JENNIFER FIERRO • STAFF WRITER
EUGENE, Oregon — For the past two U.S. Olympic Trials, 1,500 meter runners have felt and heard the roar of the “Lion.”
That lion is 2004 Marble Falls High School graduate Leonel Manzano.
Manzano returns to the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field in the hopes of making his third U.S. Olympics team.
Manzano, who captured the silver medal in the men’s 1,500 meters at the 2012 London Olympics, will run his first heat at 9:21 p.m. local time July 7 followed by the semifinals at 6:12 p.m. July 8 and the finals at 7:20 p.m. July 10. He must finish in the top three of the finals to make the team. The trials will be broadcast on the NBC family of networks.
In anticipation of the trials, the 31-year-old traveled to Seattle on June 18 to compete in the Brooks PR Invitational, where he was second in 3 minutes 39.7 seconds.
The former University of Texas runner had a challenging fall and winter. He battled a respiratory infection last fall that turned into pneumonia during the spring and cost him three weeks of training. In February, he made a coaching change, deciding to reunite with Ryan Ponsonby, who helped Manzano on his way to the silver medal in London. The two were teammates at the University of Texas.
Manzano, a former Granite Shoals resident, has spent the past several months improving his fitness.
He said during a recent media conference that he is feeling good.
“One of the things we’ve been working on is my strength,” he said. “You can acquire fitness in different ways. And one thing we’ve been missing early on, I wasn’t able to do my lunges and my faster-paced runs properly because of a sickness I was trying to get over.”
He has been back on the track, on the treadmill and in the weight room.
In all, he runs about 70 miles a week.
“Fortunately, we’ve had approximately nine weeks of solid training,” he said. “We’ve had good consistency, and our fitness is there. We showed that (at the Brooks PR Invitational). And I think our speed … is there. We’ve definitely been working on our speed and our closing speed, so we’re ready.”
Manzano is a five-time NCAA champion and an 11-time NCAA All-American with a degree in Spanish and Portuguese and a minor in business. He won nine state championships while at Marble Falls.
In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Manzano was eliminated in the semifinals.
Several months ago, NBC invited Manzano to Los Angeles for interviews in preparation of its Olympic coverage.
When Manzano first began running the 1,500 meters, the U.S. men hadn’t fared well. When he captured the silver medal four years ago, it was the first time an American man had medaled in the event since Jim Ryun won silver at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
Finishing fourth at the 2012 London Olympics in the 1,500 meters was Matt Centrowitz, who had been one of Manzano’s top rivals. But Centrowitz recently suffered an injury that has kept him from racing.
Still, that doesn’t mean it’ll be easy for Manzano to return to the Olympics, the former Mustang said.
Manzano said this race features some great veterans and newcomers. Other runners he’ll be up against are Andrew Wheating, Clayton Murphy, Ben Blankenship and Robby Andrews.
“And you can never underestimate anybody,” he said. “We’ve seen that in the past, where there may be some guy who is kind of on the verge of breaking through. The thing is that, at a championship, you never know what can happen. I’ve seen guys who are meant to win, and they finish last or second to last, especially in a championship. The biggest thing you have to have is confidence in your training and yourself and the experiences that got you there.”
Just like how he won Olympic silver.
Manzano was third from last as the runners approached the final turn and then made his move using his well-known “kick” — a burst of speed — to run away from the rest of the pack, finishing in 3:34.79 behind Algeria’s Taoufik Makhloufi at 3:34.08.
Two years ago, Manzano clocked 3:30.98 at a race in Monaco, the fifth-fastest in the event in U.S. history.
Stories of the Lion’s dedication to his craft began when he was a middle school student. Retired Marble Falls Middle School cross-country and track coach Karen Naumann said there was no distance and no time that Manzano couldn’t shatter.
That type of commitment wears on a body, so Manzano has added procedures to help him recover better: a weekly massage, sleeping at least eight hours a night and taking naps on intense training days. Sleeping helps the body recover. His pets include saltwater fish in a home tank to provide a calming atmosphere. He has two seahorses: Rio and Brazil.
So, after adding his own chapter to the U.S. running history, is he satisfied?
“There’s a lot of things that motivate me,” he said. “In the past, just going through the years, there’s been some years that, unfortunately, I’ve had to race myself into shape. And that type of racing is hard because, definitely, when you go into some heats, you’re not going to finish in the top two or three. But fortunately, we’ve had some good consistency in our training and, finally, everything seems to be coming around.”
When Manzano ran at the his own 5K run/walk at the Granite Shoals 50th anniversary celebration, he acknowledged that his age indicates he is leaving his best years.
But he also knows he must perform his best to medal.
“You go into every Olympics thinking you have a chance,” he said. “You have to think like that. You also have to be realistic. You have to know who your competitors are. Everybody competing at that level is extremely good, and you have to give everybody their due credit and their respect. At the same time, you can’t underestimate yourself, especially at a World Championship or at an Olympics. Those types of races become very magical. The human spirit is strong. Sometimes, you’re able to really hone in on that, focus and make some great things happen.”