Afghanistan, Leo Manzano and the 2012 Olympics
By: Carlos Techera
The date was August 7th 2012. I had been in Afghanistan for months now after joining the greatest fighting force the world has ever seen in the middle of one of the longest wars this country has been involved in. In the midst of all of this, the Olympics was about to kick off and was one of the biggest highlights of that deployment.
We were in a remote area of Southern Afghanistan way off from highway 1. The fighting season was amongst was and we were fighting often. Our team only had 5 working computers, two phones, and one satellite phone per platoon making it nearly impossible to stay in contact with the rest of the world. The tempo was high. We were pushing the white zone day and night, making uncrossable roads useable again and reaching villages that were ran over by the Taliban, giving them back to the people of Afghanistan.
The 82nd is notorious for bringing the fight to the enemy and we did that during that deployment. With that we lost some great leaders and Soldiers. It hit us hard as I knew or was led by a majority of them.
We were on back to back missions with very little down time. I was tasked on my down week to drive for supplies back to FOB HOWZ-E-MADAD. We would always get a hot meal when we would go there to eat. On this particular trip, the televisions in the food hall were playing the summer Olympic Games in London. The men's 1500m was about to start and I was excited to see one of the Olympians that I looked up to and watched all through his NCAA career: Leonel "Leo" Manzano, a Mexican-American middle-distance track and field athlete specializing in the 1500 m and mile.
While a student-athlete at the University of Texas, Leo Manzano won five NCAA National Championship titles, earned All American nine times and holds four school records, including the indoor mile (3:58.78), 1,500 meter (3:35.29), and indoor and outdoor distance-medley relay. He was the type of runner I looked up to and aspired to be.
In the final, Taoufik Makhloufi made a miraculous recovery from an injury just 24 hours earlier. Nixon Chepseba of Kenya, and Belal Mansoor Ali of Bahrain ran shoulder to shoulder until 600 to go when Chepseba decided to take the lead. Behind him, runners were three abreast, with Makhloufi and Silas Kiplagat trading elbows as they jockeyed for position coming into the final lap. Another elbow just before 300 to go, and Makhloufi broke away with Kiplagat and Mekonnen Gebremedhin in hot pursuit. With Makhloufi well off the front of the chase pack, Gebremedhin took over second going into the home stretch with Iguider sprinting a step behind. Five meters further back, Leonel Manzano was starting to turn on the gas as he sprinted around teammate Matthew Centrowitz, Jr..
As Iguider was edging ahead of Gebremedhin, Manzano was rocketing along the outside, passing into second just 30 meters from the finish. Iguider just barely managed to finish a fraction ahead of the fast closing Centrowitz for the bronze medal.
Manzano became the first American to medal in the 1500 m since Jim Ryun won silver in Mexico City 1968, breaking a 44-year drought for the U.S. men's middle distance running.
As I watched this unravel in front of my eyes I was screaming in the chow hall with joy. While Track and Field isn't a mainstream sport, it was for me as I saw Matt and Leo pushing to the finish my excitement grew and grew. We made our way back to our COP where I was telling everyone what I saw. Many people were not as enthused as me, but for those ten minutes nothing around me mattered. I was so involved in the results and seeing someone I looked up to finally get the highest honors in years in track. I went back to patrolling and guard with a new motivation.
Fast forward to December 29th, 2014. I just got back from my second deployment a few months prior after being MEDAVAC out of country. I saw that Leo Manzano was in Colorado springs CO getting ready for the 2016 Rio Olympic games, so I decided to "shoot my shot" and invited him to Red Robin for dinner. To my surprise, he was totally down and I quickly found myself having a massive fan girl moment. Despite my nerves leading into the dinner, I was beyond relieved at how personable and humble Leo was. After dinner and our talk, we went on our separate ways but have stayed in touch to this day. Leo Manzano is a huge role model to me and that day we had dinner has had a huge impact on me. He taught me that looks mean very little and instead its what's under the hood that matters.