Van Cortlandt Park is the home to thousands of athletes who use its baseball fields, rugby pitches and cross-country trails. It hosts annual track meets that draw competitors from across the country to its famous shaded pathways.
But this month, a handful of athletes traveled even farther to train in one of the city’s largest parks, Van Cortlandt Park, under Manhattan College’s own Matt Centrowitz, the director of the school’s cross-country and track and field programs.
Those athletes are a group of Chinese Olympic-level runners, and their coaches, who flew halfway around the globe to train with Centrowitz before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics that begin in July.
Centrowitz grew up in the Bronx and ran in Van Cortlandt Park as a freshman at Power Memorial Academy before becoming an Olympic runner himself.
Manhattan College, he said, was a key part of his running career as he teamed up with their runners while still in high school.
“They were the top runners in the nation,” Centrowitz said. “I was very comfortable up here, and Manhattan College was very welcoming. So I tagged along and learned how to think bigger and see college workouts. I started thinking like a college kid before I got to college.”
Some might say he started running like a college kid, too. He got his coach’s attention by running a mile in 4 minutes, 30 seconds.
For reference, Runner’s World magazine estimates the average man runs a mile in just over 9 minutes.
The coach urged Centrowitz to train harder, push his time down to 4:20, then 4:10, and then, finally, ran the mile in just 4:02.
Centrowitz was the fastest high school runner in the country at the time, and still holds the record for the fastest mile runner in the state. Centrowitz couldn’t stop there, spending a year at Manhattan College before transferring out to the University of Oregon.
“I realized I already was used to this environment, I was looking for a change, a bigger school,” he said. “I trained my whole life at Van Cortlandt Park. I enjoyed my experience. But I wanted to try something different, see what it was like.”
He joined a team of runners who were hitting under four-minute miles, and started training for the Olympics in earnest. In Summer 1976 — two years before he would graduate from college — Centrowitz traveled to Vancouver to take part in the 1500-meter run at the Summer Olympics.
“I didn’t do as well as I would have liked in the Olympics, so I trained harder and moved up to 5,000 meters,” Centrowitz said. “I was undefeated in ’79 and ’80 in the 5,000, and I won the Olympic trials.”
But Centrowitz ended up not competing that year. Moscow was hosting the Summer Olympics in 1980, and the United States — and 65 other counties — chose to boycott because of the Soviet Union’s military presence in Afghanistan. Instead, Centrowitz and the other American athletes were awarded congressional gold medals.
That didn’t stop his career, though, and Centrowitz took home the gold in the 5000-meter race at three consecutive USA Outdoor Championships.
“I set the American record running it in 13:12,” Centrowitz said. “Which is 4:15 per mile for 3.1 miles, so you can get an idea how hard that is.”
He went on to train runners at the Reebok Enclave — including a handful of Olympians — and at St. John’s College. In the late ‘90s, he found himself at American University in Washington, rebooting the school’s defunct track program.
And then, in 2018, Centrowitz had returned home to Manhattan College. Yet, despite his resume, the coach never expected Olympic hopefuls from all over the world would seek him out to train.
“No,” Centrowitz said. “Especially with China. That’s very unusual.”
He has been tasked with training their middle-distance runners, who will take part in the 800-meter and 1500-meter races.
“I think the best training climate for middle distance and distance runners is here,” Centrowitz said. “So that’s what we’re doing, and that’s why they selected me and this area.”
Representatives came to scope out the college and the training grounds ahead of time, he said, to make sure everything was as he said it was.
It wasn’t all so smooth, however. There were snafus getting visas in order, as relations between the United States and China are almost always in some kind of flux. The runners arrived this month, but were set to get to the Bronx months before, Centrowitz said. The timeline means that instead of training for the Olympics, he’s trying to send back new philosophies in running and training.
“They have to go back and forth a little bit, they’re not even sure of the big picture,” the coach said. “So we’re just taking it one month at a time.”
He’s still going to teach them as much as possible, showing off the whole program not only to the runners, but to their coaches who joined them to observe the training.
“I’m trying to give them the same training I give my Manhattan College athletes,” Centrowitz said. “Nothing out of the ordinary. Just a lot of work. A lot of hard work.”