Directly after winning the 1,500 meters at the U.S. Olympic trials in June, Cole Hocker acknowledged that he didn’t expect to be in this position a year ago. And what makes it all the more impressive: He beat reigning Olympic champion Matthew Centrowitz.
“I would be lying to you if I said I wouldn’t be shocked,” Hocker said after the race at Hayward Field in Eugene.
The past year has been a revelation of sorts for Hocker, who is headed to Tokyo for his first Olympics at the end of the month. More than a year ago, Hocker arrived at Oregon as an accomplished runner out of Cathedral High School in Indiana, having won the 2018 Foot Locker Nationals and two high school state championships, in the 800 and 1,600, as a senior.
But during his freshman season at Oregon, he wasn’t an immediate star like some other Ducks greats. He recorded the 15th best mile time in UO history, but also placed a mere 69th in the 5,000 at the NCAA Indoor National Championships. During training, he often trailed behind more experienced teammates like Charlie Hunter and James West.
“I knew I couldn’t jump into every huge workout that they were doing,” Hocker said.
Hocker’s second season, however, has been a different story. At the NCAA Indoor Championships in March, Hocker won both the mile and the 3,000, becoming the first to complete the feat since 2013. In June, he added the 1,500 outdoor national championship to his list of titles.
After running a personal record in the 800 early in the season, Hocker remembers, he heard doubts that he was peaking too early. At that time, he was putting up some of the best times of his career, even though he was focusing strictly on strength training.
“That kind of stuff really built my confidence because I knew that if I could run that off of what (training) I’d been doing, it would be a good season,” Hocker said.
The improvement he made from season one to two were dramatic. Consider that, in his freshman season, he ran a personal-best 7 minutes, 57.26 seconds in the 3,000. At the indoor championships, he clocked 7:46.15. Or that as a freshman he ran a 3:58.20 mile, compared with his 3:53.71 mark during his national championship-winning race.
What was the difference? Hocker attributes it to his training partners.
“I matured a little bit and I just hung in with them every single workout, that’s the main thing, just having those guys to train with,” Hocker said.
Hocker carried his momentum into the trials. In the 1,500 final, he was boxed in the first lane for a majority of the race before dashing into a full sprint on the last lap. He chased down Centrowitz and held his index finger to his lips as he crossed the finish line, shushing the proverbial doubters.
“This whole year, I felt like I was proving myself to the world, but also just proving my talents to myself,” Hocker said.
There was, however, a slight caveat following his trials win. Hocker still didn’t have the Olympic standard time to qualify for Tokyo, meaning he needed to move within the top 45 in the world rankings to earn a spot in the Olympics.
After the race, Hocker was nearly certain that he’d make it, but it wasn’t guaranteed. Soon after, though, he got a call vindicating his selection.
“It was kind of anti-climatic just because I’d believed that I was already on the team,” Hocker said. “But it was really nice to get that confirmation.”
Although official competition has halted in the last month, Hocker has stayed busy.
After the NCAA’s NIL ruling hit at the beginning of July, Hocker began taking a share of profits from a T-shirt sold in his home state: a cartoon image of him quieting the haters in front of an American flag. Then a few days ago, he was nominated for The Bowerman, one of collegiate track’s most prestigious awards.
Hocker is still weighing his options and talking to those around him to decide whether he will turn professional or come back to Oregon for his junior season. For now, he’s continuing to train for what will be an unusual Olympic setting.
“I haven’t been to an Olympics and so it’s all new,” Hocker said. “It’s not like I’ve been to an Olympic village and seen what it’s like in full effect. I’m just rolling with whatever it is.”
Part of that entails strict COVID-19 protocols as there has been uncertainty surrounding the safety of the games over the last week. Hocker is required to take a COVID-19 test 48 and 72 hours before flying to Tokyo. Hocker said he’s not vaccinated, but is confident that he will stay healthy.
It has already been a breakout year for Hocker, and he has another chance to cement his rise on the world stage. After beating Centrowitz, a medal seems feasible. His first goal, he says, is making the final.
“That’s a big goal,” Hocker said. “Once I’m in the final, then I think I have just as good a shot as anyone.”