Leonel Manzano (USA) takes a victory lap with the American flag after finishing second in the mens 1,500m in 3:34.79 during the London 2012 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium. (Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports)

What am I? Runner Leonel Manzano on the sacrifices that led him to the Olympic podium

2013-03_2238072_WhatAmI_640x90_v1Olympic Glory! Spectators only see a glimpse of an entire life; three minutes and 34 seconds, speed over the finish line and nab an Olympic medal! But there are few that see the work, the sacrifice and the daily personal struggle of these athletes. How is it that a small 5’5” man who hails from a small village in central Mexico that once upon a time had no running water or electricity is able to achieve his Olympic dream and become the first North American person to win a silver medal in the men’s 1500 meters since Jim Ryun in 1968?

From a small farming community in central Mexico, my family immigrated to the United States in search of a better life in a small town in Texas. Growing up in an agriculturally-based society based on hard work, my parents had no idea what sports were or the doors participation in sports could open for me. They felt I was wasting my time in track and, given our meager means, didn’t have the extra money for running shoes or running gear that I needed.

Silver medalist Leonel Manzano of the United States poses on the 2012 London Olympics podium in London, England.  (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Silver medalist Leonel Manzano of the United States poses on the 2012 London Olympics podium in London, England. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

I didn’t think I had the same opportunities as my other U.S. born counterparts. I thought I would graduate from high school and find a job. I wasn’t expected to go to college like my U.S.-born friends but on the flip side, the fact that going to college was not part of my future, made me work all the much harder to attain that goal.

My big break came when I received a call from the track coach at the University of Texas, who offered me a track scholarship. I had no idea at that time that this opportunity would set in motion a roller coaster of events that ultimately led me to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and 2012 Olympics in London.

Fast forward, and here I am in the Olympic Stadium in London for the second time in my life! I place my foot on the starting line and the gun goes off! The first two and a half laps are brutal; I didn’t get good position, and was boxed in. Suddenly, in an instant, my life flashes before my eyes.

I think about my family and how hard my dad has worked all these years. I think about how he used to drop me off at 5:15am for track practice since we only had one car. I think about how he had gone to work on crutches when he couldn’t walk. I think about my mom and how much she had put up with me as a kid. I think about all my family and friends in the U.S. and in Mexico glued to their TV sets at home watching me in this Olympic final.

I say to myself, “Fight for every minute for every second until the last second!” With 100 meters to go, I realize that I am in 6th place. It dawns on me that it is now or never. Like a lot of Latinos, I am Catholic, so I begin to pray and to talk to myself. “Come on! I can do this, if I can pass at least 3 more people I can win a medal!” I bear down and start my kick with just 50 meters to go, and find myself speeding by not one, but two, three and yet a fourth guy. I cross the finish line and I know that I have just won an Olympic medal!

In the rush of emotions, I thought about how much this would mean to everyone back home in both the U.S. and in Mexico. I thought especially of those people that I grew up with, the working class people who toil away, day in and day out like my dad, El Jefe, who never missed a day of work in his life. I thought of all the sacrifices everyone made for me to be in the Olympic stadium enjoying the moment. Rewards on the track championships are only achieved with years of hard work, long hours, a lot of sacrifice, laser mental focus, dedication to the sport and of course a lot of pain.

Who am I? An immigrant, a U.S. citizen, a Mexican-American, an Olympic silver medalist. I am proud that, from a humble beginning, I have been able to overcome so many obstacles and realize my dream. I am especially proud that I was able to bring home the first silver medal in the men’s 1500 meters since 1968. More importantly, it also gives me much joy that I can share this with all my brothers and sisters from the U.S., Mexico and Latin America I also feel that this accomplishment and victory is all of ours!

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