Forty-four years since the last victory by an American, Leonel “Leo” Manzano won an Olympic silver medal for the U.S. in the 1500-meter race, to the delight of his fellow parishioners at St. Ignatius the Martyr in Austin, Texas.
Born in Mexico and raised in the U.S., at five feet tall, Manzano caught the attention of the media first for his height and also for his habit of blessing himself and praying before competing.
During the 1500 meter race on Aug. 7 at London's Olympic stadium, he stayed in second-to-last place for the majority of the event. But in the last 200 meters, Manzano sprinted past the entire group to claim the silver in the race's fastest time ever for an American athlete.
Manzano told ESPN that after crossing the finish line he fell down on the track to pray and thank God for the fruits of all his sacrifices and the long hours spent in training and competitions away from his home in Austin.
When he is in Austin, Manzano attends Mass at St. Ignatius the Martyr Parish, where he gave a motivational talk to children at the local Catholic school last April.
Father Bill Wack, the pastor of St. Ignatius, told CNA that the local Catholic community “is proud of Leo – not only because he won a medal but also because he talks about his Faith and gives credit to God for his achievements.
“We are anxious to welcome him back home.”
Manzano told USA Today that during the race he “felt like I was 10th or 11th.”
“I knew I was in the back. I just kept praying, saying, 'Heavenly Father, help me. Push me. Give me the strength to keep going.”
“My kick has always been there,” he added. “Ever since I was maybe 12 years old, I've had this major gift from God. I guess sometimes it's just been kind of overlooked.”
Manzano also spoke about his Mexican heritage and his love for America. “The U.S. is my home, and I wouldn't change it for anything,” he said. “But my roots are still in Mexico. I love both countries. They both have a piece of my heart.”
Fr. Wack told CNA that he kept in touch with Manzano via Twitter during his participation in the Olympics.
“During all of this I kept the congregation informed of our communications, and people in the parish were really pleased to know that he has worshipped here,” the priest said.
“The schoolchildren were thrilled to watch his progress, and one of our third graders said, 'I am so glad I got his autograph when he was here. I know someone who has won an Olympic medal!'”