I ran high school track and cross-country in Maryland from 2004 to 2008, which means I knew who Matt Centrowitz was before he became "Centro," the United States' best middle distance runner, a three-time IAAF World Championships medalist at 1500m and, as of Saturday night, the first American to win Olympic gold in the 1500m since 1908.
In the fall of 2006, I was a solidly mediocre cross-country runner. I placed 28th at my region meet -- about 10 or so places outside of advancing to the Maryland state championship. But two of my teammates at Montgomery Blair High School -- twins, Halsey and Ashlyn Sinclair -- were always in contention for top state honors. They advanced easily to the championship, so the rest of our team drove an hour to Parkton, Maryland, to cheer them on.
Halsey, the 2003 state cross country champion, placed eighth, and Ashlyn finished 33rd. Eleanor Roosevelt's Marika Walker won the race in 19:18; in the spring, she would help the Raiders become the first team to win both the 4x400m and 4x800m Championship of America races at the Penn Relays Carnival.
But what really stuck out to us at the state cross-country meet was the dominance of Matthew Centrowitz, a senior at Broadneck High School in Annapolis. That year, he won his third consecutive state cross-country title in dominant fashion, 29 seconds ahead of runner-up Dwight Parker from Woodlawn.
The Hereford High School course is notoriously challenging. In 2005, The Washington Post quoted John Dye as saying it was, "the toughest three miles in cross-country."
No high school boy had ever broken 16 minutes on the course.*
Centro runs out of "The Dip," the most challenging section of the Hereford High School course, at the Maryland State Cross Country Championships in 2006.
Centrowitz won the 2005 state title as a junior in 16:00.28. In 2006, he was on pace to become Hereford's first sub-16-minute runner before stumbling in the final stretch. But he got up, gathered himself, and finished in 16:02.25.
It was legendary.
I left Hereford that day inspired for my own running -- I swore to myself that I'd qualify for states in 2007, and I did -- and enthralled by an athlete who seemed to be the best ever produced in the state of Maryland.
In 2006, the state meet was still a dream for me, so Foot Locker Nationals seemed like a universe reserved for otherworldly beings like Jordan Hasay and her alien ponytail. But Maryland sent two athletes that year: Alison Smith of Atholton, who trained with my twin teammates, and, of course, Centrowitz. Smith placed 18th in San Diego, while Centrowitz gutted out an eighth-place, All-American run.
The legend grew.
My cousin graduated from Broadneck High School the year prior, and I pestered him about the University of Oregon-bound athlete who was quickly establishing himself as not only the best in Maryland, but one of the best in the nation.
What was he like in real life? Was he funny? What did he wear to school?
My cousin jokingly told me that he sat around at parties and talked about how fast he was.
Well, I thought, who could blame him? So would I!
By May, I improved enough to earn a spot on the track at the Maryland Outdoor State Championship. I raced the 1600m and placed ninth in 5:16.51--a solid effort, not a PB, but in line with my ability at that point.
I also got to bare witness to Centrowitz gapping the Class 4A 1600m field by nearly 200 meters. The entire stadium was on its feet at Morgan State University as the announcer urged us to cheer Centrowitz to a sub-four-minute clocking.
He ran 4:04.09 that afternoon.
As I left Baltimore that day, I was excited to improve in my senior year. I started, for the first time, to think maybe -- just maybe -- I'd be good enough to compete in college.
A few weeks later, Centrowitz won the Nike Outdoor Nationals two mile in 8:41.55. It was the third-fastest mark in prep history, at the time, and tied Steve Prefontaine's high school PB.
By 2011, he was the NCAA champion, USATF champion and IAAF World Championships bronze medalist over 1500m.
In 2012, he took fourth in the 1500m at the Olympic Games.
Last year, I interviewed Centrowitz before he competed at the adidas Grand Prix in New York. After the interview, I mentioned I was from Maryland. He recognized the name of my high school, and my twin teammates: "Yeah, the Sinclairs. With the glasses. They won everything."
He placed fourth in the 800m the next day in 1:44.62, which still stands as his PB.
On Saturday night, I watched the men's 1500m Olympic final in Maryland. I was visiting from Texas for my sister Jeannie's high school graduation party. She ran on the track team, too, so we were joined by a bevy of teenage track athletes, in addition to cousins, aunts, uncles and various family members and friends with various levels of track and field knowledge. An uncle informed the crowd ahead of the 1500m final that Usain Bolt was "unbeatable."
But Saturday night was for Centro. We screamed, we cheered, we ate barbecue, and this fan's reaction was caught on tape thanks to my sly Broadneck alum cousin:
Congratulations, Matt. And thank you for the inspiration.
* In 2008, Solomon Haile of Sherwood ran 15:43 on the course. Since then, the course has changed and six runners have broken 16 minutes. Nick Fransham of North Harford set the course record of 15:41.3 in 2014.