Cole Hocker easily makes 1,500 semifinals; ND's Yared Nuguse drops out with injury

David Woods
Indianapolis Star

Cole Hocker is in. Yared Nuguse is out.

That was the outcome of Tuesday night’s 1,500-meter heats at the Tokyo Olympics.

Hocker, a 20-year-old from Indianapolis, finished fourth in heat 1 and easily qualified for Thursday’s semifinals (7 a.m. EDT). Six from each of three heats, plus the next six times, advanced.

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

Hocker said the race changed his perspective and increased his confidence. Not only was it is his first race at an Olympics, but first in any international competition. Of the 15 others in his heat, 12 had better personal records.

He is the youngest to represent the United States in the 1,500 at an Olympics since Marty Liquori, then 19, in 1968.

"I'm holding myself to not just qualifying and not just making it to the final," Hocker said, "but performing well and hopefully contending for a medal."

Moments before the races began, Notre Dame announced Nuguse had to pull out of heat 3 because of a strained quadriceps. Nuguse, 22, qualified for the Olympics by finishing third at the U.S. trials behind Hocker and Matthew Centrowitz.

More about Yared Nuguse:How Notre Dame’s Yared Nuguse, son of Ethiopian refugee, went from 'clueless' to Olympics

Notre Dame coach Matt Sparks said the injury came up two days ago and Nuguse was unable to do strides. The coach said it was Nuguse’s first injury ever.

The knock on Hocker is inexperience, but he ran as if he had done it all before and knew exactly what to do. He stayed on the rail, near the front, was spiked at about the 800-meter mark, and later recovered quickly when jostled on the last lap.

Ismael Debjani of Belgium won the heat in 3:36.00, followed by reigning world champion Timothy Cheruiyot of Kenya in 3:36.01. Australia’s Oliver Hoare, a former NCAA champion for Wisconsin, was third in 3:36.09.

Hocker’s time was 3:36.16. He ranked fifth overall. He came to Tokyo at 55th on this year's world list.

Although he came within one second of his best of 3:35.28, Hocker ran comfortably down the home stretch, looking around and counting runners to make sure he was in the top six.

His plan was to stay among the top six at every step. He never went to his "all-out gear," he said. He ran the last 400 in 53.9 seconds and last 300 in 39.9.

Aug 2, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Cole Hocker (USA) and Timothy Cheruiyot (KEN) in the men's 1500 round 1 during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Olympic Stadium. Mandatory Credit: James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

"I was happy with the way I was able to handle myself," Hocker said. "The most competitive race I've ever been in."

Hocker, a University of Oregon runner from Cathedral High School, won three NCAA titles before beating Centrowitz at the U.S. trials.

Surprisingly seventh in heat 1 was Great Britain’s Josh Kerr, one of the favorites. But his time of 3:36.29 was fast enough to advance. Not as fortunate was Ethiopia's Samuel Tefera, a world indoor record-holder, who was a non-qualifying ninth.

Since the June 27 race at Olympic Trials, Hocker has trained with two teammates who are NCAA champions, Charlie Hunter and Cooper Teare. Hunter, of Australia, was eliminated in Olympic semifinals of the 800 meters.

"I tried to recover during that month off and then sort of sharpen up here at the end," Hocker said. "Because I've had such a long season of building fitness, I'm not going to lose it by taking a little down time."

For so long, he said, getting to the Olympics was the goal. 

"Then I'm putting this pressure on myself. I don't want to go out in the first round," Hocker said. "It's almost not worth it to come, in my mind. Which, of course, isn't true.

"I hold myself to a much higher standard. But I do have to remind myself, this was the ultimate goal for so long. Now, take advantage of it."

In heat 2, Kenya’s Abel Kipsang won in 3:40.68, followed by Centrowitz, the defending Olympic champion, in 3:41.12.

Poland’s Marcin Lewandowski, the 2019 world bronze medalist, tripped, fell and jogged to the finish. He was advanced to the semifinals by officials.

Third and fourth were two other medal contenders, Australia's Stewart McSweyn, 3:36.39, and Norway's 20-year-old Jakob Ingebrigtsen, 3:36.49.

In heat 3, Great Britain’s Jake Heyward was first in 3:36.14 and Ethiopia’s Taddese Lemi second in 3:36.26.

New Zealand’s Nick Willis, 38, a two-time medalist and five-time Olympian, was seventh in 3:36.88 and qualified on time. He is another former U.S. collegian, representing Michigan.

Morocco's Soufiane El Bakkali, who won an unexpected gold medal Monday night in the steeplechase, did not finish. Nuguse never started.

"Just getting here was such an honor," Hocker said. "I hope he remembers that."

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