After a four hour delay due to extreme temperatures from a rare Pacific Northwest heat wave, the fans at Hayward Field were rewarded for their patience with a truly thrilling finish to the men’s 1,500 meter final on June 28th. University of Oregon sophomore Cole Hocker maneuvered his way through traffic in the final 200 meters of the race to out-kick reigning Olympic champion and fellow Ducks great Matthew Centrowitz for the victory and his first Olympic team berth.
Although the newly-renovated stadium was nowhere near full capacity due to COVID precautions, Hocker still raised his finger to his lips and hushed the roaring fans. It was a motion toward the doubters who questioned whether a 20-year-old college athlete would be able to hold his own against professionals. It was aimed at those who thought he’d burn out by the time the trials came up due to a long season. It was to those who critique his form.
“I wanted to silence everyone who thought otherwise,” Hocker says.
Hocker closed his final lap in 52.5 seconds to reel in Centrowitz. He won in a personal best of 3:35.28, which was just shy of the auto-qualifying mark for the Tokyo Olympics but he was able to make it to the Games based on his world ranking.
At the Summer Games, where Hocker’s first race will be the preliminary round of the 1,500 meters on Aug. 3, he will be the youngest American man contesting the event in 53 years. In the past decade, Americans have fared well at the Olympics, with Leo Manzano winning silver in 2012—the country’s first since Jim Ryun in 1968—and then Centrowitz ending a 108-year gold drought with a tactical masterclass in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Although Centrowitz returns to defend his title, medal hopes have also been passed onto Hocker.
“There’s some pressure for sure,” Hocker admits. “There’s pressure from myself on myself. Now there’s that pressure that comes with representing the United States since there’s only three of us. I did win the trials so there might be a little bit of a higher expectation but I think doing my best should be enough.”
Hocker has skyrocketed as one of the U.S.’s best middle-distance runners, especially within the past year. A myriad of factors could be at play. Track and field is experiencing a technological boom, with history books and record lists being rewritten due to blazing times caused, in part, by major advances in footwear. As an athlete at Nike’s favorite university, Hocker has the best available weapons to test. New shoes coupled with an extra year of hard training afforded by the Olympic postponement and the talent that won Hocker three Indiana high school state championship titles surely account for some of the unknown variables in the equation for greatness.
His athletic pursuits started at Horizon Christian School in Indianapolis, where he joined the cross-country program as a third-grader. His father, Kyle, volunteered to serve as an assistant coach since he's a teacher in the area and then followed his career through middle school and high school. For him, the earliest sign of promise he observed came at the 2010 Cross Country Coaches Youth National Championship in Lexington, Kentucky, where a nine-year-old Cole, representing his Indy Gold club team, won his age division in 11:19.50 (6:04/mile pace) over the three-kilometer course.
“The program at his elementary school was excellent,” Kyle says. “It was speed-based training. They focused on short interval work and the coaches believed the body would adapt to unaccustomed stresses as long as it wasn’t too much. They just kept seeing how quick they could get him at different paces. He adapted to that really well.”
At Cathedral High School, his coach Jim Nohl applied the same training philosophy but fine-tuned with a more statistical approach since he was also the school’s math teacher. In addition to developing his signature closing speed, Cathedral was also where Cole started growing his long hair as a freshman, so the Sampson comparisons were inevitable as he started winning.
“In my junior year, I started going toward the front of races and taking it,” Cole remembers. “This sort of feels like the same thing. My freshman and sophomore year of high school, I wasn’t dominating or winning any race but junior and senior year I realized my potential. I saw myself at the front of races. Once you have that feeling a couple times, it just comes naturally after that.”
For Cole, angst and nerves in anticipation of big races has always been a consistent factor. Even rewatching some of his races from the past year, Cole still gets nervous despite knowing the outcome. For Kyle and the rest of his family in the stands, the emotional rollercoaster isn’t any easier since Cole enjoys sitting in fourth or fifth place before relying on his kick to get him across the finish line first.
Throughout the year, the Hocker family has hosted a few watch parties with friends for some of Cole’s biggest races. Due to the decision by the International Olympic Committee and Tokyo Olympic organizers to bar spectators from the Games, the Hockers will stay in Indianapolis to watch on television. And with the time difference in Japan, Kyle says they’re planning to just host a viewing party on the morning of Saturday, Aug. 7 for the final. Cole has given them the confidence that he’ll make it that far.
Hocker’s rivalry with Centrowitz grew from unsuspecting roots at a meet last December in California. In a low-key 5,000 meter race, Centrowitz outleaned Hocker at the finish line in 13:32.92 for the win by .03. The next generation of Ducks were literally on the heels of the current stars.
“I think my biggest thing was having Cooper Teare to train with,” Hocker says. “I saw him at the top of his game and the top of the NCAA. I knew if I hung with him in workouts then that’s an immediate path to the top of the NCAA. I was able to do just that.”
Teare was a highly touted recruit out of California and has progressed into a collegiate stud at Oregon, consistently posting results in the top 10 of the NCAA. After a coaching switch in 2018 led several teammates to transfer, Teare stayed put and emerged as one of the vocal leaders of the cross country and distance squad. When Hocker arrived in 2019, Teare got a training partner to push him toward the top of those NCAA lists.
When the Oregon’s campus closed last spring, Hocker returned home to Indianapolis and spent much of the summer training alone. This included solo time trials for the mile in 4:02 and 1:50 for 800 meters. He took a visit to Boulder, Colo., where he joined Teare on a long run on Magnolia Road at more than 8,000 feet above sea level and stayed with the rising senior when the pace quickened to 5:20 per mile. By the end of the run, it was just the two of them.
Teare and Hocker reunited in August and faced a decision on whether the Ducks wanted to focus their training toward the indoor track season or the delayed cross country championships that were set for March. As a team, they figured sticking to the track would offer them the best chance at winning an NCAA team title, so they spent the fall running small time trials in an empty Hayward Field under the watchful eye of coach Ben Thomas. During their 3,000 meter time trial, Teare ran 7:44, which would be good enough to crack the NCAA indoor all-time top-10 list and Hocker was just one second back.
“I had to do everything I could in that last lap to not get caught by him,” Teare recalls. “I thought, ‘OK. This kid is going to be good.’ Right off the bat indoors, it was the Cole show.”
On Feb. 12, the first shockwaves from the next generation were felt at an indoor meet in Fayetteville, Ark. Teare and Hocker both destroyed the previous NCAA indoor mile record of 3:52.01 from 17-time NCAA champion Edward Cheserek (another former Ducks star) by running 3:50.39 and 3:50.55, respectively. In his post-race Instagram post, Oregon walk-on Carter Christman tagged Centrowitz in the comments section, saying, “Your move.” This led to a fiery response by Centrowitz and sent the niche track and field running community into a frenzy over the perceived “beef” between the two runners—despite no comment by Hocker.
A month later on the same Arkansas track, Hocker took down Teare at the NCAA indoor championships in the 3,000m, his second national title of the day after winning the mile 90 minutes earlier.
Hocker entered the outdoor season full of momentum, but new challenges quickly presented themselves. At a home meet on May 7, fans had their first opportunity to see Hocker against Notre Dame’s Yared Nuguse, the 2019 NCAA outdoor champion in the 1,500 meters, who decided bypassed the indoor season to help the Irish cross country team finish second at the NCAA cross country championships. Nuguse kicked to win in 3:35.96 and Hocker set a personal best of 3:36.47 for third place behind teammate Teare.
According to Teare, Hocker was not happy with his performance, and he took it out on their 7 x 200-meter post-race workout. The first few reps started at 30 seconds and progressed to 26 seconds but Hocker decided to close it out with a low 23-second rep.
“I remember watching that and thinking, ‘What the f--- is he dropping?’” Teare recalls. “I ran like 24-mid and he had daylight on me. How?!”
Nuguse followed up his win by setting the NCAA record in the 1,500 meters with a solo 3:34.68 at the ACC championships. In the rematch five weeks later, Hocker would have the last word as he dethroned Nuguse and beat him by .25 seconds in a personal best of 3:35.35.
“[This season] really did go off without a hitch,” Hocker says. “That’s sort of what I was telling myself going into the trials, ‘You only get this opportunity that you stay healthy for this long and you stay racing at the top level.’ This was just an opportunity that doesn’t present itself typically in this sport.”
In the weeks leading up to the Olympics, Hocker passed on opportunities to race at Diamond League meets, including a prestigious meet in Monaco, where the men’s 1,500 typically produces the fastest times of the year. At the 2021 edition of the race, reigning world champion Timothy Cheruiyot ran a personal best of 3:28.28, the No. 7 mark of all time. Norwegian prodigy Jakob Ingebrigtsen ran 3:29.25, meaning Hocker may not even be the top 20-year-old in his event at the Olympics.
All the while, Hocker and some of his Oregon teammates stayed back to train at Hayward Field and make the most of Eugene’s trails. The system has worked up until this point, so why change it?
“Of course this is the biggest stage in the sport,” Hocker acknowledges. “In my head I’ve compared it to—and this might sound silly—I had never been to NCAA indoor championships. I went there and was able to win two titles. I had never been to an outdoor NCAA championship and I was able to win the 1,500. I had never been to the U.S. trials and I was able to win the race there. I’m sort of looking at it like that. I’ve never been to the Olympics but I’ve been able to execute on stages I’ve never been to before and I think this should be the same way.”
More Olympics Coverage: