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Heat, Injuries, And Other Competitors Spoil Centrowitz vs. Murphy Showdown

June 24th, 2017

Sacramento, California

Great and enduring rivalries are the spice of all sports: Borg vs. McEnroe; Nicklaus vs. Palmer; Bird vs. Magic, to name a few. In that same vein, track & field has its own splendid heritage of rivalries: Yang vs. Johnson; Boston vs. Ter-Ovanesyan; Thomas vs. Brumel; Liquori vs. Ryun; Coe vs. Ovett, Simpson vs. Rowbury, and on and on. We all thought today we would witness what could be yet another emerging rivalry: the clash between middle distance stars Matthew Centrowitz and Clayton Murphy.

The 27-year-old Centrowitz has been the premier American 1500m/mile athlete for several years now. His 1500 meter PR of 3:30.40 is #3 on the USA all-time list. With 4 USATF national championships, a 2016 indoor 1500m world championship, 3 global 1500m medals [one of each color: bronze at '11 worlds; silver at '13 worlds, and gold in Rio where Centro unfurled a brilliant - and unexpected - race plan in the 2016 Olympic 1500 meter championship race.] Front-running in the Rio final to slow the tempo, the master tactician exploded with 600 meters remaining, closing the final 400 in 50.6, to capture the victory and become the first American gold medalist in the metric mile in 108 years. Never out of position on the track, Matthew Centrowitz is a stone-faced riverboat gambler who is a ruthless competitor.

Murphy - still only 22-years-old - has achieved a level of middle distance excellence that could not have been foreseen when he entered the University of Akron. The New Paris, Ohio native has strung together 4 successive years of eye-popping progression. Since toiling under the watchful eye of middle distance guru Lee Labadie the last 4 years, Murphy has lowered his 800 meter PR by 12 seconds and clipped an whopping 22 seconds off his mile best. The 3-time NCAA champion's 800 meter PR of 1:42.93 is #3 on the all-time USA list and his seasonal best of 1:43.60 is the world leader. His mile PR of 3:51.99 - rung up in this spring's Pre Bowerman Mile - is tied for #5 on this year's world list and is #16 on the all-time U.S. list. An unflappable competitor who, like Centro, is a superb race tactician, the reigning Pan American Games 800 meter champion has tremendous top-end speed with an indoor 400 meter anchor leg clocking of 45.4 to his credit.

Not long after the Olympic flame was doused in Rio de Janeiro, the whispers began to circulate concerning possible 2017 showdowns between the two American performers who appear to be in a domestic class of their own. A Millrose square-off didn't occur when Murphy went in the Wanamaker Mile while Centro tackled the 2-mile. An early season Diamond League encounter failed to materialize when a minor injury knocked the former Oregon star out of Pre's Bowerman mile. But now - in the USATF outdoor championships and under Sacramento's blazing sun - the much-anticipated showdown will at last occur in today's final of the men's 1500 meters.

Thursday's opening round was simply thought to be a tantalizing hors d'ouerve to today's long-awaited main course. While Centro and Murphy ran in the same first round heat two days ago, their shared goal was merely moving on, neither inclined to reveal future tactics, or provide any glimpses of their respective "A" games. Centro positioned himself at or near the front early on, subtly covered any moves that had the potential to be threatening, and gliding over the line in 3rd, clocking 3:40.79. On the other hand, the former Zip star - who 3 hours earlier had run a textbook opening 800 meters in 111 degree heat - faced some late race traffic which he coolly handle with aplomb. Passing several competitors in the last 60 meters to cross in 4th, Murphy posted a finishing time of 3:40.94 making him the fastest time qualifier.

But there is a reason why they run the races.

Under relentless sun and with the temperature in the mid-90's, the race unfolded as expected. Centrowitz ran into the lead and set a moderate pace in the oppressive conditions. Passing 400m in 62, a pack led by Jodan McNamara dawdled on with a sunglassed Murphy tucked in at 6th. With 800 meters remaining, Olympian Robby Andrews moved up take over the lead. The race remained tepid as Andrews led with 2 laps to go and Murphy starting to move up. With 600 remaining, Ben Blankenship rushed the front and the race was on. Heading toward the bell, Murphy pushed up to 3rd behind Centro and Blankenship [the leader at the bell in 2:50.27] to position himself for what would be a furious final circuit. With 300 meters to go, it was apparent something was amiss with Murphy as he suddenly lost contact and was dropping back quickly. Shifts in racer placing were plentiful as everyone went into top gear. Robby Andrews - well-placed after his early race aggressiveness - began to move on the backstretch, and started reeling in those in front of him. Moving well on the homestretch, Andrews first sensed a team berth and then a championship victory. Passing the Olympic gold medalist in the final stretch, a jubilant Andrews crossed the line in 3:43.29, to complete the final circuit in 52.23. Centrowitz [3:43.41] and fast-closing John Gregorek [3:43.99] crossed next to round out the trio heading to London. The clearly-injured Murphy trotted in last in 3:50.55.

As expected, after the race, the mixed zone was like a M.A.S.H. unit. While the London-bound 1500 meter trio took their victory lap, sorely disappoint athletes sporting frowns silently marched out quickly without a word. With a soaking towel draped over his head, a disconsolate Clayton Murphy - his dream for an historic double now gone - was aided by a USATF volunteer as he silently limped through the mixed toward a waiting golf cart. He didn't look like an athlete who would be able to answer the bell for tomorrow's 800 meter final. [A brief text from Clayton's coaching squad stated, "The plan is to try and be ready."]

The 2017 1500 meter champion was upbeat in the media tent. "Hey, I was in the front for a lot of this!,' declared Andrews as he greeted the media. "I was talking with Vig [Princeton coach Jason Vigilante] a lot the last few days about how we thought the race was going to go. It's been a little bit of a whacked year for everybody. I had a lot of question marks coming in. We didn't quite know how the race was going to go. We weren't sure if it was going to be last year's time - not hard from the front, maybe 2:10 at the 800 or what not. We were just like, 'Be confident in yourself." Andrews took time to credit his pre-race preparation. "I am really fit. My races may not have been indicating that. I have been running well in practice. My teammates have had some awesome PR's this year. Vig always believes in me. I was out in lane 3 for some of it, and I was like, 'Well, what's the difference between Lane and Lane 1? Let's go for it!' The final unfolded in a way Andrews anticipated. "I was expecting Matt [Centrowitz] or Cristian [Soratos] or someone to take it pretty far out and they did that. And I just tucked in and stayed as patient as I could. Matthew is the Olympic champion, I am not going to take anything for granted. At one point I was racing for third. And then I thought, 'I can get him.' I broke for 2nd. And then I thought, 'I can win this thing.' Vig made sure to tell me, 'Make sure you have the best last 50 in the whole race.'

The 1500 meter winner knows he still has some work to do. "It feels really good to win a race. I am going to try and get the standard [3:36.00] as quick as I can [either Portland or New York in early July]. I'll represent the country in London."

Before he left the media tent, Robby Andrews had a final word for the scribes. "Winning is always fun," stated the new national champion. "I'm not going to lie. It has been a while since I've won."

Today's race - in essence, the first encounter of any material consequence between Centrowitz and Murphy - failed to mark the beginning of what could easily become a long-running rivalry between two truly gifted, young American middle distance performers. Again, that's why they run the races! Anybody who clings stubbornly to the inaccurate notion that track & field lacks drama and excitement needs to witness championships meets such as this and dramatic races such as today's men's 1500 meter final. Those present will long remember the middle-distance battle they witnessed in person today. And the drama surrounding a Centrowitz/Murphy showdown? That will have to wait until another day.

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Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.


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