Track Star Leo Manzano Embodies the American Dream

By Michael Madison – April 9, 2013
Photography by Brian Fitzsimmons

With 400 meters of the 2012 London Olympics 1,500-meter final remaining, Austinite Leo Manzano’s hopes of a medal were little more than an afterthought to the millions watching on television. He was in tenth place and his face grimaced like that of a runner overworking, unable to stay relaxed. His 5 foot 4 ½ inch frame was dwarfed by the competitors ahead whose strides seemed effortless, like horses galloping down the backstretch of the Kentucky Derby. These were the best of the best, 12 runners in total who had survived two rounds of elimination over three days to get a chance at Olympic glory.

With 200 meters to go, Manzano’s chances seemed even slimmer. There were still seven runners to catch, including three from the traditional distance powerhouses of Kenya and Ethiopia. Not only was he chasing after the best but also against the burden of an American medal drought in the event since Jim Ryun’s silver performance in Mexico City’s 1968 Games.

But to Leo Manzano’s coaches, family, close friends, and those who know him well, the race had only just begun.

Born in a small town in central Mexico in 1984, Manzano’s parents immigrated to the United States in 1987 after his father was granted legal residency. They settled outside Marble Falls, Texas, in the hill country about an hour west of Austin. The eldest of four children, Manzano’s life quickly became all about firsts: first to graduate high school, first to graduate college, first to achieve United States citizenship (in 2004).

Life could have turned out much differently for the young man had his father not sought a path to move his family north of the Rio Grande. In a town where the basic necessities for life came as a luxury, education opportunities were scarce at best.

“Up until a couple years ago, they didn’t have water or electricity,” said Manzano back in late February. “People there, they just work. Maybe you go through fourth grade and then you start working and get married at a young age.”

(Top) From left to right: Caleb Rice, Jerrad Ince, Eric Sanchez, and Leo Manzano in 2002 after 4x400 Mile Relay in eighth grade. (Bottom) Eighth grader Leo Manzano finishes the mile.Although living in Marble Falls, Manzano’s parents instilled the lifestyle of hard work from a very early age. By seventh grade, he was taking on odd jobs during the summer, running whenever time permitted—but always as a secondary pastime— and winning track meets on the weekends. “Right after eighth grade, they started noticing how supportive the coaches were. Then people started talking about how if I kept it up I could get a scholarship,” Manzano recalled. “But my parents still made me get a job.”

Perhaps without the discipline and work ethic his parents instilled, Manzano’s path as a runner might have taken a different trajectory. At one point, he was training in workboots because it was all the family could afford. His parents didn’t see the need for an extra pair of shoes, not for something so foreign to two people who had grown up in rural Mexico where agriculture was the way of life. And there were days when his dad would drop him off at 5 a.m. so he could get in a workout before school and still fulfill other family obligations after class was out.

As a sophomore in high school, Manzano claimed his first of nine state championships in cross country and track and field. Yet by November of his senior year, the scholarship offers were few and far between, with his choices limited to Oklahoma State, TCU, and UTSA. “I don’t really look like your average runner,” explained Manzano, “and, at the time, I was about number four in my mile time compared to other guys in Texas.”

Manzano’s size and stature don’t fit that of the typical middle-distance runner, which has always left him as the underdog. His muscular upper body is built so that he can withstand the elbows and shoving from competitors when the pack is moving close together. His strides, however, leave a coach or talent scout wanting, especially when compared to many African runners’ legs, which can seem to encompass 75 percent of their bodies. Add in that he’s Latino (not typically one of the current running dynasties) and he was never the first choice for coaches.

“For me it’s been a little bit frustrating because they judge the book by its cover,” lamented Manzano. “But at the end of the day, it works to my advantage because I always end up being overlooked, which (to me) that is okay. I go in to the race and prove otherwise.”

When the University of Texas came calling at 11 p.m. the week before the state cross country championship his senior year, Manzano took the contact with great excitement. Jason Vigilante, then head coach for the men’s squad, wanted the Marble Falls standout to come take a campus visit and consider joining the Longhorns for his collegiate career. The decision took no time at all and by August of 2004, Manzano had moved into the dorms on the Austin campus.

There were a number of top runners brought in that year and the squad was among the best in the country. Most athletes get to college and take a year to “redshirt,” which is meant to help them adjust to life and mature a bit before stepping up to compete. Keep in mind that Manzano was the first member of his family to ever attend college. Although the drive to campus was only 60 miles, everything happening was completely foreign to his parents, siblings, and—to some extent—himself.

But the bright-eyed 18-year-old got comfortable in Austin by doing what he did best: running. The UT track wasn’t exactly foreign territory; he had visited it during the month of May every year from 2000–2003 when he claimed all of his state titles at the renowned Mike A. Myers Track and Soccer Stadium.

Less than six months after being enrolled as a student at UT, Manzano etched his name in the record books by breaking a Longhorn record that had stood for 21 years. His sub-4:00 mile was just the second in school history and earned him the first of an eventual ten Big 12 Championships.

Manzano holds the 2008 National Championship team trophy in Des Moines, Iowa.   (Bottom) Eighth grader Leo Manzano finishes the mile.Over the next four years, Leo Manzano built a career that still stands as the most decorated male runner ever on the 40 Acres. His final collegiate race cemented his legacy; Manzano led the 1,500-meter NCAA Outdoor Championships from wire to wire. Arguably one of the most dominant performances in a race, Manzano was challenged by numerous runners attempting to burst past his outside shoulder and take the lead. Even the television announcers thought he would succumb to fatigue and be overtaken. But this was Leo Manzano, far from your average competitor.

Research scientists at UT conducted tests on Manzano’s heart and reported that it is of the size typically found in a person closer to seven feet tall. In a 2010 New York Times article that discussed the results of this study, the lab director estimated that only ten runners and ten cyclists in the world could match the amount of blood and oxygen pumped to his muscles. Manzano gave this succinct summary: “They said I have the engine of a Ferrari in the body of a Pinto.”

In the final 200 meters of that last collegiate race, Manzano gave a glimpse of what was to come in his professional career; he dug deep and found a sixth gear, leaving the other 15 competitors behind and winning by more than ten strides. On that day, he left no doubt who was the best in the country.

Three weeks later, Manzano traveled to Eugene, Oregon, where he garnered another medal—although this one was a little bit more prestigious than an NCAA Championship. The 23-year-old took second place at the United States Olympic Trials, earning him a trip to Beijing, China, for the 2008 Olympic Games.

The next four years were full of mixed results as he adjusted to life as a professional runner. Beijing didn’t go quite as hoped, although it served as a helpful precursor to his trip to London in 2012. Life for someone in Manzano’s career field is a constant challenge because there is always another runner waiting in the wings. Each race, every time on the track, is pressure packed, full of jockeying for position amongst the elite while trying to earn a paycheck.

In 2011, the rigors of the job led to mounting injuries, culminating with Manzano pulling up short at the semifinals of the World Championships. Frustrations began to build, and second-guessing led the young man to a place of deep questioning. “I was injured four or five times,” he recalled, reflecting back on that year. “That was a particular moment where I thought I was going to give up the sport. If I’m not doing well anymore, then why I am here?”

Manzano took a month off, completely disengaging from running. It was only after a visit in Costa Rica where he spent time reflecting that his passion came back. He resolved to work harder at his running career, and this rededication started with one of his best decisions since college: adding UT Strength Coach Trey Cepeda. Since then, “[Cepeda’s] been an integral part of my training and a great mentor, a great person to me.”

With newcomer Cepeda teamed with his running coach Ryan Ponsonby, Manzano went to work. He strengthened his hamstrings and found that weakness in his glutes and back was the main cause of many problems. It was a simple fix but without the watchful eye of a strength coach, this deficiency might have continued to hamper his ability to compete.

By early 2012, the work had begun to pay off, starting with a victory at the USA Indoor Championships. Over the next four months, Manzano’s training was geared toward the Olympic Trials, the most prestigious stage for a runner. Manzano described his outlook toward preparing for these big events: “If I work harder than everyone else and am doing the right things to get to the next level, then I’m going to prime myself to win and be competitive,” claimed the man who thrives off the challenge of a big race. “You also have to be a good competitor at the end of the day.”

That word—competitor—embodies the definition of much of his career. Leo Manzano is a man whose family history is rich in hard work, determination, and the will to do whatever it takes. He has a way of being able to run faster when his legs are the most fatigued, a rare ability to block the pain from his mind and keep the finish line in sight.

As in nearly every big race of his career, almost like clockwork, Manzano sat in third place with 200 meters to go in the 1,500-meter final of the U.S. Olympic Trials. His opportunity to run for Team USA was on the line again, just four short years after his triumphant Beijing-qualifying race. One might think that his competitors would be warier, to not allow him to hang back, because so few have proven to be able to match his closing speed. But yet again, Manzano’s final burst was too much for the rest of the field; he chased down first place, sealing his spot in the London Games.

Track and field is a fickle sport in that the best don’t always get the most hype. A lot of times, the media darling isn’t the fastest or most accomplished runner. Despite the substantial career Manzano had built since wearing the USA jersey in 2008, he didn’t receive the same attention as the two young men who finished second and third at the Olympic Trials. One was 22 and came from a family with Olympic running history. The other, 24 years old, was a graduate of the University of Oregon, a storied and revered program dating back to the days of running legend Steve Prefontaine.

Although being overlooked isn’t anything new to Manzano, nearly a decade of ranking among the best on the track would lead one to think a change might be in the works. While his story hasn’t received the deserved attention among traditional U.S. media, interest from the Latino community has exploded. Univision, Runner’s World Mexico, Fox News Latino—they all wanted to speak with him. The Latino coverage swelled to the point where he went bilingual on Twitter and Facebook, posting messages in both languages. “I found out that around 30 percent of my following was a Spanish-speaking audience,” Manzano said. “I was getting replies in Spanish and now have the ability to reach more people.”

When competing, Manzano now feels he has a lot to represent. First and foremost is the USA on his jersey, the country in which he has spent almost all his life and where he is an official citizen. He’s also there for the Latino community, which has near zero representation in the sport; prior to the London Olympics, Central and South American countries (excluding Cuba) had claimed just 61 medals in the 100-plus years of the modern day games.

“I do think that I have a responsibility to be a role model, especially when there’s kids involved,” Manzano stated. “When I was growing up people always said kids are our future and I didn’t think much of it. But now I realize that they are—and I was. I want to make sure that I’m saying and doing the right things.”

Very few in life get a chance to make historical achievements on a world stage and even fewer actually take advantage of the opportunity to use their innate ability. Over 27 years, Leo Manzano has pushed his name higher to the top: five-time NCAA Champion; two-time Olympic Qualifier; seven-time U.S. Outdoor Champion medalist; bronze medal at the 2010 World Championships in Croatia. But with this impressive list of accomplishments, there was still something missing. Unfinished business, one might say.

And so it happened on that August night in London, England, with the world watching, Manzano cemented his legacy. Over the final 200 meters, he put in a surge for the ages, blowing by a who’s who of distance running including the Beijing silver medalist, the “golden boy” of the U.S. team, silver medalists in the 2010 and 2011 Outdoor World Championships as well as the 2012 Indoor World Championship, and the Norwegian national record holder.

Manzano reeled them all in except for one, a controversial Algerian who had been disqualified the day before and then quickly reinstated. But that didn’t matter. The man born to rural farmers in central Mexico with no water or electricity, who moved to the U.S. at the age of four and overcame a bevy of odds, was the first American to medal in the 1,500 meters since Jim Ryun won silver in Mexico City in 1968. Leo Manzano broke a 44-year drought with a burst of speed that lasted for 26 glorious seconds.

The next Olympic Games are three and a half years away, set for Rio de Janiero, Brazil. Will Manzano be overlooked again amongst a field of potential U.S. qualifiers? Will a number of excuses—age, ability of the competition, physical stature—be given as this omission? Surely that mindset will have changed, but Manzano is used to it after more than a decade—and that’s just fine by this competitor.

Darting out of the pack, flying around the last curve on the track, grossly underestimated: That’s how Leo Manzano, one of the best to ever wear the Team USA jersey, races. And wins.
 

Leo Manzano’s Career Achievements

Nine-time Texas State High School Champion

2 x 800 meters
2 x 1,600 meters
2 x 3,200 meters
3 x Cross Country
 

University of Texas

5 x NCAA Champion (2 x Outdoor 1,500 meters, 2 x Indoor Mile, 1 x Distance Medley Relay)
9 x NCAA All-American
10 x Big 12 Conference Champion
4 x School Record Holder (Indoor Mile, Outdoor 1,500 meters, Indoor and Outdoor Distance Medley Relay)
World Record Holder (Distance Medley Relay)
 

Post-Collegiate

Silver Medal – 2012 London Olympic Games
Gold Medal USA Outdoor Championships (2012)
4 x Silver Medal USA Outdoor Championships (2007-2010)
Bronze Medal Continental Cup/IAAF World Championships (2010)

Personal Bests

800 meters – 1:44.56
1,500 meters – 3:32.37
Mile – 3:50.64
 

A Weird Double Date

All professional runners are subject to mandatory and random drug testing. Athletes must provide the agency with a one-hour window of somewhere they’ll be every day as well as a working phone number. Miss a test and it’s almost always an automatic fail, leading to potential fines and suspensions. One of Manzano’s first experiences was the most memorable. He recalled: “In college in 2007, I was going on a date and my girlfriend at the time came over. As we’re walking out the door, the drug tester shows up and he was there to get a sample. I had just gone to the bathroom and didn’t have to go again. So the guy just sat there with us on the couch watching TV as I tried to chug water. It was a double date and we had to meet some people, so we ended up taking him with us. And he just hung out until I was able to go. It was a little weird having a random guy on your date.”

 

 
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