Olympic Medalist Manzano Shares Stories and Strides at Carver

U.S. Olympian Leo Manzano running with students.

Olympic medalist Leo Manzano runs with students during a visit to Carver Community School.

Leo Manzano was born in Mexico, grew up in Texas and ran as a U.S. Olympian in both Beijing and London. He’s been the first to cross all sorts of finish lines: track, school, citizenship. And Monday morning a career best described as long-running that began with no clear destination in mind brought him to Carver Elementary. A man who has raced on every continent except South America and Antarctica ran laps with students on the school’s new track and shared a personal backstory that’s especially resonant in a district as diverse as Des Moines Public Schools.

Carver is one of 11 district elementary schools (Samuelson, Monroe, Cowles, Morris, Lovejoy, Pleasant Hill, Jefferson, Hanawalt, Riverwoods and Capitol View are the others) that participate in KidStriders, a school-based incentive program centered on the goal of running and/or walking at least a cumulative marathon distance of 26 miles during recess KidStriders sessions. Carver principal Jill Burnett Requist said 234 Carver kids are involved. KidStriders operates under the auspices of KidStrong, a nonprofit established in 2005 by DMPS school board member Cindy Elsbernd. She estimates that more than 1,000 students are involved districtwide. KidStriders will run in the Grand Blue Mile Victory Lap downtown tomorrow that is part of annual Drake Relays festivities.

“The first race I ever won was against my grandfather,” Manzano told his audience of 3-5 graders. “We were herding sheep in Mexico. That’s where I started running.”

By 8th grade he was invited to join his first cross country team, something his father was skeptical about because he thought running was pointless.

“I showed up for my first practice in jeans, boots and a dress shirt,” Manzano said.

By the time Manzano was finishing high school with multiple state championships in hand, or underfoot, he was getting invitations in the form of college scholarship offers and his dad was a believer. Manzano was the first in his family to graduate from high school and attend college. By the time he finished at the University of Texas he was winning national championships despite a short stature that did not fit the prototype of a distance runner.

Research scientists at UT discovered Manzano’s heart to be the size typically found in a seven-footer. Manzano stands 5’5”.

“They said I have the engine of a Ferrari in the body of a Pinto,” is how he puts it. Another way would be to call him Leo the Lionhearted.

When he won the silver medal in the 1,500 meters at the London Olympics in 2012, Manzano became the first American to medal in the “metric mile” since Jim Ryun won silver in Mexico City in 1968.

His presentation at Carver included a video of his medal-winning performance when a stirring kick on the last lap of the race brought him from the back of the pack to the medal podium.

“I thought of my family and friends who all supported me,” he said. “My mind and my body connected and I began passing other athletes. When I crossed the finish line I cried tears of joy.”

He had achieved his goal of an Olympic medal.

“You guys should all set goals for yourselves. Long-term ones and miniature ones each day.”

If anyone took his advice in that moment for this particular day they didn’t say so. But the fact is that when Leo the Lionhearted and the Carver Cougars stepped outside for a run, some of the kids earned the right to go home at the end of the day and say they accomplished their goal of outrunning a Ferrari.

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