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Going for the Gold: Former UIL Athlete, UT Alum Leo Manzano Reflects on Journey to the Olympics

Leo Manzano on the track

Image of Leo Manzano For more than a decade, Leo Manzano has amassed an expansive collection of prizes from countless competitions. But of all the colorful ribbons and gleaming trophies adorning his walls and shelves, his most precious memento is the memory of his first race.

“As a young child, I will always remember running with my grandfather in Mexico,” Manzano says. “While the sheep were herding, I challenged him to a race and it was so much fun. I didn’t know that running was a sport at the time. I just knew that I really enjoyed it.”

Growing up, Manzano was happiest while running outside, challenging anyone who was willing to a race. When his family moved from a rural town in Central Mexico to Marble Falls, he caught the attention of his coaches. They saw a bright future in cross-country racing, however, his parents needed more convincing.

“When I first started running, my parents didn’t know anything about it,” Manzano says. “They asked me why I was wasting my time and not getting a job. So I made a deal with my dad. I told him, ‘If you let me join cross country, I will work all summer.’”

True to his word, Manzano took on odd jobs during the summer and trained during his limited free time—winning track meets and impressing coaches along the way.  Looking back at his first foray into competitive running, he credits his middle school coach Karen Naumann and high school coach Kyle Futrell for cultivating his love for the sport.

“Coach Futrell took time away from his main sport, which was football, to help me train and keep me in track and field for as long as he could,” Manzano recalls. “My coaches changed the training philosophy from quantity to quality to let me enjoy running and also nurture my competitiveness.”

Manzano’s love for the sport continued to grow as he competed in state-wide UIL competitions, taking home medals and trophies along the way.

“So many great things were happening,” Manzano adds. “I made a couple friends who came from the same cultural background and we experienced so many new opportunities like competing in relays across the state and meeting new people.”

More opportunities were opening as Manzano toured college campuses on recruiting trips. Soon enough, he had his pick of several Texas universities. But he was holding out for one school in particular.

“UT was one of the last schools to call me,” says Manzano, who graduated in 2008 with a degree in Spanish and Portuguese. “I remember I was working at a restaurant when I got the call and I was so excited. I ran in a UIL cross country meet then went to UT on a recruiting trip—and that’s when I knew I had to be there. The facilities were up to par and they went above and beyond for me.”

Over the next four years, Manzano became one of the most decorated male runners in UT history. However his climb to the top was anything but a sprint. During his freshman year, he found himself at a crossroads when he couldn’t keep up with his teammates. Unaccustomed to the longer mileage, he bonked halfway through a 40-minute training run.

“I couldn’t finish the run,” Manzano says. “Feeling defeated, I went back to my coach and he said, ‘Hey, you just have to get in shape.’” So he wrote me out a new training plan. By the next spring I was in the best shape of my life.”

His work ethic payed off at a meet in Nebraska, where he clocked a sub-4:00 mile, breaking a 21-year Longhorn record.

“I’ll never forget coming through the line, looking up and seeing the clock hit 3:59:86,” says Manzano, who later went on to become a five-time NCAA champion and an 11-time NCAA All-American. “Our team went wild. They picked me up in the air and carried me off.”

That victorious moment was only the beginning for this Longhorn, who soon became one of the fastest 1,500-meter runners in the world. In 2008 he went on to compete in the semifinals in Beijing—and in 2012 he made a big comeback in the London games where he captured the silver medal.

In the true spirit of the Olympics, Manzano feels a sense of solidarity with runners from across the globe. Despite the language barriers, they communicate on a whole different level out on the track.

“When I compete on the world stage, I’m proud to represent my country,” Manzano adds. “But at the end of the day, we’re all children of the world.  There are similar themes we share as human beings—from nervousness before a competition to the joy of a big win to the loss of defeat.  When I compete against someone from another country, we understand each other.”

In an unforgiving sport, Manzano has experienced his share of triumphs and losses. Though he has been sidelined by injuries, dropped by a major sponsor and lost his chance at winning another medal at the 2016 Olympics due to a respiratory illness, he never loses his focus. With the 2020 Olympics in his crosshairs, Manzano is training hard, logging more than 65 miles a week.

No matter what life throws his way, Manzano will soar over the hurdles as long as he follows his coach’s words of wisdom.

“It’s about having a plan and moving forward,” says Manzano, who is now sponsored by HOKA ONE ONE. “Be agile about your plan and know when to change it.”

Photos by Fa Bazadoni, courtesy of Leo Manzano