A roar shook Hayward as Leonel Manzano, Matthew Centrowitz and Andrew Wheating crossed the finish line. Wheating crumbled to the ground, staying on his knees while regaining strength. Centrowitz and Manzano celebrated their times. Happiness from the audience came not only because of the success of the runners, but the success of the former Ducks who placed second and third.
This was not the case at the beginning.
Air thick with humidity and tension, the men’s 1,500-meter final was one of the most uncertain events all day. No clear favorites came into focus, as there was nothing but strength in the top 12 competitors. The majority of the stadium was on their feet before the race even began.
From an Oregon perspective, there was the question of whether three former Ducks could sweep the podium.
Coming into the final, three big-name Oregon alums were among nine other elite runners competing to make it to London. Jordan McNamara, Wheating and Centrowitz had all placed at different points in their respective qualifiers to get there.
Andrew Wheating would be attempting to make his second Olympiad after playing a key role in an Oregon sweep of the 800 meters at the Trials in 2008. He went to Beijing but placed a disappointing fourth in his qualifying heat and failed to advance.
In this race, Centrowitz played as the rookie, having turned professional only months prior. Yet up to this point in his career he has been anything but a novice, winning an NCAA championship in 2011 before shocking the track and field world by placing third at the 2011 IAAF Outdoor World Championships.
Their greatest threat to an all-Oregon sweep would be Leonel Manzano, a veteran of the event from Texas who also made the 2008 Olympic Team.
And even he was intimidated by the competition.
“It was really tough out there, I didn’t really know just exactly what to expect,” Manzano said. “I just knew I needed to be ready to kick.”
Wheating was worried about his race due to injuries that had been bothering him for the past couple weeks.
“I finally get there, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh god, I’m hoping I don’t tear my foot.’ And I see these two guys go off and I wanna go with them, and I feel a spark in my foot and I just think it’s all over, and I just grit my teeth and just pound out to the finish,” Wheating said. “I blacked out the last 50 meters so I can’t really tell you how that felt but it was just this loud roar and the race was over.”
Centrowitz acknowledged his youth in the contexts of both experience and physical maturity.
“Unlike these two guys, this is my first Olympic team so I’m very excited to represent the U.S. at the Olympics,” Centrowitz said. “I just wanted to put myself in a good position, I knew I was fit and just, you know, come away with a top-three spot and qualify for the Olympics.”
Once again, it was Hayward’s fabled magic that helped bring Wheating and Centrowitz home.
“You saw the Hayward magic with Ashton, with Galen, you know, with all the Oregon alums, (the crowd) were there for us,” Wheating said. “Honestly, if this was the same race and you put me in Des Moines or California or some other track, I don’t think it would be the same kind of kick. The crowd here really does take 10 percent less energy for me to get down the home stretch because they push me the other 10 percent.”