By Chris Lotsbom, @ChrisLotsbom
(c) 2016 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
PORTLAND, ORE. (20-Mar) — American distance running history was made on the final day of competition here at the IAAF World Indoor Championships, as the red, white, and blue took home a total of four medals over four events contested. Portland area resident and University of Oregon alum Matthew Centrowitz thrilled the capacity crowd with a scintillating come-from-behind win in the 1500m, while fellow Portlander Ryan Hill used the crowd’s roar to propel himself to silver over 3000m. For the women, Ajee’ Wilson and Shannon Rowbury were second and third in their respective events, giving the USA a record haul of medals over disciplines 800m and up.
The men’s 1500m was the most anticipated match-up leading into the final day’s competition, as Centrowitz squared off against Olympic medalist Nick Willis of New Zealand and reigning world indoor champion Ayanleh Souleiman of Djibouti. Jockeying for position, all contenders were in the mix through the opening kilometer. Souleiman seemed to have the advantage, while Ethiopians Aman Wote and Dawit Wolde threw their hats into the ring staying towards the front.
Out of nowhere, Willis stepped on the gas and transitioned to a full-out sprint with 400 meters to go. The 32-year-old Kiwi took much of the field by surprise.
“My wife [Sierra] and I said we do not, even if I finish third, we do not want the fastest part my race to be the last 100m. So often in my career I’ve saved it wondering ‘what if.’ Today there wasn’t going to be a what if. It was going to be put it out there and if they pass me in the last 50 so be it,” said Willis.
Over the bell lap, the Oregon Convention Center’s volume reached record level, as 7,191 strong stood and willed Centrowitz –the Nike Oregon Project athlete who lives a mere 15 minutes away– to the front. Rounding the final bend Centrowitz tracked down Willis and threw himself to the front. He’d cross the line first in 3:44.22, steps ahead of the Czech Republic’s Jakub Holusa, who nipped Willis at the line 3:44.30 to 3:44.37.
“I knew it was going to be physical, but compared to the prelim I had two days ago, I wanted to put myself in a better position,” Centrowitz said after becoming the first American man ever to win 1500m gold in meet history. “I figured with two or three laps to go no one goes by me [on the outside]… It kind of replayed like Millrose Games. You know, I just said to myself ‘you’ve been in this position before, stay relaxed, Nick’s going pretty hard, and just use the crowd to my advantage that last lap.'”
Completing the indoor season undefeated, Centrowitz reflected on the signature battle between him and Willis and what it means to claim another global medal, especially on home soil.
“I just thought of how bad I really wanted it. Didn’t want to disappoint everyone here, all of the American fans and my family and friends. It was awesome,” he said. “I’m just going to [let this] sink in, add this to my collection, and now I have one of every color [gold at world indoors, silver and bronze at world outdoors]. Now it’s just time to go get an Olympic medal.”
Closing very hard in the last lap was American teammate Robby Andrews, who wound up fourth in 3:44.77. Souleiman, the reigning champion, wound up last in the race in 3:53.69. He was wheeled through the mixed zone on a stretcher.
“Dang, I wish I had been closer to the front,” said a smiling Andrews. “I think if I had been a little closer, yeah [I’d be in medal contention]. I don’t know. Never mind.”
He added: “I’m so happy for [Matthew]. I mean, you want to see USA on the top of the podium for sure. He’s clearly the best in the world right now, and I’m really happy for him. We’re one team right now, in a couple months it’s a different story. But right now I’m really happy for him.”
TEEN KEJELCHA SECURES FIRST WORLD GOLD AS HILL SPRINTS FOR 3000M SILVER
From start to finish, the men’s 3000m was a chess match, or better yet an aggressive cat and mouse battle. In particular, the final two kilometers were a battle royal.
With frantic frequency, surges where thrown like sucker punches by the might of East Africa: Isiah Koech led, then Augustine Choge, and Caleb Ndiku responded with a burst of energy, going from the tail end of the pack to the head.
Yet it was the youngest athlete in the field, Ethiopia’s Yomif Kejelcha, throwing down the gauntlet with 400 meters to go. Proving himself a potent racer last outdoor season, Kejelcha ran with the confidence of a seasoned veteran; he’d swiftly take the lead and not cease control.
Down the stretch, Kejelcha was out in front by three steps and crossed the line first in 7:57.21. Yet all eyes were on the hard-charging American Ryan Hill, who went from fifth at the bell lap to the silver medal, passing Kenya’s Choge in the final meters. Hill’s final time was 7:57.39. Had the race been ten meters longer, he could have nabbed gold.
“Before this race, my best world finish was seven, so to come back with a second, it’s really hard to complain about,” said Hill, who before the meet thought a top-five performance would be acceptable.
Kejelcha, whose official age is only 18, gave Ethiopia the first of two gold medals on the day. “I didn’t know I could do this well indoors. I was just following my rivals throughout the race. And I’m very happy I could win.”
In the mixed zone, Hill second-guessed himself for not going to his sprint earlier. He thought coach Jerry Schumacher would chastise him for the mistake.
“I knew exactly what was happening, I just wasn’t good enough to –mentally good enough or physically good enough– to cover all those moves. I had to settle for sitting back,” he said. “I never stepped out of lane one so I had plenty of kick left. And that’s basically how I got second, three of those four guys died… It probably shows that I had the wheels to win, just need a little more confidence if I get in that situation again.”
Giving commentary in the NBC Sports Network television booth, double Olympic gold medalist Mo Farah was impressed by Hill’s race.
“Congratulations to Hill, that really is a great race for him to get second,” Farah said, shaking his head with conviction. Behind Hill, Choge took home the bronze in 7:57.43. American Paul Chelimo was seventh in 8:00.76.
IN SECOND INDOOR RACE EVER, NIYONSABA HOLDS OFF AMERICAN WILSON FOR 800M CROWN
Yesterday, Francine Niyonsaba ran the first indoor 800m race of her career. Today, in her second, she was crowned world indoor champion.
American Ajee’ Wilson went to the front in her usual style and split 200 meters in 29.23 seconds with towering Kenyan Margaret Wambui hot on her heels. Wambui, whose stride is twice the length of Wilson’s, moved up to the pole to split 400m in 60.56.
A second later, though, Niyonsaba took control with a bold and decisive move that could have come back to bite her in the final circuit. Inexperienced on the indoor oval, the 22-year-old from Burundi had not faced the burning sensation that the indoor oval tends to give half milers.
Niyonsaba began to slow her tempo ever so slightly on the backstretch and out of the final turn, just as Wilson began her sprint for home. Wilson got by Wambui for second place, though simply ran out of real estate tracking down Niyonsaba. In a world leading 2:00.01, the gold went to Niyonsaba.
“I have a good coach, I have a good team. Much motivated, that is why I won,” said Niyonsaba, who gave Burundi their second 800m medal of the meet (Antoine Gakeme won silver in the men’s 800m on Saturday). “I think Burundian people remember this night.”
Wilson was pleased with second place, though wanted to add another gold to America’s medal tally.
“I wasn’t prepared for Francine to come up when she did, I just didn’t react fast enough and I kind of waited too late to make my charge. Silver is what I get for that,” she said. “I’m really happy about that. I find myself in a weird position: in 2013 outdoors just making the final I was happy to be there. And then now silver is great, but I wish I would have been able to walk away with gold.”
DIBABA RUNS AWAY WITH 3000M GOLD; ROWBURY CHARGES LATE FOR BRONZE
As many fans expected, Ethiopian starlet Genzebe Dibaba ran away with the women’s 3000m, clocking a time of 8:47.43 to win the third world indoor title of her career. Aware of her competition, Dibaba made a calculated move to surge from last to first midway through the race, giving herself a sizable lead.
“I’m very happy with this performance. I ran a lot of it alone, I was feeling very strong,” said Dibaba. “I am a little disappointed that I was unable to double with the 1500 meters because the 3000 meters ended up being a straight final, and I would have liked to have tried both. I did run alone after the first kilometer, and it was easy and I felt very comfortable and I’m very happy.”
Behind Dibaba, the race for second would be up for grabs. Fellow Ethiopian Meseret Defar battled with American Shannon Rowbury and Dutchwoman Maureen Koster. Despite closing hard within the last circuit, it was Defar –in her first major championships since giving birth to daughter Gabriella– holding off Rowbury for silver, 8:54.26 to 8:55.55.
“It’s been since 2009 that I’ve gotten a medal. I’ve had some good performances, most recently setting the American record in Monaco last year. Championships don’t come around very often, and to be able to bring home a medal at home was something I was really striving for, and I’m proud I accomplished it,” said Rowbury, who also lives in Portland.
Knowing the results of the earlier competition gave Rowbury an extra dose of adrenaline needed to power through the final laps.
“I’ve become so used to competing far away for a foreign crowd, so this is the first time in my career that I’ve gotten to compete at home [for a world title]. The crowd support and fan support was palpable, and leading up to this race, ever since the first day of the championships America’s been bringing home medals,” she said. “Right before I came out here I watched the men’s 3000m and we got silver, the women’s 800 we got silver, and I knew my teammate was up next so I wanted to keep that momentum going. I felt very confident that I could be on the podium and bring home a medal for the US.”
Rowbury’s teammate, Abbey D’Agostino, closed hard to finish fifth in her first IAAF World Indoor Championships in 8:58.40.
On home soil, America topped the medal count with a championships record 23 medals, 13 of them gold (also a record). Distance events counted for six of the total medals, with two gold, two silver, and two bronze.
The four day total attendance for these championships was 39,283. The next IAAF World Indoor Championships will be held in Birmingham, England, in 2018.
PHOTO: Matthew Centrowitz after becoming the first American man to win the 1500m at the IAAF World Indoor Championships (photo by Chris Lotsbom for Race Results Weekly)