Going For Gold: Leo Manzano Discusses Recent Comeback

Leo Manzano is enjoying renewed success this season. Photo: www.photorun.net

The 1500m specialist talks about his new sponsor and his newfound speed.

Last year, Leo Manzano was at a major crossroads in his career. Despite winning silver at the 2012 Olympics in the 1500 meters, the former University of Texas standout suddenly found himself without a coach, an agent or a sponsor.

Many elites would simply call it quits at that point, but not Manzano. In April, the 29-year-old former University of Texas standout signed a multi-year contract with Hoka One One and began working with Coach John Hayes.

These changes seem to have paid off for him.

Last month in Sacramento, Manzano won the 1500m title at the U.S. Outdoor Championships. And just last week, he clocked a personal best in the Diamond League 1500m in Monaco (3:30.98) with an eighth-place showing, racing in one of the most stacked fields ever assembled in that distance.

Competitor caught up with Manzano two days after his Monaco race.

Tell me about Monaco and your new PR.

First of all, I was running against the world’s best like Silas Kiplagat, Nick Willis, and Asbel Kiprop. It was a stacked field. The pace was going to go out at 1:50, which is faster than I’ve ever gone out before. I came through approximately at 1:53. It was a very hot pace, but the next thing you know, I’m running 3:30, so it was an incredible race.

I think you moved up from the back and surged later in the race, right?

Yeah, you know the thing was that even though I was in the back, I was still probably running faster than I’ve ever run before. In these types of races, the pace just goes out screaming. For me, I was just trying to stay as relaxed as possible, knowing that I was going to be running faster than I’ve gone before. The key to my record was to just stay as calm as possible and don’t make too many moves so that you are conserving that energy and being more efficient about your tactics.

RELATED: Manzano Signs With Hoka One One

Talk about how you got into this race in the first place. It sounds like you had to beg to get into it, which is kind of strange since you’re an Olympic silver medalist.

So I hadn’t put down a very good time this year and it’s a very competitive field—the best in the world. I had only run a 3:34. At one point, I think there were 15 or 16 guys who had run 3:33 or better. It was already a stacked field and was already pretty crowded. At the last minute, an extra spot opened up and they asked me if I would like to come. As soon as I heard those words, I was like, “Yes sir. How do I get there? I’m there ASAP.”

And you were in Stockholm when you heard the news, right?

I was. I was getting ready to head to Spain. I had been looking forward to this race all season. My coach and I had been talking about this being one of our main goals to PR and do very well in this race. Before we got that commitment from them, we were a little bit disappointed. That day when I got the phone call asking me to come was a big surprise for us.

Did you know going into the Monaco race that you were going to do well?

I’ve had a phenomenal season so far. I just changed coaches. We’ve been working very hard lately, but it’s not to say I haven’t been working hard all along. I’ve been working hard since 2008. The only thing that’s different now is that I have more experience. I’m looking at it now from a tactical and strategic point of view with the guidance of my coach. It’s just been huge. He has a lot of years of experience behind him. Everyone is very capable and has the confidence to run fast, but at the end of the day, what really matters are the results. I’m just thrilled that I was able to go out there and put down that time.

Tell me more about your relationship with Coach Hayes. What’s he doing that’s helping you run this fast?

I’m going to go back to the experience. I’ve been doing this since 2008. With coach Hayes now in the loop, he’s been really able to guide me. He’s known me for quite some time now. We used to indirectly compete against each other. He used to coach Lopez Lomong. That being said, he knows me very well. We are both going into races with a good idea on how I should run and how I should be moving along throughout the race.

You are now a little over a second away from the American record, which Bernard Lagat holds. Do you think you are within striking distance of that?

RELATED: New Sponsor, New Agent, New Coach For Manzano

Of course. I will say this again: We are all very competent out there and so the chances of performing better are always there. But it’s the results that matter. Definitely. The American record is within my view. It’s definitely one of the goals.

You’ve got the Olympic silver. Many people would say, “This is perfect, I’m done.” But are you different? Are you thinking about standing on top of the podium?

Oh yes, without a doubt. The thing with the Olympics and the world championships is that I’ve always been known for my tactical and strategic races—especially in those competitions. I’m in this sport, because first, I love it. I love to compete. But definitely to go out with an Olympic gold medal would probably be one of my biggest highs. If I could achieve that, it would be huge.

I was just speaking with Tyler McCandless before the Rock ‘n’ Roll Dublin Half Marathon and he had a good quote from his coach, Steve Jones, that basically says, “It’s not what you’re doing in the next eight months; it’s what do you want to do in the next eight years.” That being said, have you ever thought about what’s next after 2016? Will you ever move up in distance to the 5K or even the marathon? Have you thought about your potential there?

You know, Duncan, I have, but I’m taking it one step at a time. Right now, I want to continue to do well in all my races. We still have the world championships in the upcoming year. After that, we will have the Olympics. I want that to be my main focus. Of course, in the back of my mind, I’ve thought about trying a 5K or a marathon maybe later on down the line. But now the main focus is to perform to the best of my ability in the mile, the 1500 and the 800.

Rivalries are usually good for the sport. Tell us about yours with Matt Centrowitz. What’s it like?

We definitely talk. I had a brief conversation before the [Monaco] race, and it seems like he’s been doing very well. Rivalries or, rather, competitors, are very good for the sport. These are the guys that push you and vice-versa. Any time you are going to have someone there that can do that will make you better and it’s also going to make the sport a lot better.

Going back to a quote of yours after the Monaco race, you said you were working very hard these past couple of months to regroup. Can you share some specifics?

Of course. I’ve been working hard since 2008 when I first started my professional career. But what’s changed is having a new coach. Last year, what had happened is that I lost my sponsorship and I also lost my coach. And was without an agent. So these last six months have been a big turnaround for me. Before that, I was just kind of lost. I’ve been so fortunate. I didn’t give up, but it was very difficult at times. I tried to stay as positive as I could. Thanks to Hawi Keflezighi, my new agent, I signed with, and then not too long afterward I signed with Hoka. About that same time, I connected with coach Hayes. I’m very blessed that I was able to regroup in that way and have this wonderful team behind me.

Sounds like you were at a real crossroads. And in race terms, maybe you were running that rough lap and got that famous Manzano kick going on.

Yeah.

So about that kick: how do you develop it? Is it genetics or practice or weightlifting or just hard work?

I think it’s a little bit of everything. I’ll give you some examples. This past year when I was without a coach, I was still working very hard. But it was still hard to have that extra burst of energy. It takes someone who is very knowledgeable that can put you through the workouts that you need like coach Hayes in that way your body is more attuned so that you can perform when you have to call on that speed. We’ve been working together so that I’m in that level of shape to have that speed.

RELATED: Kick Your Way To Better Race Times

You are a role model to Latino runners given your background and your humble beginnings. Do you have a lot of people from that community reach out to you?

I do. I feel very blessed with my background and heritage. I also get a lot of people from all over the world writing me from places like Poland, Spain, and Russia and definitely within the Hispanic community from Mexico, Central America, and even Brazil. But I also get support from people within the U.S. as well.

So let’s say I’m a high school runner—a miler—who follows you and is reading this interview and I’m getting fired up. I am probably are saying, “How can I become like Leo Manzano? What do I need to do to become an Olympic medalist middle-distance runner?” What advice would you give to this person?

The biggest piece of advice I can give is this: be a true student of the sport. Do as much research as you can. Learn about yourself. Learn about what works for you. Not necessarily what worked for me will work for anyone else. Ask questions. Talk to your coach. Write it all down—that way you’ve kept a log. You can see what you’ve done in the past. You can see what worked and what didn’t work. Look at it like a continuous journey or preparation and determination to always be better.

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