KERMIT The students who packed the stands in the Kermit High School gymnasium on Wednesday weren’t much different than the man holding the microphone at center court.
Leo Manzano grew up in a small Texas town and comes from Hispanic heritage, like more than 65 percent of the students in Kermit ISD. And at 5-foot-5 and 125 pounds, the 28-year-old Manzano is no bigger than the Kermit cross country runners who greeted him as he arrived on campus.
It just so happens that Manzano, who won a silver medal at the London Olympics, is one of the best runners in the world.
“He’s just someone like us. I would never think he was an Olympian,” said Kermit junior Jose Carrasco, who like Manzano is a distance runner. “Just looking at him makes me think that if I try so hard, I can do that. It’s awesome.”
That was the idea behind Manzano’s first visit to West Texas. He was invited to speak by Kermit ISD superintendent Bill Boyd, a former track and field coach and fellow Marble Falls native.
Boyd met Manzano when the former was coaching at Burnet and the latter was a high school senior waiting tables at an Italian restaurant in Marble Falls. Boyd knew Manzano was an accomplished runner who already had accepted a scholarship to the University of Texas, and he and his wife, Shelly, decided the leave the youngster an unusually large tip.
Before the Boyds left the restaurant they were approached by the owner, who said Manzano couldn’t accept the $50 because he didn’t want his co-workers to feel offended.
“Very impressive,” Boyd said. “There’s a kid that was raised right.”
Boyd continued to follow the running career of Manzano — who was born in Mexico, moved to Texas at age 4 and became the first member of his family to graduate high school — and that career reached a pinnacle in early August. Manzano surged from sixth place to finish second in the men’s 1,500 meters, becoming the first American to medal in the event since Jim Ryun in 1968.
Boyd secured a speaking engagement with Manzano not long after, saying he used some of his Marble Falls connections and “cut in line” to make the event happen. Boyd said Manzano’s story is an important one for the youths in Kermit, where there has been a recent influx of students from Latin America, according to Angela Florez.
Florez, the coordinator for Kermit ISD’s special-needs and English as a Second Language programs, said many Kermit students enter high school without being able to speak English.
“His story fits a lot of kids in Kermit,” Boyd said. “We’ve got a lot of kids that have come from Mexico, and they’ve faced a lot of obstacles. And I wanted them to hear him say that he did it.”
The bilingual Manzano, who serves as an ambassador for the Texas Heart Institute, said he’s done speaking engagements like Wednesday’s since 2004. Most of those engagements have been in the Austin area, but he was glad to reach out to another community.
Coby Owen, who grew up in Kermit and is now the school’s football coach and athletic director, said bull rider Jim Sharp is the only other professional athlete who has visited Kermit. But Sharp is from Kermit, so that doesn’t really count.
“You probably see a lot of professional athletes out there, and it looks like it’s just really far away, really almost impossible,” Manzano said. “I want them to look at me. I’m 5-5, really 5-4 and a half. I want them to look at me like, ‘Man, if that guy can do it, you know, I can do it, too.’ ”
Manzano, who greeted students at Kermit Elementary School on Wednesday morning and then addressed the district’s fifth- through 12th-graders at the high school, shared his background, experiences and interests. He talked about traveling the world and returning to his roots in Mexico once or twice a year, his love of country musician Pat Green and getting to meet Barack Obama, Eva Longoria and George Lopez, with his mention of the actor and comedian drawing the loudest applause.
Manzano also discussed his training habits, the experience of competing in the Olympics and what it felt like to rally for a medal four years after failing the make the final heat in Beijing.
“It was very emotional,” said Manzano, who fell to the track, head in hands, immediately after crossing the finish line.
Wednesday was a bit of an emotional day for those who got to meet Manzano, and the students weren’t the only ones snapping pictures, asking for autographs and grinning from ear to ear. Kermit cross country coach Brian Williams beamed about getting to touch the silver medal Manzano brought to campus, and Crane cross country coach Machele Pahl ventured into rival territory so she could catch a glimpse and report back to her pupils.
“As soon as Mr. Boyd sent me that email (last month), I knew that second that I was going to take this trip over today,” Pahl said. “It’s not every day you get to meet an Olympic silver medalist.”
Iris Franco, a Kermit freshman who finished 15th in Class 2A at the UIL Cross Country State Championships in November, said Manzano’s visit almost didn’t seem real. And that was right after she met him.
But accomplishing her goals, such as becoming a world-class runner like Manzano, suddenly seemed much more realistic.
“It’s motivating,” Franco said. “Maybe someday I’ll be there.”