By Chris Lotsbom, @ChrisLotsbom
PORTLAND, ORE. (18-Mar) -- The stage is now set for the IAAF World Indoor Championships Men's 1500m final, and it is shaping up to be a race for the ages. With a field that includes an Olympic medalist, the reigning world indoor champion, sensational kickers, and a hometown hero, Sunday's medal round will be must-see television.
In order to make it into said final, athletes had to demonstrate supreme tactics here tonight at the Oregon Convention Center. Portland's own Matthew Centrowitz and defending world indoor gold medalist Ayanleh Souleiman of Djibouti came away winners of the preliminary heats, displaying vastly different racing strategies.
At the back of the six-person pack with just over three laps to go, Centrowitz clicked into top gear and jolted to the front, passing Ethiopia's Dawit Wolde. Centrowitz's move served to inject life into the rest of the pack, which responded swiftly with a surge of its own. Quickly Centrowitz found himself right back where he began, at the tail end of the line.
Yet the Nike Oregon Project star would not panic, surging for good at the bell. Much to the enjoyment of his loyal supporters, Centro was off to the races. Nothing would stop the 25-year-old from extending his unbeaten streak to seven races this season, further stamping the Oregon Convention Center's oval with his name.
"You know, I think I went into it a little too relaxed, but it was good to kind of work on a few things," said Centrowitz. His winning time would be 3:47.15, strong considering that the first 800m was hit in 2:10.68. "I found myself in the back most of the race. It was a little foreign to me, but it showed I could respond and make the moves I needed to make toward the last couple laps to win the heat."
Ethiopia's Dawit Wolde (3:47.24) and the Czech Republic's Jakub Holusa (3:47.62) were second and third, rounding out the automatic qualifiers. Surprisingly, Kenya's Bethwell Birgen had no response around the final bend, passed by the entire field before finishing last in the heat (3:49.35).
Centrowitz's performance drew a standing ovation from double Olympic champion Mo Farah, observing track-side with daughter Rhianna. Turning his attention to Sunday, Centrowitz was confident. "Could be fast, could be slower. I'm just going to go in and push it just like any other championship race, put myself in the thick of things and whatever it is, it is."
Another entertaining race would play out in the second section, featuring Souleiman, Olympic silver medalist Nick Willis, and American Robby Andrews.
Britain's Chris O'Hare would play the role of Centrowitz, spurring the field on with multiple surges in the race's middle laps. After the opening circuit, O'Hare and Andrews locked eyes and shared a grin -- they knew the race would be faster than the first section and play into their hands.
"I heard 32 for the first 200m, and Chris O'Hare and I just looked at each other and smiled," said Andrews.
Souleiman and O'Hare seemed strongest in the final laps, keeping the pace honest while leading a slight break away group of six men. All six would qualify for the final, with Souleiman first (3:41.04); O'Hare second (3:41.21); Andrews third (3:41.25); Ethiopia's Aman Wote fourth (3:41.25), and Kenya's Vincent Kibet fifth (3:41.42). Avoiding doing any of the leading duties, Willis was sixth in 3:41.53. He'd blow a kiss to wife Sierra and son Lachlan after crossing the line.
Through the mixed zone, Andrews could not contain his excitement. The stage was set for a memorable final featuring all of the top entrants, except for Birgen. An equal mix of grind-it-out workhorses and supreme kickers will line up on Sunday afternoon.
"I wanted to practice my positioning [tonight] because you don't get to race Souleiman and Wote and Kibet and the likes of that everyday," said O'Hare, reflecting on the opportunity. "I just wanted to make sure I got my practice racing... I felt good, felt smooth, and now get some recovery in."
Like a title fight in boxing, the final is already being talked about with great anticipation. Souleiman got real close to a video camera (like a heavyweight boxer staring into his rival's eyes) and spoke his mind.
"Strong race. I have to win final," he said in rough English. The tone and look in his eyes said it all. "I want gold, second [gold] cause 2014 I win the 1500m. This year I win gold. This year is Olympics and World champion... After that I will see you at Olympics."
Andrews also spoke with confidence, yet was a little bit more contained. "I think we have a good shot to do something special," he said. "This is a championship race, right, so you don't know what you're going to get and you have to race the best you can that day. I'd like to make it an 800m race but these guys are all good," he said.
Andrews added that the crowd support will come in handy on Sunday, especially for the pair sporting USA across their chest.
"Special is a great way to describe it. I'm not used to getting this kind of fanfare in an Oregon stadium. They are all for the USA and it's a great, great feeling," said Andrews. On Sunday, he knows that some will be cheering more for one American than another. "Matthew first, USA second."