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Avila battles way into 1,500 final

Eric Avila was in the midst of getting a massage when he answered the phone.

The former Southern Oregon University star had certainly earned the treatment.

"It's going great," he said in response to a greeting roughly an hour after running in the men's 1,500-meter semifinals at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials at Hayward Field in Eugene Friday.

Indeed.

Avila ran the fifth-fastest time and was one of 12 to advance to the final, which is at 5:20 p.m. Sunday and will be televised on NBC. His time in the fastest heat and in a driving rain was 3 minutes, 44.68 seconds.

After advancing from the original 30 entrants in Thursday's first round, Avila again showed he belonged, running with the leaders most of the way before tiring down the stretch.

There were two heats of 12, with the top five in each advancing along with the next two fastest times.

Avila, a three-time NAIA national champion as a senior in 2013-14 at SOU, was in the second heat. The first 11 times in that heat were faster than the winning time in the first heat.

Ben Blankenship won the second heat in 3:44.24. World indoor champion Matt Centrowitz was second in 3:44.29. Next were Robby Andrews (3:44.36), 2012 Olympic silver medalist Leonel Manzano (3:44.57) and Avila.

Avila had to scramble to get into the Trials, running a qualifying time on the last possible date, June 26.

"Once we got in, now it's the fun part," said Avila, who turned pro in 2014, then missed all of last year with iron-deficiency anemia. "I know I'm a lot fitter than earlier, so that helped me going through the rounds. A lot of guys have had long seasons, and I'm just the opposite. So the timing is interesting."

Avila didn't get a good night's sleep after running 3:42.27 and winning his heat Thursday.

"Today I didn't feel that good," he said. "It was nice to feel bad and still have that kind of a result."

Avila started in the 12th position, the furthest outside, and made an aggressive move at the start to get to the front of the pack.

"My plan was to hold on to second and third the whole race," he said, "and when they kicked, to hold that as well. I figured I could sprint as well as anyone else except for a couple of guys."

He was second to Blankenship through 800 meters, which was turned in a slow 2:06.

Avila was still in second as the bell sounded for the final lap and, gritting his teeth in the latter stages of a quick last lap, struggled but held on for fifth place.

"The only thing I'm bummed about was, in the last 50 to 70 meters, I started falling apart," said Avila. "That's because I didn't get any sleep. It's an emotional thing to be in the Olympic Trials. I'm really excited to have the next two nights to sleep. Yesterday was amazing, and today I kind of snuck in there, which was good. It shows the fitness is there."

He also shouldn't have looked back to check his position as he neared the finish, a "rookie mistake," he said. "I think that's because I knew I didn't have any gears left."

Avila's goal for the final is to make the top five or six, which would earn him a berth in a major international championship.

Ideally, he'd like to place in the top three and make the Olympics, but he has yet to hit the Games qualifying standard of 3:36.20. The finalists who have made that time are Blankenship, Centrowitz, Manzano, Andrews and Kyle Merber.

Avila is confident he's in shape to run that fast, but he doesn't know how the race will shape up.

"I'm really confident," he said. "I'm excited to mix it up and run a better race. I want to be there in the last 100 instead of just hanging on."

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email ttrower@mailtribune.com

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