RIO DE JANEIRO — With every stride in his run to gold, Matthew Centrowitz kept thinking someone would try to come get him. He knew what the competition was going to do; when they liked to time their moves, when they were likely to go for broke.
But as he entered the last lap of the 1500 meters, Centrowitz had been in the lead for so long — practically from the start — that everything in his game plan pretty much went out the window.
“I’m like, ‘All right, now we’re getting to the later stages in the race, and I can’t give this lead up,’ ” he said. “We’re going into the last lap so might as well wind up from here. I just kind of went for it.”
Went for it, he did. And as a series of challengers engaged him over the final 400 meters — including the two previous Olympic champs — Centrowitz kept finding enough to brush them back and won America’s first gold medal in this event in 108 years.
Though it was a surprise result in one sense, Centrowitz is no stranger to major finals: He is a two-time World Championships medalist (bronze in 2011, silver in 2013), the reigning world indoor champion and the fourth-place finisher from London in 2012. And he couldn’t have felt better about his preparation for this race, including in Rio where he stayed outside the athletes’ village and had a chef prepare meals to try to keep his surroundings as normal as possible.
“I was a different athlete four years ago,” he said. “I came in with a different mindset. I’m in great shape, so I just wanted to run to my capability. It wasn’t a redemption thing from London. It was just about being the best I could on this day.”
And he was the best, both physically and tactically. He led almost wire-to-wire in a slowly paced race — his winning time of 3:50 was the slowest in decades and almost 15 seconds slower than his fourth-place finish in 2012 (3:35.17).
Though Centrowitz had prepared himself to close fast, he took the opportunity to grab the lead when it was presented to him going into the first bend. Things unfolded perfectly from there. Kenya’s Asbel Kiprop made a run at him, but he couldn’t sustain it. Taoufik Makhloufi of Algeria, the gold medalist in 2012, made a field-circling move with 300 meters remaining but couldn’t pass Centrowitz in the stretch.