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Matthew Centrowitz makes up for father’s missed Moscow opportunity at track worlds

- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 14, 2013

MOSCOW — Nearly 33 years later, a Centrowitz family member finally stepped inside Luzhniki Stadium and started a major race.

With a freshly buzzed haircut, Matthew Centrowitz easily advanced out of his first-round 1,500-meter heat at the world championships on Wednesday, taking a couple of laps that his father never got to run.

For the senior Centrowitz, who goes by Matt, his son's presence in the Russian capital almost seemed full circle since the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics prevented him from racing in the 5,000 meters at the same stadium.

And for the son, his fast trip around the track felt like he was running for them both.

In a way, he was.

Leading up to the race, Centrowitz couldn't help but think of his father and what he possibly could have accomplished had he competed in Moscow all those years ago at the Olympics.

"He missed his chance of competing well, because he was running well that year," said the younger Centrowitz, who was a surprise bronze medalist at the 2011 worlds in South Korea. "It's a little weird thinking about that coming in."

Centrowitz's race was one of the few events on an abbreviated day at the world championships. Dwight Phillips qualified for the long jump final in his attempt to win five world titles, and Robert Heffernan of Ireland won the only medal on Wednesday's program in the men's 50-kilometer walk.

All that happened with the elder Centrowitz thousands of miles away.

Matt Centrowitz thought about attending the worlds so he could share the moment with his son. He just couldn't get on that plane.

No, not because of any bitterness — "I really don't visit that memory too much," he said in a phone interview — but rather due to his commitments at work. He's the longtime track and cross country coach at American University in Washington, D.C., and had to host potential recruits this week.

"This is still very cool, whether I'm there in the stands or not," said Centrowitz, who planned to watch every step of his son's races despite the eight-hour time difference. "That's my son, and it's track — two great things."

Back in his day, the elder Centrowitz was quite an accomplished runner, qualifying for the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

"Got knocked out so dang early, though," he said.

Then the next season, he led the University of Oregon to an NCAA cross-country title.

The father would've been in the hunt for a medal in Moscow had the U.S. participated. He was in good shape at the time.

The decision by President Jimmy Carter to boycott came after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and caused lingering bitterness between the two countries for years.

There's no lingering animosity with the elder Centrowitz.

"My life goes way beyond my Olympic experience," the dad said. "My running experiences go far beyond the Olympics. I love the sport, even without Olympics.

"I moved on, because you can't be stuck. Athletically, sure, there are certain things you always wonder about. But to do other things in life, you've got to let it go."

These days, the words "Olympics" and "boycott" are being linked again to Russia with the Winter Games in Sochi on the horizon. Such talk stems from the anti-gay legislation in Russia, which the country's president, Vladimir Putin, signed into law in June.

It's triggered calls for a boycott of the games from celebrities to activists.

"I almost fell off the couch when I first heard talk of that," the elder Centrowitz said. "I can't believe they think that's the smart way to solve it. The last thing you want to see is another athlete to be taken away from what they do because of politics. I hope that never happens to anyone else."

Running seems to, well, run in the Centrowitz family.

The older Centrowitz was a high school star in Manhattan, setting numerous state records, before heading off to Oregon and embarking on a pro career.

He married Beverly, who ran track at Hunter College in New York and was inducted into the school's Hall of Fame. And their daughter Lauren was an eight-time All-American at Stanford.

Then there's Matthew, who followed in his father's footsteps all the way to Oregon.

Once there, he gauged his progress not against his dad but through the late Steve Prefontaine, an iconic figure in track.

Then again, what Ducks distance runner doesn't?

Centrowitz certainly looked cool and composed in his opening race, but needed a strong kick at the end to move up into qualifying position.

"It was a rust-buster," the younger Centrowitz said. "I always look at the first round as one of the tougher ones, getting going and stuff like that."

About six years ago, the elder Centrowitz went to Moscow to visit a friend and toured all the tourist attractions. But he didn't go near the stadium.

"Didn't need to see that," he explained. "Sometimes, things out of your control interfere. You have injuries that don't make sense — a bicycle can run over you or a dog can trip you. It's a cruel sport.

"But I have a great life. Being involved in track, it's Disneyland compared to Wall Street or something else. There are a million stories I can tell you about track. I think if you talk to my children they will tell you they love track, too, love being around track people and they love running. And really, what's better than that?"

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