STAFF WRITER JENNIFER FIERRO
In the late 1990s, a scrawny Marble Falls Middle School student in boots wowed his physical education teachers with his natural running ability.
Years later, that kid — Leonel Manzano — ended a 44-year medal drought for American middle distance runners in the Olympics when he captured silver at the 2012 London Games in the men’s 1,500 meters in 3 minutes 3.79 seconds. That moment solidified Manzano as one of the best runners in the middle distances while also bringing about the sport’s resurgence in the United States.
After 21 years of running, the 2004 Marble Falls High School graduate and former Granite Shoals resident announced his retirement July 28.
“My body feels it,” said the 34-year-old with a laugh. “Back in the seventh grade in middle school in cross country and track, I enjoyed running. I never thought it would evolve into anything like it has.”
Leading up to his announcement, Manzano had encountered an opponent he couldn’t beat. In November 2018, while on a run in Mexico, he felt pain in his leg unlike any he’d ever experienced. It went away on its own, and he resumed training. However, it returned when he began training in the States. He immediately stopped and sought out his massage therapist.
They were aggressive in trying to flush it out of his system, but the pain wouldn’t go away.
“Whatever it was wasn’t giving up,” he said. “It was intense, very, very tight. It wasn’t letting go.”
He took the next couple of days off then returned to running what he calls an “easy 7 miles.” On the third mile, he felt the pain again. This time, he sought the help of all sorts of specialists to discover the cause.
One of them told Manzano it was a calf “heart attack,” a micro-tear deep in the muscle that begins as a lower-leg problem many assume is a pulled muscle then goes away after a few days’ rest. But when the person returns to physical activity, the pain comes back.
There’s little information about the condition, and Manzano said the specialist referred him to a Runner’s World magazine article from 1996.
Since he couldn’t train, Manzano used the time to think about his future. He realized he was approaching his mid-30s, and while running gave him a way to support himself, he also reflected on what he’s missed because of training and competing such as birthdays, weddings, and anniversaries of family and friends.
At the center of his life is his 6-year-old son, Max. Manzano wants to spend as much time with his son as possible.
“It’s coming to me that I don’t know what else is next,” he said. “I don’t think I want to do running for ten years and be in the same position.”
While he’s retiring from competitive running, he will remain involved in the sport. His top sponsor, Hoka One One, has tapped him as an ambassador. In addition, the International Association of Athletics Federations and US Track and Field, two governing bodies for the sport, named him an athlete representative.
The 2008 University of Texas graduate is also an ambassador for the Capitol 10K in Austin and the Austin Marathon.
As a representative of the sport, he can continue doing something he enjoys: going into communities and talking about the benefits of running and guiding children toward it. He can also mentor young runners on endorsement deals, finances, and other important things he learned along the way.
“Hoka has been a blessing to me,” Manzano said. “I’m using my talents in different ways. That’s going to be super awesome. I learned all this through firsthand experience. I potentially can say something that can help them.”
When he began running at Marble Falls Middle School, Manzano’s nickname was “The Hunter,” but that changed to “Leo the Lion” in high school because a lion “stalks his prey,” he said.
Manzno thought the nickname was fitting since he was meticulous in race strategy.
“You watch and you’re able to pounce at the right time,” he said. “With the kick, you go and you go for the win.”
Over his race career, Manzano built a reputation for his “kick,” a late race charge. His silver-medal winning race was a great example.
By the time he graduated from high school, he had won nine state championships in cross country and track and field, but it was his actions after races, particularly in cross country, that set him apart. Many times, he’d cross the finish line then turn around and help the other runners.
As a true freshman at Texas, Manzano caught the attention of the nation’s runners. CBS Sports was airing the NCAA Track and Field Championships in the spring of 2005 and announcers talked about all the runners in the 1,500 meters — except Manzano. When he won the championship in 3:37.13, edging out Brigham Young University’s Bryan Lindsay (3:38.31), CBS stayed on the air long enough for the announcers to say goodbye and maybe mention his name once more.
Manzano still laughs about that.
“They had no idea what happened,” he said.
At the time, few could blame them. Manzano stands 5 feet 5 inches and rarely weighed more than 120 pounds. By contrast, many 1,500-meter runners are taller, so people dismissed Manzano simply for his build, which he used to his advantage.
“It gave me that mentality that I’m going to prove you wrong,” he said.
At Texas, Manzano discovered he couldn’t count on talent alone. That’s where he started learning about nutrition and viewing food as fuel. Those changes propelled him to five national championships for the Longhorns. In 2008, in his final race for UT, he won his second 1,500-meter national title in 3:41.25. Shortly after that, he turned pro and began training for the US Olympic Trials.
He made the team after finishing second at the trials and was 12th in his semifinal heat at the 2008 Beijing Games.
Manzano learned plenty from that experience, which fueled his desire to his best. During the next four years, he made a name for himself.
While competing professionally in the IAAF Diamond League meets in 2010, he recorded personal bests in the mile (3:50.64), the 800 meters (1:44.56), and the 1,500 meters (3:32.37) over a three-week span. After being elected to compete for the Americas at the 2010 IAAF Continental Cup, Manzano won the bronze medal in the 1,500.
He fought through injuries during much of 2011 but returned to form by the time the 2012 season began. He won the USA Indoor Track and Field Championship (3:48.05) and the US Olympic Trials (3:35.75) in the 1,500. When the London Games started, Manzano no longer was just another runner in the final. He walked onto the track as an athlete to watch and used his kick to outrun the pack for silver.
Shortly after the win, Manzano parted ways with Nike.
He entered a period of uncertainty the next year when he was reduced to selling Leo the Lion T-shirts and other apparel to help pay his expenses.
In 2014, Hoka One One, a company known for its hiking and trail-running shoes, told Manzano it wanted to break into the track-and-field world and needed an athlete such as him to endorse its shoes. Soon after, Timex and Coca-Cola also signed Manzano.
“It was the best decision I ever made,” he said of the endorsement deals. “It allowed me to continue on and pass on the torch to other kids in the US and around the world. I did follow my beliefs and principles.”
While his accomplishments in the sport are fantastic, Manzano said what he’s most proud of is being the first in his family to graduate from college, which set a standard for his siblings and instilled in them the belief they could do it, too.
Manzano leaves American middle distance running much better than he found it but doesn’t take recognition for it. Instead, he credits longtime rival Alan Webb of turning the tide for the Americans. For a long time, the only middle and long distance runners people were talking about were from Africa.
Webb became a professional runner in 2002 and won the 1,500 meters at the 2004 US Olympic Trials. Though he was eliminated in the first round of competition at the Athens Games, Webb was in peak form three years later when he was eighth at the World Championships in Osaka, Japan. He set a new American record in the mile in 3:46.91 and posted a time of 3:30.54 in the 1,500 meters at the IAAF Golden League.
“I give a lot of credit to that guy who took the next step,” Manzano said. “Not only could we compete with (the star runners), we could beat them.”
That was evident when Manzano powered his way to a silver medal in London then watched in 2016 when Matthew Centrowitz Jr. won gold at the 2018 Rio Games, becoming the first American to do so in the event since Mel Sheppard in 1908.
Manzano said he and his fellow American distance runners often heard the question: Will somebody from the US ever medal?
“We went out in 2012 and did that and changed everyone’s mind,” he said.
Manzano is spending more time with Max and continues to run at least 5 miles every other day. But now, the two grab tacos instead of Manzano sticking to a strict pro athlete’s diet of grilled chicken and broccoli.
As he always does, Manzano thanked the people of Marble Falls and Granite Shoals who helped him along his road to success. He knows better than anyone that you can’t realize a dream without support.
“I’m so grateful for everything people have done,” he said. “People have been gracious with their time and support. I’ve had a chance to meet people along the way. I’m always so grateful. They’ve held me up through the good times and the bad.”