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Matt Centrowitz — May, 2017
Matt Centrowitz is a two-time U.S. Olympian in the 1,500 meters in 1976 in Montreal, Canada, and in the 5,000 meters in 1980 though he did not compete in Moscow, Russia due to the U.S. Olympic boycott. At the U.S. Olympic Trials he finished in third place in 1976 and in first place in 1980. Matt won four consecutive U.S. Championships at 5,000 meters from 1979 to 1982. In 1982, he set the American Record at 5,000 meters in 13:12.91. He won a Gold Medal at 5,000 meters at the 1979 Pan-American Games. The 1978 Oregon University graduate was on the Ducks' 1977 NCAA Cross Country Championship team. In 1976, Matt broke Steve Prefontaine's 1,500 meter school record, running 3:36.7. He graduated from Power Memorial Academy in 1973 where he won state championships in the 800 meters, one mile and two mile and was the first New Yorker to run a sub-9:00 two mile at 8:56.0. Matt was ranked as the country's number one high school mile runner at 4:02.7. He has the fourth best all-time high school 1,500 meter time of 3:43.4 and still holds the state record at 1,500 meters and the mile. Centrowitz was an assistant track coach at St. John's University and coach for the Reebok Enclave, before restarting the track program at American University in 1999, where he has continued to coach cross-country and track for 18 years. His personal best times include: 1,500 meters – 3:36.7; mile – 3:54.0; 2-mile- 8:26.82; 5,000 meters – 13:12.91 and 10,000 meters – 28:32.7. He was inducted into the University of Oregon Athletic Hall of Fame with the other members of the 1977 University of Oregon Cross Country team in 1998. His son, Matthew, is the 2016 Olympic Champion at 1,500 meters. In early 2017 Matt’s autobiography, ‘Like Father, Like Son,’ was published. He currently resides in Arlington, Virginia and was great to spend 75 minutes on the phone for this interview.
GCR:First off, when I read your recent autobiography, ‘Like Father, Like Son,’ one thing that really stood out was when your high school coach, Brother John Bielen, said when you committed to Manhattan that ‘There is no better feeling than a child surpassing their parent.’ You were a two-time Olympian, your son, Matthew, is a two-time Olympian who took home the 2016 Olympic Gold Medal at 1,500 meters. How true was Brother John Bielen’s statement?
MCIt was right on, of course, and there is nothing more rewarding than to see a child surpassing their parent. I enjoyed it just as much as he did. But I thought it was pretty amazing that a man who was maybe no more than forty years old and didn’t have any children and was never married to have those insights to life. That’s how magical a coach he was. He was dead on and I really appreciate him and love him more for it the older I get.
GCR:When we look back on our experiences, some good and some bad, from our parents, coaches and running, they all combine to help us best give advice to athletes. How did all of these factors come together to help you advise all of your athletes and your son, Matthew, so that they can be there best and possibly avoid some of your mistakes?
MCThat’s the opportunity we have to make things better as an adult. We have this vast library of experience that we can draw from. Being brought up in the Bronx I saw the greatest and the worst all in one city block. It was a full life and at sixty-two years old I’m glad I lived the life. It definitely wasn’t always fun, though many of the times were. Some times were really down. New York City is a city of extremes and my life has been that way. I appreciate now that I have had a full life.
GCR:We will discuss your childhood a bit later, but let’s talk about concepts, feelings and attitudes that shape runners. One that I have experienced which you discuss in ‘Like Father, Like Son’ is the feeling of calm confidence. You talked about how at the 1975 NCAA cross country meet instead of having calm confidence you had frantic energy and it sort of destroyed your race as you went out in 4:30 the first mile and faded to 175th place. How do you use that as an example with your children who race, Lauren and Matthew, and with athletes you coach?
MCI think it’s a great example of trying too hard and also trying to please other people and to show other people what I could do. In running there is enough pressure without taking on extra loads and extra burdens and that’s what I did.
GCR:Let’s go back to Brother John Bielen and his Directives for the Track Man of staying healthy, having a positive attitude, working hard, being confident and loving to win while also being an envious loser. You were a young man at sixteen or seventeen years old so how did this resonate with you as a teenager?
MCQuite honestly those were certain lessons that he gave the team and I had already outgrown them. That’s why he gave me advice about being an adult. And he treated me a little bit differently than most of the guys on the team. We would have different kinds of talks and usually they were done one on one and in his guidance office. He was also the school guidance director.
GCR:When you moved on to the University of Oregon there were the five principles of moderation, progression, variation, adaptation and callousing. It seems that many coaches, athletes and parents watching their children don’t understand how training is based on these types of guiding principles. What would you say is important to get across?
MCModeration is very important. With the modern stereotypical parent, many are over-parenting. They are involved in every grade, every teacher, every movement, every slip and that’s not the way it was in my day and certainly not in my neighborhood. Parents let children grow at their own pace and make their own mistakes. There is the expression that ‘boys will be boys’ and that ruled the day. I had a lot more second chances than kids get today. Kids feel that their life is ruined or their parents make them feel that way as grades slip to a ‘B.’ We took classes to learn and we didn’t care so much about the grades. Without that added pressure it was a lot more fun being a kid. With that, moderation means I didn’t always check homework – with Matthew sometimes I had to ask him questions to check up on him without being in the way. The way to be a good parent or a good coach is to know what’s going on without leading the way. You let the child lead, foresee what is going on and can help them avoid a bump or two in the road. Sometimes you have to let them experience pain and struggle for themselves. You get out of the way and let them go. I think moderation is the biggest principle and, as a college coach, I don’t check homework and I don’t do bed checks or weigh ins. I assume my athletes will do certain things and I expect them to. Kids grow into those big shoes. My wife is a great mother as well and she never talked to the children with baby talk. She would talk to them either as a young person or an adult and they grew up a lot faster than their friends. When you talk to them that way, they respond that way.
GCR:There is another concept that I can relate to going back to when I was running in high school. Before a race my coaches didn’t say much to me and I was usually joking around with my teammates. Some other people were wondering why I was relaxed and kidding, but I think what it really meant is what Coach Dellinger said to Oregon runners, ‘The hay was in the barn.’ Do you have that as one of the tenets you use with athletes you coach?
MCWith the top half of my team I act that way. With the other half, I don’t know, I hold their hands more – maybe because I’m older. I’d have to say that I break that rule more than I’m proud of.
GCR:We can’t always race with an A+ effort so we have to pick and choose and peak. One of your races that sounds real interesting was in the 1975 season when you had transferred and were ineligible for collegiate competition at Oregon and were running the California Relays mile. You said in ‘Like Father, Like Son’ that with 220 yards to go you saw 3:30 on the clock and dug even deeper to try to break the four minute mile. Do you stress with Lauren and Matthew and others you coach that sometimes there is a place you can dig deeper that you don’t know you have?
MCI think that lesson has to be learned at the young person’s rate of growth. But, yes, I try to expose them to that thought when I’m feeding them and teaching them, though it is more important that they feel it and experience it themselves. But when it happens and they come to me to talk about it, then I will reinforce it and open that door for them.
GCR:Another concept I have seen with teams like Coach Joe Newton’s team at York High School in Illinois and we had a coach like that, Brent Haley, in Largo, Florida is where there was a culture of winning. You talked about how Oregon had that and it was like the New York Yankees of your youth. How does this come into play as you are coaching at American University and trying to have your athletes move up in unison as part of a winning culture?
MCThat’s the ideal and we’ve done that to some degree. Kids are expected to win and they look forward to it without feeling pressure. It also comes down to instilling that within the team rather than whipping them and telling them they are going to do it as that’s not going to work.
GCR:In addition to the winning culture of teams, in ‘Like Father, Like Son’ you related how you daughter, Lauren, and son, Matthew, had a rub off effect on their teams with both winning back-to-back team state titles. Have you had that experience where your star runners pulled up everyone else so that the team excelled?
MCWe’ve had that here at American University and they lead by example. Most of those kinds of kids don’t do it by talking. They do so by example. The top boy and girl my first year here didn’t drink alcohol and my team followed suit. I also don’t think it’s by being just a star runner; it’s by being a star person. These people bring other intangibles to the table and it isn’t just about running fast. There are plenty of guys and gals that are fast and their teams didn’t get any better. I think there are some other factors. We know there are some other factors and that’s how you inspire and instill confidence in the rest of the team. It’s the other qualities, you make it look fun, you’re having fun, and it’s contagious. It’s not just finishing first. It’s being a winner. Everything you do - It’s your style. You have style. You inspire people. Winning in some ways can discourage others if you are too good and people can’t relate to you, so that has happened on other teams.
GCR:Let’s take a look at some of your important races starting first with the 1976 Olympic Trials. How was it going through the heats and semis where you ran 3:41.2 and 3:40.03, which translate to around 3:58 and 3:57 miles, just to get to the final? And how was your strength to handle the rounds?
MCRunning those two rounds and then 3:36 in the final wasn’t done off of 5,000 meter strength yet. I was calloused from running fast three days in a row without any rest and I think that’s what you’re referring to. We trained all year that way. We knew what we would be facing and we did workouts three days in a row to experience that mind of fatigue.
GCR:You never know exactly how the final is going to go, but Tom Byers took it out insanely fast the first two laps in 53.6 and 1:51.3 and was about 10 meters ahead of Rick Wohlhuter and you. How did that race play out mentally for you since it went out so fast and you might have had to get a bit closer to the red line early?
MCI wanted to get to the red line as soon as possible because I was stronger physically and mentally than anyone else in there. I was more fearful of Rick Wohlhuter, the World Record holder at 800 meters. Why would I not want a fast pace? I wanted him to feel pain as soon as possible.
GCR:On that last lap after Byers faded, you were close to Wohlhuter and Mike Durkin got close to you before finishing third. What can you tell me about that last 100 meters and how it felt to cross the line in second to make the team and know you were an Olympian?
MCIt was probably the most exciting thing in my life other than my children being born. It was my most exciting occurrence in athletics as I certainly was no big favorite to make the team. It fulfilled a dream – the wildest dream you could have. In those days to do it at the University of Oregon on my home track with my teammates and coach there to share it with me was an awesome feeling that could never be duplicated again. I just totally walked on water.
GCR:Is there anything about your Olympic experience in Montreal, whether it was racing, Opening or Closing Ceremonies, or other highlights that stand out when you reflect back?
MCI was just disappointed that I didn’t make the finals. I should have as I was that good, but I was just a little panicky. I was lacking confidence and a little too young at twenty-one. I wasn’t as mature as Matthew was going to his Olympics to make the final. I didn’t have that kind of talent yet. I did learn that I have a different kind of talent so instead of being depressed I got excited about winning a medal in Russia in four years. I got excited about that and focused on that.
GCR:A few years later in 1979 you had some interesting races. First was the Pan Am Games 5,000 meters and I haven’t been able to find video of that race. It was hot and humid and the field was tough with Herb Lindsay and Rodolfo Gomez, who beat Frank Shorter in the 10,000 meters. How did that race play out?
MCI was a fast finisher in the 5,000 meters compared to being the slow finisher in the 1,500 meters where I had to go early. So I had the opposite tactic in the 5,000 meters. If I stayed close I had a shot to win. I didn’t take the lead until the last lap. Gomez and Lindsay were out there and then I jumped them.
GCR:I did find video of the 1979 World Cup which was a month later and you were in good position in 2nd place with 1000m to go. Then Abramov led at the bell lap, you had faded back to sixth place, Yifter ran a 53 last lap to win while you finished sixth. What are your thoughts on that race and how it transpired?
MCI was just run out by then. Between the heat and travel it was just a long season. I was too fired mentally. Gomez outkicked me which was ridiculous. Tactically I was fine. I just ran out of gas and was already done for the season looking back at it.
GCR:The next year the USA boycotted the Olympics and it looked like we had one of our greatest teams. How disappointing was that situation?
MCObviously we will never know what that team would have done. But I think it was a good blend of experience and young people. We had a good blend in the 800 meters and on up. I think we would have done fine, but we will never know.
GCR:You did win the 1980 Olympic Trials 5,000 meters. How did the excitement level compare to the trials in 1976?
MCWinning the Olympic Trials was not like it was in 1976. It was a great track meet, but there wasn’t the usual juice. 1976 was electric and 1980 wasn’t. There was the disappointment. We’re Americans and, if we don’t like something, we go over there and kick their ass. We don’t stay home and pout. I felt personally that we didn’t like their politics and so we didn’t play which is so un-American. Jimmy Carter freely admitted many times that it may have been the biggest mistake he made in his Presidency.
GCR:The Trials race did play out interestingly with Bill McChesney moving out to a 35 meter lead with 800m to go and then Dick Buerkle and you tracking him down and catching him with 200 meters to go. So, despite the diminished excitement you guys raced real hard. What are your big takeaways from the race?
MCThe tactic was very, very unusual and very courageous of Billy. It wasn’t the Olympic Trials that we know and I’m not sure if there was a real team he would have been able to do it. So that made it more interesting in that way. Dick was an older guy and was more experienced so he had worked his way up. I was sure I was going to win no matter what. It played out real interesting. Billy trained with me a lot so I wasn’t startled that he would try something. The three of us knew each other well and I was pretty much confident in my abilities to win
GCR:The race that was really fun to view, and I watched the video twice, was the 1982 Prefontaine Classic 5,000 meters where you won and broke Mary Liquori’s American Record. It was so loaded that there were twelve guys coming in with times between 13:20 and 13:24 with Doug Padilla, you, Alberto Salazar, Ralph King, Steve Plasencia, Thom Hunt, Paul Cummings, Don Clary, Dan Dillon, Steve Lacy, Jerald Jones and Dave Murphy. It seemed like you were so relaxed and confident throughout the race. Was there any time that you didn’t think you were going to win?
MCIt was a fast field and, to that point, was the deepest field the U.S. had ever assembled. I was very confident. Long before they shot the gun I was confident I was going to win the race and was capable of breaking the American Record. But I wasn’t shocked that afterward I was confident I could now go and break the World Record. I just got injured and never had the opportunity. It’s a thin line when you are that very fine tuned machine. Something can go wrong, whether you are a race car or a runner or a horse. It’s all the same and is a thin line to stay healthy.
GCR:Your injury was unusual in that in the 1982 Bislett Games mile you hurt your Achilles tendon hurdling over a fallen runner on the third lap, didn’t even finish all out and still ran a 3:54 mile. It seems like with your last lap under 58 at Pre and mile speed you were primed to break 13:10 and maybe the 13:06 World Record.
MCI’ll never know and I don’t think about it since it’s all over now. Obviously, every old guy thinks he could have run faster and I’m the same as every other old guy. We have our thoughts, but there is no sense talking about it.
GCR:At the 1985 USA Outdoor Championships you knew you were getting ready to retire from competitive running at age thirty and you ran a pretty strong13:28 for third place. Was it satisfying to go out on a good note?
MCI was very fortunate as I was a distant third place. I caught a lot of very dead runners who went out with the big boys and I was able to pick them off. I always look at it as a gift that turned out good. I certainly wasn’t the third best runner in the race. But I’ve got that ability to make my last USA team. So I went to Germany to race and didn’t do very well, but that’s okay. That’s the way I finished up and I was very happy and lucky. It could have been ninth place, but things turned out well and third place was a lot more enjoyable than ninth.
GCR:Let’s go back to your childhood and to what you’ve already touched on that we also did in my neighborhood. That is, we went out and played our own street football and two-man ball and hot box and kick the can and that probably gave kids more control over what they did and more personal responsibility than kids today.
MCWithout a doubt as parents interfere with the process of kids’ growth. It’s unfortunate as you never see kids in the street anymore. That would be a good thing but organized sports have taken over the whole childhood experience.
GCR:I lived in sort of a low middle class neighborhood in Miami that may have been poor, but we didn’t really think about it. From reading through your story in ‘Like Father, Like Son,’ you had peers with bad habits and your parents split up so how much does it take for that caring teacher and that caring coach and a sport or arts or some type of success to get a kid off of a bad road ahead in life?
MCWe never know how or when it’s going to blossom, but we see the goodness as a coach or teacher lots of times. They plant a seed and we don’t know when it’s going to connect and blossom. That’s what all of us pray for, we hope for and we persevere for. I’ve had so many letters from kids who never got it while they were here at American University, but now thank me. They write me cards years later or give me a phone call or come to a track meet and shake my hand and thank me though they often were a pain in the butt when they were here. We may have had an exchange of words in the past that we both are not proud of, but that went on and is a part of growth.
GCR:You had two coaches in high school, first Coach Milt Blatt and then Brother John Bielen. How did having them as both a coach and father figure give you just what you needed as a teen and how was it such a blessing in your life?
MCIt’s hard to sum up as the whole book was about that. They were two different persons with two different training methods, but both inspired me to different levels. I think Mr. Blatt was the best beginning coach a young person could have. His training program as enjoyable, fun and it kept my thirst alive. Brother Bielen was very demanding and hard trainer. I did some longer type running which fit my style more. I had the best of both worlds and I’m appreciative to both of them. They were very, very devoted to children, to their teams and took a lot of pride in their schools, much more than I see most coaches do today in high school.
GCR:It was so unusual how you couldn’t race during your first cross country season and track season as you discussed in ‘Like Father, Like Son,’ as you had Friday and Saturday deliveries in your job for the local butcher. And so your first race each season was the PSAL – Public School Athletic League Championship. Coach Blatt still believed in you and told you what you had to do to win that first cross country race against 100 runners from 20 schools. He didn’t tell you what to do to place high. What was it like to not even have run a race but to have your coach believe in you so much?
MCThat’s a special feeling. That bond between coach and athlete is tremendous and takes you to worlds that you never dreamed yourself. As such a vulnerable young person growing I was always looking and searching for a meaning and a sense of belonging. Part that didn’t come out in the book is that was basically the first team I was ever on. I was never in an organized sport anywhere. I got my singlet and I always washed it and I ironed it. It was just a shirt with the letter ‘J’ on it, but I must have washed and ironed it more than anything on the planet. To this day I cared for that singlet more than any other singlet I ever had or any other uniform just because it was my first (interviewer’s note – remember Matt wore the Oregon and USA singlets). The pride I took in my school and in my teammates – I wasn’t going to let the coach or any of the athletes down.
GCR:One thing we had in common was diverse school demographics as my high school down in Miami was about one third each black, white and Cuban while Power Memorial was 50% white, 20% black and 30% Puerto Rican. How much do you think it helped, because it helped me a lot, to be in a high school where the atmosphere was so culturally diverse and how did it set you up for a lifetime of living in a diverse world?
MCNew York City was that kind of place anyway, but the public schools were more predominantly one way or the other at the time. But the Catholic schools could control their enrollment and they were able to do that. It was a beautiful thing and what I really saw was that adults, whether they were lay teachers or Christian Brothers, were dedicated to all kids. The same discipline and the same punishment were distributed to all kids. Sometimes in our society it comes down to whether you have money or who you know and all of these factor into what happens, but that shouldn’t go on and in a perfect world that wouldn’t go on. It’s not a perfect world, but Power Memorial was about as close as it could come to a perfect world. I appreciate that and the devotion all of the Brothers had to the high school students to make us excel whether it was the chess club or our band, which was one of the best marching bands in the country and won awards, and in anything we did. We took pride. Our basketball team was famous. The school exuded excellence and so for me to be admitted there was a big, big shot in the arm for my ego and for our family pride.
GCR:Let’s talk about training a bit. I’m a guy who started running in the 1970s and I’m two years younger than you. We all were doing a lot of mileage and if I was doing 70 miles a week and found out my competitors were doing 80 miles than I might just step it up to 85 miles a week. Coach Bielen increased your mileage – did you take to it sort of like a duck to water and did you like the increase?
MCI did like the long runs. We didn’t run as much as Craig Virgin did but we were under a stop watch every day. What we did was quality distance training. Everything was under his view and his stop watch. We didn’t have a track, but we would run the same loops every day so we knew how it compared to other runners who came before us who were national class. We always had a barometer to compare to and that was important. Tony Colon was the school record holder and state record holder at 4:06 flat and won the national championship at Golden West in 1970. All of his workouts were posted so I knew how my times compared to his. I made sure I did more work than he did. I wasn’t comparing myself to mileage, but to volume, whether it was 400s, 800s, I warmed up more, I warmed down more, whatever it was I got some extra work in. Volume is important as long as you’re not getting sick or injured all of the time. That’s important, no matter what job you do, you have to work hard. If you want to be better than the other guy, usually you’re going to have to work smarter and harder.
GCR:You did break Tony Colon’s school record and got close to sub-4:00 in high school at 4:02.7. How driving of a force was it when there were guys before you like Jim Ryun and Marty Liquori who had broken four minutes in high school? Were you a little disappointed you didn’t get there or do you feel like you did your best and 4:02.7 was what you could do?
MCEven if I would have broken four minutes I certainly never would have thought I was as good as Jim Ryun or Marty Liquori. The things they did, when you know thoroughly what they did, were something that I knew no matter how fast I ran, I just didn’t have the same potential they did. I didn’t think of myself in the same breath as them. But I did think I could break four minutes. I was strong enough and tough enough. After I ran 4:02.7 I did go to Europe and ran 3:43.4 for 1,500 meters which is still the New York state record, is better than a 4:02.7 mile and is still in the top ten high school 1,500 meter list. I think if I had one more race I could have run the equivalent of four flat, but I don’t think I would have broken it. That’s what I thought at the time – that I could run four flat for sure. The strength and pacing is what I had. When I ran 4:02.7 I never broke sixty seconds on any of my 440s. You just have to grind it out and I was a grinder. I was no Jim Ryun who could go out in 3:05 and still break four minutes. Even Marty could go out in 3:02 and run 3:58. I could never do that stuff. In high school these guys were still a lot better than me.
GCR:Collegiately, you started at Manhattan with coaches Fred Dwyer and Frank Gagliano and then had coaches Bill Bowerman and Bill Dellinger at Oregon. What are some key points you learned from your college coaches that helped you as you grew as a runner and helps you as you coach athletes today?
MCI think one thing is that, in addition to the foundation that coaches lay, you’ve got to have some talent. You can’t do the workouts without talent. I’ve met plenty of guys who wanted to be good and wanted to work, but didn’t have the talent to do the workouts. Some didn’t have the physical makeup and they kept getting sick or they kept getting injured. It just wasn’t in the cards for them. If you have the talent and you work hard, then you have to be lucky enough to stay healthy. You need all three things. That is what you need. You have to put them together. And you have to figure you out to make the system go. Most programs are pretty good. To say that one program is better is like trying to say which flavor of the ice cream is better? Whatever you think is the best - it is the best. I happen to know that my coaches were the best so that’s the way it works for me. I never doubted them and I knew they were going to do what was best for me and I learned that the training program isn’t paramount – it’s what I think about the training program and how I take care of myself and make sure to be prepared for the next workout. That’s up to me.
GCR:One thing I have to hit on with you being out at Oregon is how you were fortuitous enough to cut class and ended up hanging out with Steve Prefontaine the day of Pre’s last track meet. Could you tell us a bit about that?
MCI’ve been very lucky in this category called running and the people and the places I’ve been and the right timing is important. I’ve been blessed in many ways. That day was a very special day and not knowing it was his last day. I spent a lot of hours with him and more than I had in any week combined. I spent a solid eight hours with Steve and am very fortunate to have that. The only photo I ever took with Steve was that photo we took about six hours before he was dead, so that was pretty wild.
GCR:Another point you mentioned in ‘Like Father, Like Son’ was about the meaning of numbers. A lot of times I will see a clock and see 4:22 and think that is the mile time I ran when I won the 1975 Miami High Relays or I’ll see 9:20 and recall that was my 2-mile time when I came in third that same year at the Florida high school state meet. Can you relate a bit about running numbers?
MCI think about how important it was to break two minutes in the half mile. Some things as I was developing were hard to do like to break 2:05. Those were barometers that you do. To see 1:59 was off the charts for me and how fast you have to be and how great you have to be to break two minutes. We all start at the bottom. I get more of a blast out of those numbers and breaking 4:30 in the mile that seemed so fast at that time. The first time I broke 4:10 to see 4:09 – wow! Years later I almost ran that fast a pace for 5k so it’s kind of wacky for me to think that way.
GCR:We’ve talked about coming out of lower middle class or poorer backgrounds and I remember when I was a kid how much exercise we would get. Guys on another local south Florida team lived nine miles from the beach and they would run to the beach, play basketball and then run nine miles home. Everyone just busted it and it reminds me of your point that American runners today have lost that discomfort and sacrifice. Everyone is driving to and from practice or their parents are driving them back and forth where we used to bike or run to practice. What are your thoughts about this?
MCWe did more practice in our spare time than we did at official practice. We went and played and got more done than at some of the practices I was at even when I got older. Kids just took that initiative on their own and that was fun for us. Now it’s work for this crew or they view it that way.
GCR:As I read through your book it just rang so true. My junior year in high school when I improved and became a good runner what I did was after cross country season I set a goal of running ten miles every day in either one or two days and did it for a hundred days in a row and track season started so I had to do it the day before the meet and the day of the meet, but I got real strong. You talked in ‘Like Father, Like Son, about a ‘no days off thinking’ and I don’t believe there is much of that today. What is your thought process on ‘no days off thinking?’
MCThere are so many other things to do now that I’m not blaming the kids – I’m blaming what we’ve become. There are a million other things to do. God forbid if everyone doesn’t have their own TV. We didn’t have choices. They have so many choices now that I understand how kids can become confused and can get distracted. It’s our system as we have become much busier than we were fifty years ago.
GCR:We’ve talked mainly about your background, but let’s talk some about Matthew since your son did win the Olympic Gold Medal. First, I didn’t realize that when his collegiate choice was narrowed to two schools that one was Texas where Leo Manzano was the star middle distance runner. Now Matthew and Leo have crossed paths for many years. Do they have a good, friendly rivalry?
MCI don’t know what a good, friendly rivalry is. Anyone who was a rival of mine, we were not friendly. We became friendly after we were done competing. There is only one winner. They are civil and I’m friendly with Leo. I root for Leo all of the time to get second place.
GCR:By ‘friendly rivalry’ I mean that you shake hands before the race, you go out and try to kill each other in the race, but you’re still friends afterward.
MCI think whoever lost goes back and does more work, so I don’t think there’s such thing as a friendly rivalry. But everyone does that now. We may not have shaken each other’s hands, but I had a healthy respect for my competitors that got my butt up every morning to go out and train further and faster than I had the last week because they kicked my ass. Is that a friendly rivalry? Yes. Friendly rivals inspire each other to do better. Leo got a Silver and Matthew got a Gold because it takes that kind of thinking. Probably the best thing that could have happened to Matthew was that Leo kicked his ass more than once and made him go out and train harder. I think that’s a healthy rivalry.
GCR:Especially in the 2012 London Olympics when Leo had the good kick and went past Matthew and another runner to take the Silver Medal leaving Matthew four hundredths of a second behind the Bronze Medalist. Was that a defining moment that made Matthew so hungry afterward?
MCI think Matthew should answer that. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer that question. Though there are only two outcomes from an instance like that. It makes you quit or get tougher.
GCR:Near the end of ‘Like Father, Like Son, you were talking about Matthew’s Gold Medal and said, ‘It won’t last forever. All we can do is enjoy it.’ But when I talk to Gold Medalists like Bob Schul and Billy Mills, who got Gold Medals back in 1964, it has lasted forever. What are your thoughts on that?
MCThe moment doesn’t last forever. And the next generation doesn’t care that much. Billy Mills is a great story and one of the few Gold Medalists people talk about. I don’t think anybody is talking about Bob Hayes anymore. Nothing lasts forever. You are in the history books forever, but you’re history. You’re not the present Olympic champion. That kind of didn’t come across the way I meant it. You are only the current Olympic champion for four years. Now that makes more sense. Some of the guys live in the past so they might think it’s forever. We don’t do that in my house.
GCR:Does Matthew still come to you for advice?
MCYou should ask him about our relationship. He makes his dad feel good all of the time.
GCR:On a sad note, the great distance runner and two-time New York City Marathon champ, Tom Fleming, recently passed away. Did you pal around with Tom or do you have any interesting memories of Tom that you might want to share?
MCI’m a little bit younger, but Tom was an outspoken, hard-working, driven athlete. We’ve run into each other several times. He was also a very helpful athlete for anybody who needed help. He would be there and explain things. He was a New York Athletic Club member as was I and during that time period we ran on several cross country National Championship teams – never quite winning, but both of us were giving our best. Tom was a ferocious trainer, a ferocious competitor and just a great human being. It’s a great loss for our sport and distance running. I have nothing but high praise for Tom. He was a straight shooter and a very, very honest person. The sport and I will surely miss him.
GCR:For a final wrap up, when you are talking to young people and you bring together everything from your youth and your coaches and your experiences and you want to inspire them to be their best, what do you say when you have a few minutes to talk to a group?
MCThe first thing I don’t do is to try to give them everything. You are better off if you have one or two things go in in that moment than to try to fill their whole head with this knowledge. I can’t possibly tell them what four years of high school will be like in a thirty minute talk or a ten minute talk. It isn’t going to happen. So if I can give them one thing to do and depending on where the group is at it will address whatever challenges they are facing. Some groups feel like they are privileged so they should enjoy the fact they are privileged and shouldn’t feel guilty about it. I tell athletes they have an obligation to do their best and the only commitment I can get from them id to do their best. They should go out and work hard every day and some days will be better than others. It’s not a big secret, but just because you worked hard doesn’t mean you are going to be successful.
 Inside Stuff
Hobbies/InterestsMy number one hobby is that I play darts on a weekly basis in the Washington Dart League. I started in the 1970s with my coach and a couple of teammates and throw most weeks on Tuesday. Some of my runners as far back as Terrence Mahon and John Trautman all used to throw darts with me and we had lots of fun. So that’s one of the things that we do to relax before a meet
Favorite moviesNumber one would be ‘A Bronx Tale’ with Robert De Niro. My son and I are always watching mafia movies. I’m a big Paul Newman fan all the way back to ‘Cool Hand Luke.’
Favorite musicFrank Sinatra songs; some country and western when I’m on the west coast like Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. I saw Merle Haggard live. I also saw the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen. I used to be a huge Springsteen fan in the 1970s, 80s and 90s
Favorite booksBack in the 1960s ‘A Stone for Danny Fisher’ by Harrold Robbins about a tough guy in the city. Another one is ‘The Headmaster’ by John McPhee and how he started a school in Deerfield, helped kids and filled in as a baseball player because they didn’t have enough for a team. There were only eight kids in the school so he filled in as a pitcher or something which was pretty cool
First carFirst year Honda Accord. It cost $5,800. I was 23 years old and it had a stick shift. I didn’t know how to drive and didn’t have a driver’s license. I bought a car and didn’t know you had to have a driver’s license to buy a car. I thought I’d get the car, drive around and go take the test, but they wouldn’t give me the car. So I had to leave the car there and get a driver’s license. I didn’t know how to drive a stick so everyone was watching me drive off of the lot. I said prayers and hit all of the gears correctly that time and got out of there safely. But it took me about an hour to go five miles to get home. It was a nightmare
Current carIt’s a great story. One of my former runners from the 1980s gave me a BMW car that was about ten years old that he didn’t want anymore. He was a track guy that I coached up at St. John’s. His name is Kevin Boyle, a distance runner, and he teaches law at American University and volunteers to help me out. He is a loyal runner and said he didn’t need the car so I’ve got it. It’s the first car I’ve had that is automatic and has air conditioning
First JobsI hauled that meat up and down stairs for the butcher when I was a teenager. Before that I was a lousy paper boy salesman. I didn’t know what I was doing. Somehow I liked playing sports more than I liked delivering newspapers so they often didn’t get delivered. I got in a bunch of trouble. I would say that wasn’t going to be my career being a paperboy
FamilyWhen I think of family – good, bad and ugly – we still love each other. I love my father, I love my mother. They’re not perfect people and they lived their lives the best they could. They did the best they could with us just like I do with my kids. I’m not the perfect dad, but mom does a great job with that. We aren’t perfect people, but we all accepted imperfection in human beings and keep trying. Just like in running and racing, we don’t quit because we had a bad day or a bad slump or a bad year – you’ve got to hang in there
PetsWe were city kids and weren’t allowed many pets. It didn’t work out real well. We had mostly cats. I’m more of a ‘dog guy,’ but I travel too much
Favorite breakfastI’m an oatmeal guy. I do like a traditional breakfast with eggs and everything. When I was in Oregon and when I visit now for track meets, we go to the OHOP for pancakes. I eat everything and that’s why I’m so big. Now I’ve got to watch what I eat
Favorite mealWe do family meals at the Outback. The kids always liked it. We do a lot of birthdays and family celebrations at the Outback. When Lauren or Matthew ran well we would go out for steak to celebrate. We’re a meat eating family
Favorite beveragesRight now it’s ginger ale. I certainly like alcohol beverages more but I’m trying to lose weight. I like Budweiser and Beck’s beer
First running memoryRunning around the block for peer pressure and peer acceptance. My cousins lived in the same neighborhood. It was an important part of manhood how fast and far that you could run. That was important in our neighborhood and I enjoyed that a lot. The first memories were sewer to sewer races
Running heroesI started out wanting to be a quarter miler, so I was a big fan of Lee Evans and Larry James. Then I realized that wasn’t happening so I moved over to the mile with Jim Ryun and Marty Liquori being the guys I admired
Greatest running momentI would say the first one which was pretty exciting was winning the PSAL Championship in cross country at Van Courtland Park. It was my first time racing there. I had never won a race and it was the first race I ran in high school. Then I moved and was close to the park and ran in Van Courtland Park all of the time. My favorite memories are training and racing in Van Courtland Park
Worst running momentsThere are two of them. The first time we were at the NCAA Cross Country championships back in New York / New Jersey and I finished 175th. I can remember a very, very obese man with a camera over his arm running faster than I was in the race. It was a very humbling moment and is laughable now. The second is in 1982 after setting the American Record for 5,000 meters and injuring my leg, watching the World Record getting broken. I was scheduled to be in that race and not knowing what would have happened, but knowing I would be in the thick of it. What would have happened if I was 100 percent? Dave Moorcroft ran a tremendous race. Sydnee Maree ran a tremendous race. It would have been awfully exciting to be in that race and to see what would have happened
Childhood dreamsRunning in the Olympics. They had a Miniature Olympic Day in the Cub Scouts and my first medal that I won was the Cub Scout Champion. Running, throwing – I had a good arm for throwing. I always enjoyed that and it was fun. I always enjoyed sports. I got to stand up on top of a big box that said ‘Number One’ and got a hand-carved medal that I still have that says ‘1964, September something.’ I was the Grand Champion of the Olympic Day
Funny memoriesEverybody seems to have one on me. Matthew always tells one every time we run into someone who hasn’t heard it. I was in an elevator at the national Championships with the Olympic Champion in the Decathlon, Ashton Eaton, and his coach. I asked Ashton what floor the Fitness Center was on. He said that he didn’t know. So I said, ‘The Olympic Champion doesn’t know where the Fitness Center is?’ And the elevator operator thought it was hilarious. It was funny in the elevator, but may not be funny in a book or in your interview. In the elevator it was pretty comical because I was calling him out in a different tone than you’re hearing today
Favorite places to travelI always like going to Lausanne, Switzerland. I ran well there and so does Matthew. I always liked that meet. Renaldo Nehemiah broke thirteen flat in the hurdles for the first time there. That place has a lot of good memories. The Swiss treat us very well and love track. In the old days it was a down home meet in a small arena. It was fun and they love athletics so I love going to that place. It’s very pretty at Lake Geneva