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Matthew Centrowitz eyes American record after bounce-back year

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Olympic 1500m champion Matthew Centrowitz sat down for a Q&A last month at the end of a season in which he reclaimed the U.S. title (his fifth career) and grabbed his first Diamond League win. Centrowitz, after a 2017 plagued by health setbacks, is looking forward to chasing the American record in the 1500m, a repeat Olympic title in Tokyo and, possibly, moving up in distance …

OlympicTalk: Your overall thoughts on the year. A lot was made last year of the health setbacks. You came back, won the U.S. title, got your first Diamond League win. How do you feel?

Centrowitz: It’s definitely been an up-and-down year, to say the least. Kind of a slow start, just from me having the big setback I had in November/December [coming back too early from an early August hamstring strain] then not running an indoor season [after returning to training in January]. I can only remember one time where I hadn’t run an indoor season in the past decade. The second half went really well starting with the USA Championships. That was the first goal I had for the year, going back and reclaiming the title. Once I did that, the pressure was kind of off and I really wanted to mix it up with some of these guys in these Diamond League races. I knew I probably wasn’t in shape to run an American record, or even a PR, but I was pleasantly surprised to run 3:31 [in Monaco], which is my third-fastest time.

OlympicTalk: What’s your best race since Rio?

Centrowitz: I would probably say Oxy 2017 (video here). I was pretty excited about that race, ran 3:33 domestically. I haven’t really run that fast in the U.S. And obviously getting a chance to compete against Mo [Farah], one of my teammates, and a great caliber of field. I was excited to come out with the win.

OlympicTalk: How big is the American 1500m record for you? [Bernard Lagat’s 3:29.30, 1.1 seconds faster than Centrowitz’s PR from 2015] Is it bigger than repeating as Olympic champion?

Centrowitz: It’s probably No. 2 behind repeating Olympic gold, but since the Olympics aren’t for two years, it’s, right now, in my rear-view mirror. Especially after this year, running 3:31 with the year I’ve had, I think I can probably knock a half-second off the American record. Somewhere between 3:28-3:29 flat.

Luckily, the men’s 1500m is so deep these days that there’s at least one or two races a year that go around that fast. If I just get back into shape that I know I’m capable of being in, stay healthy, mix it up with those guys, who knows how fast I’m capable of going.

OlympicTalk: When did the American record first seem possible to you?

Centrowitz: Around 2014, 2015. Once I had my PR down to 3:30. I’m still third-fastest on the list [behind Lagat and Sydney Maree]. Where do you go but No. 1? No one’s like, “I want to be No. 2.”

OlympicTalk: Do you think you need the American record to be considered by a lot of people as the greatest American miler ever, or do you think you’ve done enough?

Centrowitz: That’s up to the people to decide, but in my eyes, I’m biased. I don’t think I need to. For sure, if I do get it, it will be undisputed. In my eyes, I don’t think I would need that to be considered the best.

OlympicTalk: Do you see yourself moving up in distance after 2020 or 2024?

Centrowitz: I don’t know. Certainly, I thought I’d be in the 5K by now for sure. I was primarily a two-miler in high school, so to drop back down to the mile in college was definitely a surprise to me and to continue to have this kind of success. I train primarily like a 3K/5K guy anyways, so definitely running 5Ks in the near future [starting with the USATF 5K Championships in New York’s Central Park on Nov. 3]. See what kinds of times I put up.

The day I don’t think I can PR anymore in the 1500m, and the day I stop medaling and feel like I’m in medal contention is the day I’ll probably move up.

OlympicTalk: What do you think about Jakob Ingebrigtsen? [The Norwegian born in 2000 is the youngest sub-4-minute miler in history and swept the 1500m and 5000m at the European Championships in August.]

Centrowitz: He’s continued to surprise me throughout the whole year. At Stanford [the Payton Jordan Invitational 1500m won by Ingebrigtsen in May], I wasn’t too surprised with his time, but I was surprised about how well he put away the field. Not just me, but Paul Chelimo is no slouch. My teammates Eric [Jenkins] and Craig [Engels] are very good as well. I was kind of surprised by how easy he put us away the last 200m. From there, he continued to get better and better.

He’s a world-record holder in his age group. Any kind of world record in itself is an amazing feat, so what we’re witnessing is greatness. How well he’s run and continued throughout the year, he’s progressing with each week and each race. I had a chance to see him in St. Moritz, Switzerland, where I was training. And some of his brothers. The kid obviously works tremendously hard, and he’s mentioned it interviews, too, that he’s been training like a professional for years. So I guess that doesn’t come to me as quite a surprise since he’s had older brothers get him into the sport. But at the end of the day, nonetheless, he’s a 17-year-old kid running and beating the world’s best. So it is surprising, but also the way he works, how hard he works, I’m sure he’s not quite as surprised and his brothers aren’t surprised as well.

OlympicTalk: You played an April Fool’s joke in 2105 that you were moving up to the marathon. If you had to say right now, will you ever run a marathon?

Centrowitz: Probably not, if I had to make a guess. But you never know. I’m not opposed to it. I have teammates now doing it, and the training that they say it takes for it, you’re just constantly tired. I want to end this sport on a positive note. I want to continue running when I’m retired. Marathon training might put me in that mode where I’m not really enjoying the training or want to run another step when I’m done.

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Diamond League slate ends in Doha with record holders; TV, stream info

Mondo Duplantis
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The Diamond League season ends on Friday in the place where it was supposed to start — Doha.

Like many sports, track and field’s calendar was put in disarray by the coronavirus pandemic. The Doha meet, originally scheduled for April 17 to open an Olympic season, was postponed five months while other stops were canceled altogether.

Now, Doha caps an unlikely season that still produced stirring performances. NBCSN coverage starts at 12 p.m. ET. NBC Sports Gold also streams live for subscribers.

The headliner is Swedish pole vaulter Mondo Duplantis, a leading contender for Male Athlete of the Year. Duplantis, who twice bettered the world record in February at indoor meets, last week produced the highest outdoor clearance in history, too, breaking a 26-year-old Sergey Bubka record.

Duplantis can mimic Bubka on Friday by attempting to raise his world record another centimeter — to 6.19 meters, or more than 20 feet, 3 inches.

The deepest track event in Doha is the finale, the women’s 3000m, featuring 3000m steeplechase world-record holder Beatrice Chepkoech, 5000m world champion Hellen Obiri and rising 1500m runner Gudaf Tsegay.

Here are the Doha entry lists. Here’s the schedule of events (all times Eastern):

11:18 a.m. ET — Men’s Pole Vault
11:33 — Men’s 200m
12:03 p.m. — Men’s 400m
12:08 — Women’s Long Jump
12:12 — Women’s 100m Hurdles
12:21 — Men’s 1500m
12:34 — Men’s 110m Hurdles
12:43 — Women’s 800m
12:56 — Women’s 100m
1:07 — Men’s 800m
1:18 — Women’s 3000m

Here are three events to watch (statistics via Tilastopaja.org):

Men’s Pole Vault — 11:18 a.m.
Duplantis looks to complete a perfect 2020 against his two primary rivals — reigning world champion and American Sam Kendricks (who went undefeated in 2017) and 2012 Olympic champion and former world-record holder Renaud Lavillenie of France. Kendricks was the last man to beat Duplantis, at those 2019 World Championships, and is the only man to clear a height within nine inches of Duplantis’ best this outdoor season.

Women’s 100m — 12:56 p.m.
Olympic champion Elaine Thompson-Herah looks poised to finish the year as the world’s fastest woman after clocking 10.85 seconds in Rome last week, her fastest time outside of Jamaica in more than three years. That’s one hundredth faster than countrywoman Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce‘s best time of 2020. Thompson-Herah was fifth and fourth at the last two world championships after sweeping the Rio Olympic sprints. Like in Rome, her primary challengers in Doha are Ivorian Marie-Josée Ta Lou and 2018 U.S. champion Aleia Hobbs.

Women’s 3000m — 1:18 p.m.
A meeting of titans in a non-Olympic event. Chepkoech is the fastest steeplechaser in history by eight seconds. Obiri is the fastest Kenyan in history in the 3000m and the 5000m. Tsegay, just 23, chopped 3.26 seconds off her 1500m personal best in 2019, taking bronze at the world championships to become the second-fastest Ethiopian in history in that event. In all, the field includes five medalists from the 2019 Worlds across four different events.

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Iris Cummings, last living 1936 U.S. Olympian, has flown ever since Berlin

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Iris Cummings is one of the last living members of a historically significant, global group: athletes who competed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She is the only U.S. Olympian from those Games believed to still be alive.

Cummings, a 99-year-old who still swims regularly, was one of 46 U.S. women (along with 313 U.S. men) who competed at the Berlin Olympics, best known for Jesse Owens triumphing in the face of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Since swimmer Adolph Kiefer‘s death in May 2017, the breaststroker Cummings and canoeist John Lysak were the last living 1936 U.S. Olympians. Olympic historians recently learned that Lysak died in January at 105 years old (which Lysak’s family confirmed this week). Canadian Paul Tchir of the OlyMADMen keeps a list of the oldest living Olympians here.

Lysak, born in New Jersey, turned 4 years old when his mom died in 1918 due to the flu pandemic. He was orphaned by his father, overwhelmed with taking care of a farm and four children.

Lysak got a bike to handle a paper route as a boy. That allowed him to sneak down to the Hudson River and row with homemade boats with his younger brother, Steven, who became a 1948 Olympic gold and silver medalist.

“I couldn’t swim, but I floated with a log,” Lysak told NBC Sports for the 2016 film “More than Gold,” about Owens and the 1936 Olympics. “I grew up paddling.”

He specialized at the Yonkers Canoe Club, made the Olympic team and finished seventh in a 10km doubles event with James O’Rourke in Berlin. Lysak later became a Marine and served during World War II.

Lysak spent his last years in California, where Cummings learned to swim off the Pacific beaches as a girl around the time of the Great Depression.

Cummings credited an ability to become an Olympian and one of the first women to fly U.S. military aircraft to her parents, who met while serving in France during World War I. Her father was a medic and sports doctor. Her mother a member of the American Red Cross canteen service.

She said her father, an all-around athlete, gave up a chance to try out for the first modern Olympics in 1896 to attend Tufts University School of Medicine.

“My mother provided the intellectual and academic inspiration from her rare perspective as a woman college graduate and a high school language teacher when very few women ever went to college,” Cummings told NBC Sports in an interview for “More than Gold.”

In 1928, Cummings’ dad took her to her the National Air Races at what is now Los Angeles International Airport.

“I watched Charles Lindbergh at the peak of his fame fly in the air show,” she said.

In 1932, at age 11, Cummings was introduced to the Olympics in person. Her dad was a track and field official at those Los Angeles Games.

Iris Cummings
Iris Cummings (center) competed in the 200m breaststroke at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. (Courtesy Iris Cummings)

All of Cummings’ swimming up to age 13 came in the ocean due to a lack of pools. But from 1934 to ’36, she developed into an Olympian in the breaststroke. In 1936, a 15-year-old Cummings was offered a paid-for, round-trip, cross-country train ticket to swim at a national championships in Long Island, N.Y.

“My mother had to borrow money to buy her railroad ticket to accompany me,” she said.

In a telegraph after nationals, Cummings was told by a California club coach to stay back East for five weeks before Olympic Trials (also on Long Island) because they had no money to send her back and forth again.

“So my mother figured out how we could stay with my grandmother in Philadelphia with almost no place to swim,” Cummings said. They found a country club pool, where she swam after hours while a janitor cleaned.

Cummings placed third in the 200m breast at trials to make the team as its youngest member in an individual event. (Today, only the top two at trials per individual event make the Olympics.)

“They stated, ‘You have made the team, but we don’t have enough money to send all of you,'” Cummings said. “‘The S.S. Manhattan sails in five days. Get out and raise as much money as you can from your hometown.’ My mother and I telegraphed our local newspaper, and a small amount was sent in from Redondo Beach.”

Olympic team members took a 10-day trip on the ship to Germany. Swimmers had one 20-foot-by-20-foot pool in which to train while at sea.

“They pumped the saltwater into it, and it sloshed around as the ship rolled,” Cummings said in an LA84 Foundation interview.

After arriving in Hamburg, U.S. athletes took a boat train that had swastikas on it out of the port.

“Most of us were quite aware of the evolving difficulties or however you want to classify the rise of Nazism in Germany,” said Cummings, adding that U.S. swim coach Charlotte Epstein previously boycotted attending the Olympics. “We’d heard the same rumors [about a U.S. boycott]. We were all wondering if the Olympic committee was going to take action before the boat sailed. That had come up in most everyone’s minds.”

At the Opening Ceremony, Cummings was bored by speeches and instead said she took pictures of the Hindenburg flying above. She had no fear about being there.

“The concerns were from nations that had proximity to the situation like a Belgium, or Holland or Austria,” she said. “We’ve got this passport, I know Margie [Marjorie Gestring, a gold-medal diver at age 13] and I looked at this and said, we’ve got this special passport. They can’t touch us.”

Most of Owens’ events took place before Cummings was eliminated in the first round of the 200m breast. She nonetheless took advantage of passes for athletes to watch track and field at the Olympic Stadium. She saw all of Owens’ races, sitting in an athlete section about 15 or 20 rows above Hitler’s box.

“Whenever [Hitler] came in, we could see him down there,” she said. “He wasn’t very far away.”

Iris Cummings
(Courtesy Iris Cummings)

Eight decades later, Cummings still remembered the crowd cheering for Owens after his victories.

“The whole stadium was rooting for Jesse,” she said.

Soon after the team returned to the U.S., Cummings began attending the University of Southern California. She enrolled in a pilot training program in 1939, earned her license the next year and worked as a flight instructor during the war. Then she became a pilot for the AAF Ferry Command in the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, later included in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs).

“None of us thought there were going to be Olympics in ’40,” she predicted, correctly. Not in 1944, either.

She estimated that she’s flown more than 50 types of airplanes.

“There were only 21 of us [women] who ever flew the P-38,” she said, “and there were only four of us who ever flew the P-61 Black Widow.”

After the war, marriage to Howard Critchell and childbirths, Cummings continued to race planes. She developed curricula for the Federal Aviation Administration, founded an aeronautics program at Harvey Mudd College and was inducted into the National Flight Instructors Hall of Fame, among many honors.

“I’ve been flying 76 years, and it’s a privilege to just be around,” she said shortly before she stopped piloting in 2016.

Cummings still flies as a passenger with a former student.

“It’s a treat to be up there with the elements and appreciate it all,” she said. “It’s you and the air movement and the wind and what you can do with your airplane.”

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