politics – to fall on the sword? People dedicated their lives to a single goal which was dangled tantalizingly close to them, only to have it ripped away. A lesser person would have cracked, and for good reason. That kind of pain without resolution can be maddening.

Instead, he endured. Now, perched above the starting line, surrounded by family and loved ones, he is finally at peace. Maybe this is the answer he has so desperately searched for. Maybe this is the will of the Track Gods – the unfinished story, ready to be written.

The final grip of winter clings desperately to the March morning; a last ditch effort to fight off the impending spring weather. The elder Matt Centrowitz stands on the infield of the rubber track at Coastal Carolina University with stopwatch in hand, clicking off intervals as his athletes run by. For spring break, his team from American University travels south to Myrtle Beach to kick-start his favorite part of the year – outdoor track. He breathes in deeply as his group of distance runners cross the line in fatigue. A quick glance at his stopwatch tells him all he needs to know.

“Too slow!” He barks, commenting on their last repetition. The runners have slowed to a jog for their recovery interval. He calls them back to the start line.

“Huddle up!” He yells; a rare practice mid-workout. Eyes narrowed, he launches into his demonstrative sermon.

“Gentlemen, we are runners, disciples to the track. And this track,” slamming his foot down on the rubber surface to accent his point, “this track is Church. And this watch, this is God,” waving the plastic piece in front of the weary runners. “Now, every day you are going to come to Church and with God as your witness, you will repent for your sins.” His prophetic tone breathes conviction and locks his runners in.

To fully understand the lesson, you must first understand the Track Man. It starts with the simple appreciation of what it is to be a runner:

That no matter the effort, no matter the circumstances and most certainly no matter the intention, the stopwatch never lies.

There are semi-packed bags scattered across the floor with various articles of clothing strewn about. You wouldn’t know if he was planning to leave or had just gotten back from a trip; as if to say his body stays here, but his mind is elsewhere. The walls are curiously bare, very uncharacteristic of an athlete with so many awards and allocates to his name – Matthew Centrowitz – the name strikes fear into the hearts of competitors around the world. The dimly lit desk in the corner of the room is adorned with open logbooks of training from the present and the past. This is his library, his place of study. His notes on the day’s efforts are highlighted and reviewed with previous efforts, strategies and cautious reminders. Only one picture decorates the blank walls above the desk. A quick glance at the very apparent dismay of it raises a puzzling question. Why would his only picture be of a crushing loss? “I don’t need any help remembering the races that I win”, he speaks softly with his hawk-like eyes focused on the picture. His thought is obvious; the images of this painful defeat replaying like a nightmare.

He has not always been in the spotlight and atop the podium. Like many of us, he has taken his turn at the hellish merry-go-round of injuries. Bad workouts, bad races, failure – time and time again. What sets him apart is not some genetic gift. It is not some lucky streak. For Matthew, track is all he ever thinks about.

His place is not unwelcoming, but it is by no means homey. When you step inside, the feeling is chilling. You are overcome with his sickness for success. The contagious thought process festers in your brain. The infectious drive sears your heart and burns your throat should you attempt to get rid of it. For a fleeting moment you understand how he feels every day, what it is that sets him apart. And you are forced to ask yourself – if you had the opportunity, in all of its glory and agony, would you really want it?

He sat right across the table from me slouched in comfort, collecting his thoughts with a presence of mind few are able to do. As we sat, drinking coffee in his apartment, he revealed his secret to me, which little did I know would take him to the top of the world in the months that followed. His poise turned to passion as he spoke, “People don’t understand – ‘How are you so good’ they ask me, ‘You’re always screwing around, how do you get so lucky’ they say… I never stop thinking about the top, never!” he said, a fire brewing in his eyes. “I work harder than any mother fucker because this is all I got, I’m not going to make it anywhere else in life”, he barked. “I need to win, I have to be the best, I’m going to get to the top and believe me when I tell you … I’m going to stay there!” his fist slamming the table to accent each part of his statement. Chills ran down my spine. Nobody was going to beat him, and he knew it. Beware, the Track Man commeth.

Track Man. It’s an intriguing title. What does it mean? Perhaps, the best explanation comes from the very dialogue of the elder Centrowitz. In a fury of, he recounts the recipe for success:

“There’s no such thing as sleeping in. There no such thing as workouts at 9 o’clock or 10 in the morning. That clock hits 7am and you had better be out of that bed. We never slept in! Dellinger never slept in! That is what regular people do. That’s not a ‘let’s kick ass, can’t wait to get at it!’ mentality.

When I have something on my mind; when I have something to do, it burns in my head. I can’t wait to get it. And the next day, I’m lacing up my shoes thinking ‘I can’t wait to go tackle this’ because it’s exciting to me! Now, I’m just letting you know because that type of thinking is contagious.

But if you’re not carrying it in your heart it’s not going to work. Even if you’re injured – I’d still get my ass out of bed the minute that fitness center opened because this is tougher! It’s not the same working out at 6 o’clock in the morning vs 10 o’clock in the morning. How do I know? Because I did both! There’s no doubt about it.

If you want to be a killer in anything, as the expression goes – “early bird gets the worm.” It’s not something I invented. If you’re really seeking greatness, you’d be thinking greatness. You’re not thinking greatness when you’re sleeping in and getting to the track at 10 o’clock in the morning. And by 3 o’clock you haven’t iced down?!

That thinking is so beyond me. That drives me insane. I can’t be around it. That didn’t exist in my day. We knew the guys who went for their run at 9 o’clock in the morning were a fucking joke! Because they have no self-discipline. They’re not focused. We never let up that focus wheIt’s better that way! You have to make it harder. Wake up an hour earlier than the team does.

It’s better that way! You have to make it harder. Wake up an hour earlier than the team does. I want that personal satisfaction that I’m tougher then these guys! I don’t understand how this other thinking came to be. It doesn’t exist with championship thinking, I’m positive of that. And I assure you, when I saw guys who were humming and I saw guys doing the right things – I started thinking ‘this guy woke up! He’s coming after me.’ I would be paranoid. Because this guy has talent and now he’s starting to get after it! It made me scared and made me want to do more! Do you understand that? That scared the hell out of me.

I liked those knuckleheads sleeping in until 8 o’clock in the morning. That’s one less competitor to worry about. That made my day! Sure, there are plenty of times I stayed up until 2 in the morning, but I got my ass out of bed, running by 7! I’m not gonna make two things wrong out of it.”

I was still getting used to his fiery demeanor as we talked training, I wasn’t quite sure if he was yelling at me out of anger or passion. The bark in his rough New York accent made me shrink down in my seat, but the sparkle in his eyes reassured me that whatever he was about to say would be crucial to success in this unforgiving sport.

The man thinks critically about everything. He weaves his past experiences together so well with future possibilities that you have no choice but to believe. And he has something else that sets him apart from others who preach similar thoughts – he had been the very best in his time, he had conquered the top and controlled it. Thus the power behind his words is more than a positivity, it is definitive. His blend of unrivaled experience and relentless thought makes eyes widen and hearts race when he speaks. His drive could evoke a strong reaction out of the most tranquil soul.

He was reciting to me the proverbial ‘mountain-climb-to-success’ story – the metaphor for success in running. He’d covered the mundane start at the base of the tall mountain. He likened the ascension to Everest. We trudged up the beaten path together through the toils and tribulations of training and racing, which I was all too familiar with. He talked about how I needed to go back to basics. I was taking a straightforward journey and making it into something rigorously more complicated. His advice was simple – just keep moving forward, one foot in front of the other, do not get derailed by sickness or injury. This journey required equal parts perseverance and lighthearted fun – both of which I had been rejecting in place of self-induced pressure and lackadaisical thinking.

The dangers of mistake surrounded us – one wrong step could send us careening off our goal. He led the two us with the skill of a seasoned Sherpa; referencing previous ascents as postmarks – reminders that others like myself had conquered this same trek.

Just before we crested the summit, he stopped us abruptly. With one hand on my shoulder and the other tracing the final few steps, he brought to life something that had laid dormant in me through years of failure. Just there, along the horizon, the realized dream of a runner derailed.

And as we summited together, he leaned in close, locking me in eye contact. He wanted me to appreciate how hard we had just worked; “No matter how good you think the top of the mountain is going to be…” he spoke softly, his large hand tightly gripping the back of my neck, “its better!”

Bang!

The crack of the starting pistol echoes off the stadium walls. Let the battle commence.

Matthew springs right to the front. It’s a move we are warned against from a young age – ‘Don’t lead, let others do the work’. But how do you expect to win a foot-race if you never get in the lead? Fortune favors the bold. And as the rest of the field is content to let someone else take the pole position, our hero grips hard on the reins of destiny, forcing it to submit to his will. He is going to run this race on his terms – win or lose. It’s the only way.

The pace is pedestrian, but this is the great virtue of track – the beauty that George Yemen Pocock describes of rowing perfectly applies here. A footrace like this is far from dazzling, but that is the furthest possible intention. What we have here is unadulterated competition. Free from judgement calls, timeouts, and the safety of a team. This is where the pillars of our sport collide; where desire and grit meet championship thinking and zealous preparation. Here, in the Olympic Games, the pinnacle of our sport, competitors live and die by one simple objective – win.

The first two-laps go by without a bead of sweat off any competitor. The pack of runners bunched, running two or three bodies wide, poised to strike at any moment. Entering the penultimate lap the pack grows restless. Jostling for position, some warriors swing wide, others darting inside – all efforts focused on the final 400m. Ringing ominously, the sound of the bell warns of the searing pain soon approaching. Each athlete makes his bid for victory – jousting shoulders and elbows into one another like spears. Many make their bid to overtake our hero, each to no avail. Matthew leads the field towards oblivion.

From the front he has dragged the field around for three-and-one-quarter laps. One after another competitors try their hand at the lead, only to be nudged wide, each attempt more anxious than the last. His tactics are brash, almost taunting to the rest of the field – “if you want this title, you’ll have to rip it away from me”.

He can’t go faster, but he must. With a resolute madness he explodes into an all-out kick rounding the final curve, the last stretch for the finish in sight.

He won’t be beaten. Bear up wary heart, there is still fight in you left! Another surge – the soul wrenching effort not apparent amid his composure. He can sense the ruthless adversaries at his back, inching closer, with their hovering presence looming failure. Three steps to the line. Hold tight! Two steps to the line. Steel your mind! He needs more speed, one step…

Once more, regard the man. It is quite possible we will never see the likes of him again. He is precise in his moment of glory and triumph. In this moment, he is equal parts joy and awe mixed with reckless abandon – the best way to live. A furrowed brow of disbelief sits heavy on his face as he raises his hands to the heavens asking, “is this real?” Pay close attention, there is magic in this action. We should recognize the same disbelief in ourselves after we conquer our once impossible goal. We should be familiar with the same ephemeral sense of triumph in our own running. And we should be brave enough to ask the question – what if?

So, Dreamer, look within yourself. If there is a void in you waiting to be fulfilled; if its glory and adventure you seek, then get to climbing.

End

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