Cole Hocker beats gold medalist, earns Olympic spot, becomes youngest champ in 110 years
Over the course of three minutes, Cole Hocker was far from the desired destination, Tokyo. Maybe not 4,900 miles away. But in a race of this quality and consequence, every step behind is an ocean to cross.
Then it happened. A Hocker shocker. It has happened so often over five months, it should not have been. Yet . . .
This was not the City meet. Nor the state meet. It was a statement meet. These were pros – the Olympic champion, for goodness sake – and runners ready for strategy, bumping, bleeding.
But on a 91-degree Sunday night in the Pacific Northwest, there was no one genuinely ready for this. Not even Matthew Centrowitz, one of the premier tacticians in track and field.
Hocker, with about 150 meters left, was in sixth place. Three make the team. He might as well have announced: Got this.
Hocker saw daylight and darted through it like Barry Sanders. He ran down the stretch like Usain Bolt. This is a new Hayward Field, and already it is his $270 million house.
The Indianapolis 20-year-old became the youngest miler in 110 years to be the national champion, and an Olympian, too.
Hocker won the 1,500 meters in the U.S. Olympic Trials at Eugene, Oregon, and in doing so took down the reigning gold medalist. In a historic race for Hoosiers – and Irish – the third spot was seized by Notre Dame’s Yared Nuguse. Hocker represented the Cathedral Irish.
Hocker put a finger to lips past the finish as if to shush critics. An “in-the-moment thing,” he said.
“Last year I wasn’t at this level. I was nowhere near this level,” he said. “This whole year, I felt like I was proving myself to the world, but also proving my talent to myself.
“There’s a lot of negative talk out there, and I wanted to silence everyone.”
Afterward, Centro – as he is known in the sport -- assured there was no negative talk from him.
There was speculation about that because of an Internet spat involving one of Hocker’s teammates (but not Hocker), and Centrowitz turning to speak to Hocker as they finished Friday's semifinal stride for stride. The two runners did not address the media to explain it after the semifinal, either.
“He has been nothing but nice to me, and yeah, we are both competitive and the media likes to build everything up,” Hocker said.
No hard feelings, Centro said.
“I respect the crap out of him,” he said.
Cole Hocker will race Olympic champion:Look for signs of tension between the two
Hocker’s time was 3:35.28, equivalent to a 3:52.50 mile, with a closing 400 meters of 52.49. It was a personal best but slower than the Olympic standard of 3:35.
Centrowitz was second in 3:35.34.
Nuguse was third in 3:36.19, overtaking the most recent national champion, Craig Engels, who is also this year’s fastest American (3:33.64).
World Athletics has introduced a rankings system, and Hocker’s world ranking (including trials bonus points) will climb enough to keep him above the Olympics cut.
He is the youngest U.S. Olympian in the 1,500 meters since Marty Liquori, then 19 in 1968. He is the youngest national champion in the 1,500 or mile since 1911, when Abel Kiviat won a few days after turning 19.
Kiviat won a silver at Stockholm in 1912 – age 20 years, 17 days – and is the youngest 1,500 medalist in Olympic history, according to historian Bill Mallon.
Hocker, in his first full college season for Oregon, became the youngest American to win the NCAA indoor mile and youngest of any nation to win a mile/3,000 double. He added the outdoor 1,500 on June 11, beating Nuguse.
Hocker has run 23 races since Jan. 29. Thirteen were personal bests. Of the 10 others, eight were prelims (so he didn’t necessarily need to run fast) and one was an NCAA title. He ran a 3:50.55 mile, an indoor time only seven men have ever beaten.
“I’m impressed that he’s been able to do that since January and is showing no signs of letting up,” Centrowitz said. “I think it's just his personality.
“He steps on the line and doesn't care if he's racing a world record-holder or a dual meet against a teammate. He's going to give it a great effort. I'm just impressed with everything.”
Next will be speculation about Hocker winning a medal or how soon he is going pro.
In Tokyo, the first round of the 1,500 is Aug. 3, semifinals Aug. 5 and the medal final Aug. 7.
The trials race was delayed five hours because of afternoon temperatures soaring toward 110 degrees. When Hocker was introduced before the race, he held up his jersey and curled his arms into the shape of Oregon’s “O.”
He conceded he felt nervous beforehand but comfortable throughout the race. He stumbled and chopped his stride once as he tried to pass on the inside, but he mostly clung to the rail so he did not run unnecessary distance.
It was “a little dicey” with 150 meters left, he said, but he found an opening as Nuguse was going around the turn on the outside of lane 2. There was “definitely a lot of hustlin’ and bustlin’ going on,” as Nuguse put it.
Hocker covered the closing 300 meters in 38.64, Centro in 39.05, Nuguse in 39.48.
According to Athlete Tracking, Hocker's top speed was 18.6 mph and closing 100 meters run in 12.20 (to Centro's 12.53). There was at least one boys sectional last month in which 12.20 would have qualified for a regional -- and the sprinter didn't have to first run 1,400 meters.
Centrowitz, 31, a former Oregon runner, has run in two Olympic Games and won three world medals. And he said this was one of the most exciting races in which he has taken part.
“Instead of trying to save something a little extra for the last 50, I just tried to punch it,” he said. “And sure enough, Cole had another gear that I didn't have.”
Soon enough, the rest of the world will see if anyone has another gear like that.
Contact IndyStar reporter David Woods at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidWoods007.