Many American fans are still smiling over the amazing race of Matthew Centrowtiz, who won the Olympic 1,500 meters in Rio, to the delight of many who have observed the young American, and to the consternation of those who had not watched his development into an Olympic champion.
Jeff Aktinson was a 1988 Olympian and a fine 1,500 meter runner in his own right. Jeff Benjamin caught up with the Stanford grad, and now, fine high school coach. Atkinson was animated, as he is, in his response to athletes who run well and win what author John Parker noted, ” Miles of Trials and Trials of Miles.”
That strategy off of a slowly run race had worked like a charm for Atkinson few months earlier at the US Olympic trials in Indianapolis. Tucked into a slow race with 600 to go, Atkinson took it on the last lap, clocking around 50 seconds for his last 400 and upsetting the field to secure the first spot. American mile legend Steve Scott (3:47.69) and Indiana Hoosier Mark Deady would secure the other two Olympic spots in a very slow and contact-filled race.
Now racing with his American teammate Scott in the Olympic final, Atkinson, who sported a 3:52 mile PR, hoped to become the first American 1500 Olympic victor since 1908’s Mel Sheppard. But for both Americans, it was not to be. Rono, a Mount St Mary’s athlete, led Atkinson, Scott, German Jens-Peter Herald, Brits Steve Cram and Peter Elliot and the rest of the field almost from the beginning, towing them through 1:58 at the 800, a pace that was a little faster than the tactical competitors might have thought.
All these years later, the happy-go-lucky attitude of Jeff Atkinson still prevails. These days he coaches XC and Track at Mira Costa High School in his longtime home of Manhattan Beach. If one watches the Steve Prefontaine movie “Without Limits” close enough, you’ll see the miler appearing in certain parts of the film as an Oregon teammate (that’s Jeff Atkinson).
Atkinson got unsurprisingly really excited in talking about Olympic Champ Matt Centrowitz. “Oh, he’s the man!”, he said. “I just loved what he did!” Analyzing Centro’s race, Atkinson said,
“He executed his strategy perfectly…The pace was so slow that he wasn’t in danger of expending too much energy leading…His plan of trying to go sub-50 over the last lap was perfect for him…once that fire bell rang he still had the finishing speed off of that slow pace to hold off everyone to win!”
Not surprisingly, Atkinson concluded with a funny anecdote. “A few years ago I took the team up to Portland to compete and check out the Nike headquarters with them. Who should we meet on the track that day but Matt!”, he said. “He took the time to take pics and sign all of our stuff and all of our backpacks…Well, after he won I loudly told the guys a few days later , “I hope you held on to those backpacks!!”
Great story from a great athlete and person!