You would imagine winning an Olympic silver medal might open up a welter of opportunities and untold riches. Not for Leo Manzano, whose 18 months following his London 2012 success proved a real life challenge. Here’s his story – but don’t worry, it’s got a happy ending!
Having pocketed Olympic silver at the London Games, and three months later celebrating the birth of his first child, 2012 should have been the perfect year for US middle-distance star Leo Manzano.
Instead the polite and softly-spoken Texan bafflingly ended the year without both a sponsor and a coach, which was to usher in 18 months of frustration and disillusionment with the sport.
It all seemed a boyhood dream when the Mexican-born athlete, who arrived in the USA aged four, dazzlingly outsprinted Matt Centrowitz to take 1500m victory at the US Olympic Trials before recovering from tenth at the bell to snare an unexpected silver medal in the Olympic Stadium.
On a high: Manzano wins silver in the 1500m
The first US podium dweller in a men’s Olympic 1500m final for 44 years (since former world mile record holder Jim Ryun also won silver) briefly elevated Manzano to celebratory status. He appeared at the Eva Longoria presented ALMA Awards to reward Hispanics contribution towards film, TV and music. Everyone suddenly wanted a piece of him.
His personal life was also enriched as his girlfriend Gabby gave birth to son, Max, in November of that year.
Yet the dream quickly became a nightmare, when he was inexplicably dropped from his shoe contract, which was up for renewal. His agent at the time hunted for other options – for which the athlete attaches no blame – but it came to nothing.
Just three months earlier Manzano had won an Olympic silver medallist in one of the sport’s blue riband events, yet here he was without his chief source of income.
“I was taken aback,” explains Manzano. “I performed to the best of my ability and then I’m told my contract is not going to be renewed. I actually felt inadequate. You feel like you are done and out of the sport. People make you feel that way when you can’t seek sponsorship.”
Coupled with the hammer blow of losing his chief source of income, he also parted ways with his coach, Ryan Ponsonby, the man who he had guided him to the Olympic podium.
Ponsonby, whom he described as his on site coach, moved on for personal family reasons. Manzano was left on his own.
“It was tough, although I kind of knew it was coming,” he adds of Ponsonby’s decision.
Suddenly with a new child to bring up, bills to pay and sharing a home with not only his girlfriend, but also his brother and sister he had to “pretty much take it upon myself to figure things out.”
He was forced to be creative. He sold Leo Manzano T-shirts online to help fund a training trip to Mexico. He took on several motivational speaking gigs to make ends meet.
Even purchasing the essentials became a constant bargain hunt. He started to eat leftover food for the first time in his life. He had to scrimp and save.
A true fighter! His T-shirt line isn't called 'Leo the Lion' for no reason
Manzano describes 2013 – with no hint of understatement – as a “rough year.” He qualified for the US 1500m team for the Moscow World Championships, but failed to advance beyond the semi-finals. He ended his campaign with a series of dispiriting double digit finishing positions on the European circuit.
“I was going through a lot mentally and physically,” he explains. “It stemmed from having no sponsorship and then no coach and not having a structure. I really shouldn’t have to worry about the essentials and what I can afford to eat when my primary focus should be training.”
He ploughed on into 2014 but without a sponsor or a coach, and the problems continued to mount. At the US Indoor Championships he finished fifth to miss out on a place on the team for the World Indoor Championships. It was his rock bottom moment.
“I stepped off the track and thought. I don’t have the support or the guidance. Okay, what’s next? Am I truly done?”
Yet his running prayers were soon to be answered. Earlier in the year the Austin-based middle-distance athlete had met Hawi Keflezighi – brother and agent to Boston Marathon winner, Meb – at a running conference.
They re-connected in March when Manzano hired him as his agent. Shortly afterwards he signed a new sponsorship deal with Hoka One One.
“They sent me some shoes and at first I didn’t know what to think because they were bigger and bulkier looking than the ones I would normally wear,” he explains. “But when I put them on they felt light.”
He's back! Manzano wins the Pre Classic Diamond League in Eugene in May
Just prior to signing the sponsorship deal the structure he craved from the training environment also took a turn for the better.
He was training at his local track in Austin Texas when John Hayes, a former coach at the University of Texas spotted him struggling in a workout and asked if he needed any help with timing. Manzano took up the offer, which has since crystallised into a coach-athlete relationship.
“I thought I really needed some help and we’ve been working together ever since,” he explains.
With a sponsorship deal in place and a fresh support team, Manzano is once again feeling ‘adequate.’ He won a silver medal as part of the US quartet in the 4x1500m at the inaugural World Relays. He landed a confidence boosting victory in the Nike International Mile at the Prefontaine Classic, and last weekend collected his second US outdoor 1500m title. Now he is full of optimism once more.
“I now have someone who believes in me, so I know I can perform where I was, if not better.”
Yet did he ever believe he would endure the 18-months or so without a sponsor after winning Olympic silver?
“I did think ‘is it really worth it to continue?’ But it came down to the fact that I love the sport. If I didn’t, I don’t think I’d be here now.”