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Thrilling 1,500-meter races close out U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials

Former Oregon Duck Matthew Centrowitz is headed to his second Olympics after a 3:34.09 victory was sealed with a 53-second last lap to win the men’s 1,500-meter final to close out the 2016 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials.

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EUGENE, Ore. — Less than half a second separated the third and fourth place finishers in the men’s and women’s 1,500-meter final at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trails, which resulted in two new U.S. Olympians in Ben Blankenship and Brenda Martinez.

Former Oregon Duck Matthew Centrowitz is headed to his second Olympics after a 3:34.09 victory was sealed with a 53-second last lap to win the men’s 1,500-meter final to close out the 2016 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials on Sunday afternoon. Robby Andrews of New Jersey took second place in 3:34.88, while Blankenship battled against 2012 Olympic silver medalist Leo Manzano for the last berth to Rio de Janeiro.

At the 2015 U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Championships, Blankenship was out-leaned at the finish line by Manzano by .02 seconds. Coming down the final 100 meters, it was “deja vu,” but this time with a better ending for Blankenship. Blankenship’s 3:36.18 was just .44 seconds better than Manzano, who misses his first U.S. national team since 2005.

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“Someone once told me that you need to have three gears over the last 200 meters: one to go, another to go and one to maintain,” Blankenship says. “I knew that it was going to be a battle until the final few meters and I was able to come up with it this time.”

Jenny Simpson, a world championship medalist in 2011 and ’13, won the women’s race in 4:04.74 over American record holder Shannon Rowbury. The two have been the most dominant American middle distance runners in recent years, so it was no surprise to see them claim the first two spots.

A dive at the finish line by Brenda Martinez made up for the disappointment she endured just six days earlier as a victim of Alysia Montano’s fall in the 800 meters. Martinez finished seventh in the 800 and added three more rounds of the 1,500 to her weekend in order to keep her Olympic hopes alive.

Here are three quick takeaways from the men’s and women’s 1,500:

Stronger women’s 1,500-meter team than 2012

Shannon Rowbury and Jenny Simpson held respective personal bests of 4:00.33 and 3:59.90 before the 2012 Olympics. Rowbury’s 3:56.29 and Simpson’s 3:57.22 are the fastest and third-fastest times by an American woman all time. Both have the potential to reach the Olympic final and possibly medal.

Rowbury finished sixth in the Olympic final in London, which featured nine women who have tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. She expressed a glimmer of hope for a cleaner Olympics.

Watch: 41-year-old Lagat wins 5,000 meters at Olympic Trials

“I’m always hopeful for our sport that it can be a cleaner one,” Rowbury. “I thought London was going to be cleaner, and unfortunately that wasn’t the case. I’m really grateful for the new leadership of the IAAF that they are making the effort to clean up our sport. The past is what it is and it can’t be changed. I can only hope and pray for the future that it’s a sport we can be proud of.”

Morgan Uceny was the third woman on the 2012 Olympic team, but during the final race in London she fell and dropped out of the race. Martinez’s personal best of 4:00.94 is not far from Uceny’s 4:00.06 from 2011, so she could also make the final.

Andrews overcomes hardships after 2012 to make Olympic team

Andrews missed the 2012 Olympic team by .77 seconds as he finished fifth as a 21-year-old. In 2013, he struggled with illnesses and injuries as he ran poorly throughout the season. After a brief stint under coach Frank Gagliano in New York, Andrews returned home to New Jersey and teamed up with his college coach, Jason Vigilante.

Vigilante and Andrews have spent the last few years developing a finishing kick that will take some by surprise in Rio de Janeiro.

• ​Meet the athletes on the 2016 U.S. Olympic track and field team

“It took me a while to get over—and that was really hard,” Andrews says. “It hasn’t been a smooth ride. I tried a few different things but the foundation has always been stronger. So many things had to go right to get here. A lot of things didn’t go right for a while and it’s incredible to be here right now.”

Andrews made his first U.S. national team at last summer’s world championships in the 1,500 and finished 11th in the 1,500 final in Beijing.

Centrowitz looks to improve upon fourth in London

Centrowitz says he no longer thinks about finishing fourth at the 2012 Olympics in London, and has his sights set on taking down the east African likes of Asbel Kiprop, the third fastest man of alltime in the 1,500.

Centrowitz has been right with Kiprop over the years as Centrowitz took bronze in the 1,500 in 2011, and then silver in ’13. Centrowitz struggled in last year’s final as he finished eighth in 3:36.13 at the world championships in Beijing.