KERMIT Leo Manzano took hold of his passion at an early age and has since run with it around the globe, leaving footprints across roads, terrains and tracks that were once figments of his imagination.
He said running was his way out. It has been his way up and onward, too.
“The thing is, when you find something, follow it,” said Manzano, whose first real journey came at the age of 4 when he and his family moved from Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato, Mexico to Marble Falls. “You never know where it will get you.”
Manzano’s miles and miles of strides recently led him to the world’s largest stage — the 2012 Olympic Games in London in front of 70,000 delirious track and field fans (not to mention millions watching in various formats across the world) crammed inside of Olympic Stadium.
On Aug. 7, four years after his international debut in Beijing in 2008, the now-seasoned Manzano entered into a situation he likened to the movie “Gladiator.”
“There is an awkward silence underneath the stadium before a race,” Manzano, 28, told a crowd of Kermit ISD students Wednesday during a speaking engagement at Kermit High School. “Walking out you see the doors and then all of the people.”
Manzano, lost in the back of the pack with about one lap remaining in the 1,500-meter final, flipped it into another gear, passing competitors one by one on a determined quest.
“I got bumped to the back,” Manzano said. “With 400 meters to go, my body was hurting. But I started thinking if I give up now, it will be four more years for another opportunity. All of a sudden I woke up.”
His magical kick around the final turn and down the home stretch — which he implemented in the preliminary and semifinal heats as well — earned him the silver medal, and he became the first male American since Jim Ryun in 1968 to medal in the metric mile.
Manzano had just pounded heel to toe on the racing surface for an excruciating 3 minutes, 34.79 seconds, but in that instant, he was floating.
“It was very, very, very emotional,” said Manzano, his medal not too far from reach in a hefty black case. “You come across the finish line, and I remember it had been about since the summer of my sixth grade year, I think it’s been about maybe 15 years, that I had been running for just that particular moment. And finally, all that is culminated. And not just that, but you also have to think about all the sacrifices that you do, whether they’d be on a daily basis or every year with your family, missing Christmas or missing birthdays.”
Manzano’s path to super stardom has had its interruptions, and he has often been overlooked for one reason, mainly his 5-foot-5 frame, or another. It served significant symbolism for him to come from the depths of the field to the front, just .71 seconds behind gold medalist Taoufik Makhloufi of Algeria.
Roadblocks aren’t permanent. When faced with adversity, Manzano has found ways to run his way right around it. Running has taken him there and back, and over that way, too, but where he comes from paints another picture of the soft-spoken Texan.
That’s when Leo “The Lion,” his nickname, comes to life.
His tribulations began much earlier and in a village without running water or electricity. Manzano fondly remembers his first race at the age of 4 and the opponent, his grandfather, Isaac. Time and time again, Manzano furiously scurried in a pitter-patter to beat Isaac, to no avail, of course. That soon changed when Isaac suffered a broken leg and wily Manzano challenged him, with crutches and all, to another showdown.
“That was my first victory, Manzano said.
As he reached middle-school age, convincing his parents, Jesus and Maria, that running was indeed a sport and not a “lazy” activity, became an obstacle more difficult to maneuver than defeating Grandpa Isaac.
“My parents didn’t really understand what running was all about, so they kind of discouraged me from it,” Manzano said. “They’d say, ‘What’s running?’ ”
That hurdle was eventually cleared, and fortunately so, as Manzano realized in the seventh grade that running, wherever it took him, was his calling.
He flourished at Marble Falls High School, racking up nine UIL state titles in cross country and track and field. He was the first in his family to graduate high school, and with that, came a scholarship to the University of Texas.
“When I first showed up, I wasn’t that good,” Manzano joked. “Talent alone only gets you so far.”
Though his parents didn’t agree with his course of action at first, Manzano still says his father is his greatest role model.
“My dad is incredible,” Manzano said. “He would go to work no matter what.”
Manzano molded his work ethic after his father’s, and after a brief adjustment period, during which Manzano said he learned and put into motion all that is necessary to reach the top of his sport, the accolades rolled right in. As a Longhorn, Manzano won five NCAA national championships and left the university with four school records.
Manzano qualified for the 2008 Games but did not get to the final. More kindling for the fire.
“At the time I was 23, one of the youngest guys there, and a little bit inexperienced,” he said. “It was my first international race and I was more or less in awe.”
Manzano battled through four injuries, including a torn hamstring at the 2011 world championships.
“I felt like the world had ended,” Manzano said. “I took some time off and used it as fuel for the fire because I knew I had an important year ahead.”
Returning to peak form in time to win his first national championship at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials, Manzano knew the next task was his greatest challenge yet — London 2012.
“I was there for business,” he said. “I was there to work.”
Five stress-filled days finally yielded Manzano’s moment. He was at the starting line, and 1,500 meters to a medal.
“You start thinking about your family, your friends and all of the people that have helped you get to that particular point in time,” Manzano recalled.
The media frenzy ensued shortly after. He had never been so in demand. But he enjoyed every minute of it.
“It definitely changed my life for a couple months. I was pretty booked and pretty busy,” Manzano said. “We got on CNN a couple of times, we also go on Univision, so we did a lot of things in Spanish, and we also the Today show as well. There have been a lot of little things here and there.”
Wednesday’s event at Kermit had been scheduled since weeks after the Olympics, Manzano said. It was an opportunity he knew he couldn’t pass up. After all, what good does it do to keep all of your knowledge bottled up when so many youth are aching for that beacon of hope?
“We really try to bring it close to home for the kids,” Manzano explained. “You see a lot of professional athletes out there and it just looks like it’s really far, almost impossible. I want them to look at me and be like, ‘Man, if that guy can do it, I can do it, too.’ ”
Manzano is back training, and 2016 in Rio de Janeiro is in his sights.
“I want to be the best,” he said.
Nothing has stopped him yet. And if it’s up to him, nothing ever will.