August 7, 2012

Team: USA

Age: 27

Event: 1,500 meters

Hometown: Granite Shoals, Texas (by way of Mojoneras, Mexico)

In almost every race the 5’ 5”, 125-lb. Leonel Manzano enters, he’s the smallest guy on the track, which has got to be galling for a Texan. It can also be a real disadvantage. “There’s a lot of pushing,” Manzano told USA Today recently, “and I’m not that big.” Maybe not, but his heart is. And I’m not talking about his determination or generosity. His heart, as well at least its capacity to pump blood, is literally big. Really big.

A few days before Manzano flew to Beijing for the 2008 Olympics, the folks at the Human Performance Lab at the University of Texas tested his heart. Turns out it’s the size of a person more than 6 feet tall; its aerobic capacity roughly twice the average for a man his age. “I have a Ferrari engine in the body of a Ford Pinto,” he likes to joke.

Manzano’s family comes from a small farming town called Mojoneras outside Dolores Hidalgo in central Mexico. They didn’t have electricity or running water. Leo remembers racing his grandfather on a dusty country road there as a toddler. “I feel as though I still have a connection with the people of Mexico,” he told Hispanically Speaking News in July, “and that I also represent them. The United States is my home and I wouldn’t change that for anything, but my roots are still in Mexico.”

Manzano’s parents moved to Granite Shoals, Texas—about an hour northwest of Austin—when he was 4 years old. His father operated a stone crushing machine at a quarry and his mother did odd jobs. Money was always an issue. When young Leo joined a track program, his parents were baffled. “All they saw was I was running and had no job. They thought, ‘What are you doing wasting your time?’” But as the high school track and cross-country titles began to pile up, it became clear that Manzano’s running could carry him to college and even beyond.

You often hear athletes say that their sport allowed them to become the first person in their family to graduate from college; Manzano could say that too, but, more to the point, he became the first person in his family to finish high school. He was a five-time NCAA champion at UT Austin and qualified for the Beijing Olympics by finishing second at the 2008 US Olympic Trials in the 1,500m.

Manzano’s parents went to China to watch him compete. (The quarry his father works at paid for their flight.) “My dad was a big hit,” he said. “He took his cowboy hat. He kept getting stopped and asked, ‘Hey, can you take a picture?’”

Unfortunately, Manzano didn’t make it out of his semifinal heat. “I was 23, and I was just excited to be there,” he said. “I just wasn’t ready.”

But his darkest moment may have been at the 2011 world championships. A gimpy hamstring caused him to finish dead last in his semifinal. “That was pretty painful, not just physically but mentally,” he told running website Race Results Weekly recently.

Instead of jumping straight into rehab, he took a couple of weeks off and spent them doing nothing on a beach in Costa Rica. “When I came back, there was definitely a different fire,” he has said, “a different feeling: I wanted to start training again.”

During his semifinal in London on August 5, it was easy to spot the fire that motivates Manzano. (Before the race, he went through a series of motions, touching his tongue to his fingertips and then touching various parts of his body, prompting NBC commentator Tom Hammond, I believe it was, to say, “Manzano going through a pre-race ritual I’m not familiar with.”) The heat began at a slow pace, and Manzano got bottled up early on in inside post, directly behind the leaders. It was impossible to see him among the long, lanky runners around him. After the bell for the final lap rang, a little room opened up, and Manzano muscled his way out into the clear. He has always relied on a strong closing kick, and he moved up all the way to second place before easing off a bit to finish fourth (the top five runners automatically qualified) with a 3:42.94.

He can do better. He knows it in his heart.

“Leo Manzano,” by Bill Vourvoulias.

From “Fear and Gloating,” the August 7, 2012, issue of V as in Victor.

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