Cole Hocker runs from obscurity to breakout career; now he'll be tested on ultimate stage

David Woods
Indianapolis Star

INDIANAPOLIS – As with other overnight sensations, the making of Cole Hocker did not happen overnight. It took years. It took nature. It took nurture.

At every crossroads, there was a pathway, a coach, an environment contributing to aha moments.

It would be no exaggeration to assert Cole Hocker is the breakout figure of track and field. He was so obscure that this year’s international statistics annual spelled his name  “Hooker.”

Few outside Indianapolis had heard of him in 2020. Everyone in the sport has heard of him in 2021.

Read more:What NIL means for athletes like Cole Hocker

“This whole year, I felt like I was proving myself to the world, but also just proving my talents to myself,” the Cathedral High School graduate said.

He is taking his talents to the ultimate proving ground: the Olympic Games.

Oregon's Cole Hocker takes a victory lap after winning the men's 1500 meter run at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials at Hayward Field.

Over the past 16 months, during the pandemic, his buildup has included miles on pavement, paths and tracks in Indiana, Colorado, Montana, Arkansas and Oregon. Next stop: Japan.

Hocker is the youngest to represent the United States in the 1,500 meters since Marty Liquori, 19, in 1968. No runner this young from any nation — Hocker will be 20 years, 62 days on Saturday — has won a medal in the 1,500 since the United States’ Abel Kiviat (20 years/17 days) took silver in 1912.

No one this young has ever won gold.

First-round heats in Tokyo are Tuesday (8:05 p.m. Monday EDT), and semifinals Thursday (7 a.m.). The goal, Hocker said, is to reach Saturday’s final (7:40 a.m.)

“And then once I’m in the final, I think I just have just as good a shot as anyone, “ he said. “It’s just another 1,500-meter race. Just against really good guys.”

Competitiveness that sometimes led to tears

There is little outward evidence of fire in Hocker’s furnace. He is an introvert.

Jim Nohl, his coach at Cathedral, said he could get no more than three words out of him during his first two years of high school.

“He doesn’t say a lot, but what he says has meaning,” said Hocker’s mother, Janet.

The same goes for what he does. His prerace ritual includes prayer.

God “has given me the gift of running, and my job is to give it my best,” he told The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

Hocker’s father, Kyle, is a runner who completed a 50-mile race on his 50th birthday. The father has been a volunteer coach, not missing his son’s workouts from third grade through high school.

Yet there was no insistence Cole be a runner.  His father thought his son might be a boxer. Or a speedskater. The kid tried soccer and flag football . . . and was a terror on the hardcourt, stealing the basketball and ruining the game for the other boys.

“I knew he had an unusual skill set,” Kyle Hocker said. “We just didn’t know what to do with it.”

If Cole lost a board game, he would flip the board and scatter the pieces. The parents contemplated how to channel Cole’s competitiveness.

As young as 8, he cried at the starting line of races. If he lost – even if he made the podium and the parents were thrilled – he would cry. In a cross-country nationals at Lexington, Ky., he won the 9-year-old division by 32 seconds.

“He just didn’t want to lose. Ever,” the father said.

He attended Horizon Christian School and, later, Fall Creek Valley Middle School.  Running routes included to Horizon Christian from his home on Geist Reservoir, and around Fort Benjamin Harrison State Park.

Cathedral's Cole Hocker won an IHSAA cross-country state championships in Terre Haute.

He would cover those same routes for nearly six months during the pandemic, returning home from the University of Oregon.

By eighth grade, he ran a 4:36 mile. It “was definitely a turning point,” he said.

There would be others.

As a freshman, he was a sectional champion in the 1,600 meters. As a sophomore, he was fourth in the in the state, clocking 4:13.58.

In his junior year, he “started to click,” Nohl said. Hocker was second at state in the 1,600 in 4:08.04, featuring a final 400 of 58.3 seconds.

Hocker has credited Nohl, who retired in February 2020, with keeping him healthy by limiting mileage. Nohl estimated Hocker logged 31-37 miles a week in the fall, 27-31 in the spring. High school runners as fast as Hocker almost never run so few miles.

“A typical guy has to go through two growth spurts,” Nohl said. “You’ve got to anticipate that and not try to kill ‘em, especially as freshmen. My goal always was to keep them healthy as freshmen.”

At the end of his junior year, in a national meet at Greensboro, N.C., Hocker ran a 4:05.01 anchor 1,600 meters for Cathedral’s distance medley relay. Oregon coach Ben Thomas noticed.

As a senior, Hocker won a state title in cross-country, then the Foot Locker nationals at San Diego. In track, he won state in the 1,600 (in 4:07.00) and 800, something not done in Indiana since 2011. Yet that is not what reinforced Thomas’ first impression.

It was Hocker’s time of 1:50.64 in the 800 at the City meet. There was no pacemaker, and it was the second-fastest in the nation.

Foot Locker cross-country champions have included Bob Kennedy, Adam Goucher, Dathan Ritzenhein, Edward Cheserek and Drew Hunter. Among them, only Hunter, who turned pro out of high school, and Cheserek, a 17-time NCAA champion at Oregon, ran 800 meters under 1:50.

“That, for me, I knew we had something special,” Thomas said.

During the recruiting process, Hocker considered Indiana, Northern Arizona and Colorado. IU suggested he run the steeplechase, Northern Arizona the 5,000 meters. Hocker wanted to be a miler.

The pick was Oregon. No surprise there. He has a black-and-white photo of Steve Prefontaine hanging outside his bedroom at home.

Clashing with his coach 

Nohl and Hocker clashed about one thing: finding a race to give him a shot at sub-4-minute mile. The time “3:56” was affixed to Hocker’s bedroom mirror.

The coach did not want to shop the miler to meet directors in pursuit of sub-4:00.

“But I go, ‘It’ll happen,’ “ Nohl said.

It did. But not until about eight months after high school graduation.

As an Oregon freshman, in a Feb. 26 indoor race at Boston, Hocker became the youngest native Hoosier to run a sub-4-minute mile, finishing fifth in 3:58.20 at age 18. Coincidentally, he was just 0.27 seconds behind reigning Olympic champion Matthew Centrowitz.

It would not be their last meeting.

Hocker qualified for what would be his first indoor NCAAs, but the meet was canceled because of COVID-19 after athletes were assembled at Albuquerque, N.M. Oregon’s Ducks scattered, and Hocker went home.

Thomas sent them workouts to mimic what they would do during a conventional track season. The coach was conservative about increasing mileage, asked Hocker to keep a training log, and viewed video of him running.

“It’s that rare combination of mental and physical talent with Cole Hocker,” Thomas said.

Training uninterrupted by racing seemingly benefited Hocker. After going solo for so long, he joined teammates for a mini-camp in Boulder, Colorado, then returned to campus.

Smoke from forest fires so poisoned Eugene’s air quality that the only option would have been to run indoors. Treadmills weren’t available at renovated Hayward Field, so the Ducks scattered again. Hocker was among runners traveling 12 hours to Ennis, Montana, where they rented an air B&B and resumed training there.

There was no fall cross-country in the Pac-12, so Oregon concentrated on track.  In a Nov. 24 time trial, Cooper Teare edged Hocker in a 3,000 meters. Set-up was done as if it were an actual meet – rail on the curb and automatic timing – and Hocker clocked 7:45.03. 

Hocker could not be credited with an American under-20 record. But he ran faster than the 7:49.16 set by Oregon’s Galen Rupp, a two-time Olympic medalist, in 2005.

“That was a sign that, ‘Hey, it’s here.’ Then he followed that up,” Thomas said.

In a track meet Dec. 4 at San Juan Capistrano, California, Hocker encountered Centrowitz again. On a lean at the tape, the gold medalist won a 5,000 meters in 13:32.92. Hocker’s time was 13:32.95, faster at age 19 than icons Rupp (13:37.91 in 2004) and Pre (13:39.6 in 1970).

The difference, Hocker said, was having teammates who were NCAA champions or record-holders: Teare, Charlie Hunter (Australia), James West (Great Britain). As a freshman, he could not do they workouts they did.

“But then this year I matured a little bit and I did, I just hung in with them every single workout,” Hocker said. “And that’s the main thing, I think, just having those guys to train with.”

Indoor season could not have started more spectacularly -- with a world record.

Oregon, with Hocker’s leadoff 1,200 meters, ran an indoor time of 9:19.42 in the distance medley relay at Fayetteville, Arkansas.

That prefaced a mile two weeks later, back at Arkansas, in which Teare set a collegiate record of 3:50.39 and Hocker followed in 3:50.55. Just six men in history have run an indoor mile faster. And Hocker was still a teenager.

Somewhat confounding to Thomas is pre-race workouts were “not the 3:50 mile-type stuff.” Hocker declined to divulge training secrets but said one element is that Oregon runners always took one day, Sunday, completely off.

He remained healthy. Training remained consistent.

That is the kind of year it has been. Hocker kept pushing the limits of what anyone thought he could do. He has run 23 races this year, and 13 were personal records. Of the 10 others, eight were prelims (in which qualifying was the sole goal) and one an NCAA title.

His one-day doubles were historic:

>> On March 13, also at Arkansas, he became the youngest American to win the mile and youngest of any nation to win a mile/3,000 double at indoor NCAAs.

>> On May 16, he finished third in the 800 (behind Olympian Isaiah Jewett) and won the 5,000 at the Pac-12 meet, all in 80 minutes.

>> On June 11, he won the 1,500 and finished fourth in the 5,000 in a two-hour span. No NCAA 1,500 or mile champion had ever finished that high in the 5,000 (or two-mile, for that matter).

There was skepticism Hocker could maintain such form through the Olympic Trials. Yet he did so.

In the June 27 race at Hayward Field, he bolted from sixth to first over the closing 150 meters, overtaking Centrowitz to win the 1,500 in 3:35.28. According to Athlete Tracking, Hocker's top speed was 18.6 mph and final 100 in 12.20 seconds – a decent time for a 100-meter dash from starting blocks.

He became the youngest trials champion since Kiviat in 1912. At the finish, Hocker put a finger to his lips as if to silence critics. Afterward, he said it was an “in-the-moment thing.”

His aha moments have been more frequent than TV commercial breaks.

He is not the most stylish runner . . . but so what? He gets there first.

“He has the ability to accelerate,” Nohl said. “It worked, so I never messed with it.”

Thomas called the trials “the culmination” of Hocker’s progression.

As Nohl, his Cathedral coach, put it:

“I don’t think he’s done, truthfully. It’s a matter of people possibly underestimating him.”

From Geist to Tokyo Bay: Is he ready?

Skeptics asserted Hocker would be burned out by Tokyo. For instance, Track & Field News does not project him to finish in the top 10 in the 1,500 meters. By contrast, Athletics Weekly, a British publication, projects him for a silver medal.

Yet consider Hocker will have gone 36 days without a race ahead of Tuesday’s first round. Nonstop training to Hocker has been what fuel is to an IndyCar.

He thrives in what Thomas calls a “three-block universe.”

Hocker lives near Hayward Field, on East 20th Street in Eugene, in a rental house known as The Lobby. It has been a longtime running enclave. During the pandemic, that is where the Ducks gathered before practice.

At the trials, Olympic medalists Meb Keflezighi and Richard Chelimo hung out at The Lobby, and the Oregon Track Club sells gear out of the basement. A block away is Prince Puckler’s, a gourmet ice cream shop that employs Hocker’s girlfriend.

It is a cocoon in which Hocker has grown, making him reluctant to turn pro. He has everything he needs at Oregon – coaching, teammates, facilities, travel, medical – and could make thousands of Nike endorsement dollars under new NCAA name, image and likeness rules.

“I heard a lot of people saying I was peaking too early in the season,” Hocker said. “But I knew that I was just doing strength at that point in the season and that kind of stuff.

“It really built up my confidence because I knew if I got to run that off of what I’d been doing, that it was going to be a good season. So we had always been preparing for this long season.”

Hocker has shown he can win in a sprint. It is unknown whether he can stay with Kenya’s Timothy Cheruiyot, the reigning world champion, or Norway’s 20-year-old Jakob Ingebrigtsen. Their times are seven seconds faster than Hocker's.

Conventional wisdom is Cheruiyot will go for gold in front-running race pulling multiple runners under the Olympic record of 3:32.07. Hocker has never gone there.

“Can he run 3:28 or not? I hope we get to that final and find out,” Thomas said.

If he does, it could be another of those moments. From Geist Reservoir to Tokyo Bay, it is an overnight storm a weather forecaster should have seen forming.

Contact IndyStar reporter David Woods at david.woods@indystar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidWoods007.