During the bell lap of nearly all U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Championship 1,500-meter final since 2007, fans eyes had to stay peeled to the 5’5”, 120-pound frame of Leo Manzano—no matter how far back in the pack he might have been, the star out of Texas would regularly find a way to kick down field in the final straightaway and come away a top-three finish and a spot on the U.S. national team, if not outright win.
If you saw Manzano hugging the rail on the inside of the track, seemingly boxed in, you still couldn’t count him out. He could pop out at any second to make his clinching move. If he was in an outside lane, competitors knew they had to get in front of him or wind up getting eaten up somewhere with 200 meters to go. If they didn’t have enough space on him with 100 meters left, he was as good as gone.
“You had to try and get the jump on Leo because coming down the homestretch you knew that he would be the fastest guy coming,” Andrew Wheating, his Olympic teammate and longtime competitor, said. “Those of us in contention for the top three spots all knew that. He had a lethal kick and the only option was to try and get ahead on him. However, you rarely got that chance.”
At this weekend’s U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, that feared finisher will be watching from the stands as a retired star. Manzano has decided to retire, but finishes his career with a silver medal in the 1,500 meters from the 2012 Olympics in London and the sixth-fastest 1,500 meter time ever run by an American (3:30.98).
The brilliance of Manzano’s tactics helped deliver the first American Olympic medal in the 1,500 meters since 1968 when he crossed the finish line and raised his right arm in celebration behind Algeria’s Taoufik Makhloufi for silver. Manzano sat in 10th place going into the final lap, managed to close in about 53 seconds for the final 400 meters and ended up just .67 seconds away from gold. Since Jim Ryun’s medal in Mexico City, U.S. middle-distance stars like Alan Webb and Sydney Maree had proven Americans could still run fast but it was Manzano’s kick that put the United States back on the podium on the world stage.
During his celebration, Manzano draped both the American and Mexican flag over his shoulders. He wanted to dedicate the moment both to his adopted home, his birth country and parents, who immigrated to the United States from Dolores Hidalgo in 1988 when Manzano was four years old.
In the days that followed, he faced some criticism for displaying both flags. One syndicated columnist said that Manzano was “misguided and ill-mannered” in how he chose to celebrate. The smattering of negative responses perhaps hinted forward at today’s political climate, where sentiments surrounding immigration at the southern border have never been more contentious under President Trump. Manzano became a U.S. citizen in 2004 and broke out as an NCAA champion at the University of Texas. He was one of three naturalized citizens who headlined the U.S. Olympic 1,500-meter team in 2008 when he competed alongside Kenyan-born Bernard Lagat and former "lost boy" of Sudan Lopez Lomong—three personified examples of The American Dream.
“I still have no regrets about it. That was just a very pure and honest moment that I cherish to this day,” Manzano said. “You have to know where your roots are. My parents instilled this incredible work ethic in me and better opportunities came as a result. You can’t have those without being willing to work. I love the United States and I love my heritage as well.”
The year that followed silver turned out to be the hardest of Manzano’s career. His contract with Nike expired and he was unable to reach an agreement on a deal that satisfied him. So the Swoosh let him walk and his main source of income was gone. Manzano raced in unbranded singlets and resorted to trying to sell t-shirts to make some money. On the track, he responded by winning the 2013 USATF Outdoor National Championships and making his sixth consecutive U.S. national team.
HOKA ONE ONE, an athletic subsidiary of Deckers, still saw some marketing value in the 29-year-old and signed him to a contract in April 2014. At the time, the company was best known for clunky shoes popular with marathon, trail and ultra runners, but HOKA ONE ONE's inking of Manzano led to a series of middle-distance runner signings and an experimental investment into track. The investment in Manzano also resulted in another national title in 2014 and a 3:30.98 at the Monaco Diamond League three weeks later—which was the fifth-fastest mark by an American at the time. (This summer, Manzano got his athlete representative certification and license from USATF and the IAAF and plans to stay with HOKA ONE ONE as an athlete ambassador.)
He won the 2014 U.S. Outdoor national 1,500-meter title and then in 2015 edged out Ben Blankenship by .02 seconds to keep his streak of making national teams alive at six since 2007. He reached the 2015 IAAF world championship final and finished 10th in what ended up being his final race in a USA uniform.
2016 was a year of hardships for Manzano. In January, his uncle was murdered in Houston. Throughout the spring, Manzano battled pneumonia, lost an unhealthy amount of weight and fell ill again several more times before a brief return to racing. Championship Manzano showed up at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon and he advanced through the rounds and found himself in the Olympic Trials final again. However, this time, Blankenship got the better of Manzano by .44 seconds to take third in the 1,500 meter final, and the final spot on the Olympic team—his first.
“That was one of those years where everything went wrong,” Manzano says before breaking into laughter. “I remember that on my flight over to Europe to continue racing, I got food poisoning. At that point, I’m just asking, ‘What else?’ Though it’s those same situations that make you resilient.”
Manzano was in Pennsylvania when he watched Matthew Centrowitz—who he recalls hosting for a college visit at the University of Texas before ultimately choosing the University of Oregon—lead the 1,500-meter final in Rio de Janeiro from start to finish to become the first American to win the event at the Olympics since 1908.
It was the culmination of almost a decade of hope, let down, and eventual glory for American middle distance running men. In 2007, Webb had run a 3:46.91 mile and rejuvenated American hope in middle distance medals at the 2008 Summer Games. But he failed to make the team for Beijing and the drought continued. Manzano ended it with his silver, but Centrowitz capped the resurgence with a masterful victory.
“When I started to run fast, everyone in the country, including Leo started to believe we can do this. He and Bernard Lagat took the next step and medaled.” Webb says. “Leo solidified in London that Americans should be getting medals at World and Olympic Games. He proved that.”
Manzano decided to take a mental break from running last summer and tried his luck on Telemundo’s reality television show “Exatlón Estados Unidos,” a Spanish language amalgamation of “Survivor,” “American Gladiators” and “Ninja Warrior.” Once back from the show, he decided to spend more time with his six-year-old son, Max, but still had a desire to train. However, in February, Manzano abruptly cut a practice session short with discomfort in his left calf. It felt different from any cramp or strain he’d experienced in his career. He consulted a few doctors, massage therapists and chiropractors to no avail or relief. It wasn’t until a specialist called it a “calf heart attack” —a diagnosis more common among triathletes—that he understood the severity of it. Manzano never felt the same again.
“It was not an easy decision but I also respect the competition so much and if I know that I can’t give 110% of myself to the sport, I know it was also time to take a step back,” Manzano says.
He missed Max’s first steps, first words and other early life moments to focus on training, races and altitude camps. He wants to be there for his son—like how his parents and coaches were there for him.
“The way that people grow up has an effect on them. I’m small and people along the way would say that I’m too small or too short. Whatever it was. I was underestimated fortunately or unfortunately. I always had to prove to myself and other people, ‘I am here.’ That’s what helped me push forward and prove that I belonged. Whether it was because I was small or because of the color of my skin, that doesn’t mean I don’t belong.”
It goes without saying that Manzano proved he belonged in more ways than one. And that Americans belong on the podium at the Olympics.
“I don’t think anything has ever been given to me,” Manzano says. “I’ve always had to work hard for everything. I learned that if I wanted to win, I was going to have to put in time. If I wanted to reach the Olympics or Worlds, I needed to exert the effort.”
Through years of toil and sacrifice on the part of himself and his family, he exemplified a notion absolutely essential to the ethos of the United States: the realization of the American Dream.