From Burnt Orange to Gold
Austinites go for Olympic glory in Beijing
In late June and early July this summer, I enjoyed one of the most electrifying experiences of my life: I attended all eight days of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Track & Field in Eugene, Ore. It was something I'd dreamed of doing for years.
Once upon a time, I'd hoped to actually participate in the trials. However, a single, unillustrious season on the University of Texas Longhorns' track squad quickly made me realize that my real future was in writing, not running. Maybe even writing about running. Twenty-one years later, I'm still a rabid fan of the sport, and getting to see America's best runners, jumpers, and throwers chase their Olympic dreams at the University of Oregon's Hayward Field – one of the most historic venues in track-and-field history – was for me like a baseball fan getting to see the World Series at Yankee Stadium.
A big part of the thrill was getting to see many of my fellow Austinites chase down one of the top three spots in each event that would earn them a ticket to Beijing. At least 15 Austin-area residents competed in Eugene, maybe more, depending on how you define "Austinite." Five made the track team, and I managed to corral three of them for interviews: high jumper Andra Manson, decathlete Trey Hardee, and distance runner Leonel Manzano. I wasn't able to catch up to the two female sprinters – Marshevet Hooker (200 meters) and Sanya Richards (400 meters) – a problem I share with most of their competitors. All five of them, unsurprisingly, are former Longhorns.
Of course, the Austin and UT contributions go well beyond track and field. Elsewhere on these pages is Thomas Hackett's look at swimmers Ian Crocker, Brendan Hansen, and Eric Shanteau (see Austin Swimmers Look to Dominate in Beijing), and Longhorns will also be featured in baseball (Taylor Teagarden), softball (Cat Osterman), and diving (Laura Wilkinson and Troy Dumais). I have no doubt there are a few other Central Texans in other sports we've missed. In any case, during the next 17 days, there will be plenty for us here in the People's Republic of Austin to cheer for over there in the People's Republic of China.
Austin Chronicle staff writer Lee Nichols is also a frequent contributor to Track & Field News, "the Bible of the Sport." He is also proud to say that, after more than two decades, he is still the Rockdale (Texas) High School record holder in the one- and two-mile runs.
When the folks at NBC cast about for the inspirational stories they love to play up during their Olympic coverage, they need look no further than the 1,500-meter run in track and field (also known as the "metric mile"). The story is about as American as you can get – because none of the three U.S. runners in that event was born in the United States. Bernard Lagat won a silver medal in the 2004 Olympics running for his native Kenya, Lopez Lomong is one of the "lost boys" of Sudan, and Austin's Leonel Manzano was born in Mexico. In the past four years, all three became U.S. citizens, and last month, at the U.S. Olympic Trials, they raced to spots on our Olympic team.
Of the three, Manzano's transition was probably the easiest – his family moved from the Mexican state of Guanajuato to Marble Falls, about 50 miles northwest of Austin, when he was only 4 years old, and he basically grew up a Norteamericano. Still, he never took living in the U.S. for granted – now 23, he was extremely proud when he finally attained citizenship in 2004.
"I think it's really awesome how a group of individuals can come together and compete for the U.S.," Manzano said last month. "This country has given me an awesome opportunity to represent the United States. And not only me, but others like Lagat and Lomong. I don't think this can really be done in many other countries."
But just getting to the U.S. wasn't enough to guarantee his Olympic destiny. Even after immigrating, his family was very poor, and his life could have turned out much differently. His parents initially looked askance at his distraction with running.
"In Hispanic culture, people are supposed to go out and get a job and contribute to the family," Manzano said. "My parents didn't really know sports. It was very poor where they were from. They knew what soccer was, but I think they thought running was a lazy man's thing. At first, they just said, 'Why don't you just find a job?'
"This was in sixth or seventh grade. I don't really blame them, but at first they weren't supportive, but then they saw how the school was taking me to places, all these little towns around Texas, and then I went to the [Amateur Athletic Union] nationals. When they started seeing how I was doing, they became supportive and started to understand."
Even Manzano himself took awhile to understand the sport. Coming from a cash-strapped family, he wasn't exactly making regular trips to Run-Tex.
"When I first started running, I had no running shoes; I wore these hiking boots. Through high school, I'd buy tennis shoes for school, and when they wore out, I'd use them for running shoes. I'd have a pair of shoes for a whole year. When I got to UT, I found out that after every 1,000 miles, I'd get new shoes. I said, 'Really?!' And I always wore basketball shorts. When UT wanted me to wear these little short shorts, I said, 'I'm not wearing that!' But I wore them, and they were really different and gave me more mobility."
I've had the pleasure of watching a good part of his journey from immigrant and small-town boy to the Olympics. He first caught my eye at the 2001 Texas high school championships. I saw this tiny freshman (5 feet 5 inches now, and surely smaller then) wearing the purple of the Marble Falls Mustangs run to championships in the 3,200 and 1,600 meters in Class 4A – never an easy double to pull off in one day (I know; I did it in high school several times myself), but to do it at the championship level ... and win ... and do so against older runners ... takes raw guts. I thought I saw something special in this kid, but I've seen young talents flame out before and wondered if he could keep it up.
He could. Over his four years of high school, he racked up six state championships on the track and three more in cross country. He came to the University of Texas looking like a solid recruit – the eighth fastest high schooler in the nation in the 800, but two of his future teammates were ranked higher. Thus, Longhorn fans were pleasantly shocked when he won the NCAA national championship in the 1,500 as a freshman. He went on to win three more individual national championships and 10 Big 12 Conference crowns (seven on his own and three on relay teams) during his four years on the 40 Acres, and in 2007, he made his first national team, qualifying for the World Championships in Osaka, Japan.
I was in the stands in Eugene when he came down the final straightaway, latched on to the heels of Olympic and World Champion Lagat and doggedly refused to let go until he had punched his ticket to China by finishing second. That toughness I saw seven years earlier in that little boy was still there and finally reaching full fruition.
"Leo certainly understands who he is and where he came from," said UT distance coach Jason Vigilante, who will head over to Beijing with his charge. "The notion of hard work, of earning everything he's got, has been ingrained in him his whole life. How he races, how he trains, how he carries himself, it's all about his upbringing. He's certainly someone for all people, especially youngsters, to emulate."
Manzano will need that toughness on the biggest stage his sport has to offer. In Osaka, he got a taste of the difference between college and world-class running. In his preliminary heat, he got a good hard elbow, lost his stride, and failed to qualify for the finals. That experience will serve him well on his second trip to Asia. "The higher you go, the more aggressive the runners are," said Manzano. "Those guys won't give you an inch."
When he crossed the line in first place at June's NCAA championships, he completed his college eligibility and signed a pro contract with Nike. So now that he's hit the big time, might he head off to more famous elite distance-runner training grounds in Eugene or Boulder, Colo.?
"My support system is here," Manzano said. "My family, everything is here. The biggest thing for me is the support system. It's hard to function without that. I might do a couple of training sessions at altitude, but Austin is my home now. It's near Marble Falls, and I like to go back home. This is where I'm at now."
The first round of the 1,500 meters will be run on Aug. 15. If Manzano advances through all the rounds, he will run the semifinals on Aug. 17 and the final on Aug. 19.
"My favorite thing to do is nothing," admits former Texas Longhorn Trey Hardee. "I mean, I love going outside; I love Austin; I love Barton Springs; I love Zilker Park, Town Lake; I love the whole nine. I really enjoy going to Hamilton Pool. But if you gave me the option on my day off to do anything I wanted to do, it would be to sit in my apartment, watching TV or playing guitar and napping. It would clearly just be doing absolutely nothing."
That's understandable – because the rest of the time, Hardee is doing everything. The Alabama native, NCAA record holder, and 2005 NCAA champ will represent the United States in Beijing in the decathlon, possibly track and field's most grueling event. Spread out over two days and comprising 10 events, it requires mastery of every aspect of the sport: sprinting (the 100 and 400 meters), jumping (the long jump, high jump, and pole vault), throwing (the shot, discus, and javelin), hurdling (110-meter hurdles), and then, just for a good kick in the shins, it concludes with distance running (the 1,500 meter).
So yeah, the guy might want to chill a bit when he's not training.
"You get tired," Hardee says, understating it a bit. It's hard enough that a typical decathlete will only do a full 10-eventer a couple of times a year. But really, "I'm more mentally tired after a decathlon than I am physically tired," he says, "because the physical stuff will come back the next day. I won't feel fresh, but I'll have recovered a little bit. But the mental part of it and the neurological part of it is really exhausting and can last two or three weeks."
Hardee landed his spot on the team by finishing in the top three at June's U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene. Winning individual events isn't as important in the decathlon as maintaining quality across all 10 – athletes rack up points based on their marks, according to preset scoring tables, and Hardee rolled to a lifetime best of 8,534 points that put him behind 2005 world champion Bryan Clay and barely ahead of 2003 world champ Tom Pappas.
Hardee first came to Austin after two years at Mississippi State. When his former school made some cutbacks in its track program, Hardee decided to leave, and a good experience in the Texas Relays decathlon made UT seem like the place to be.
"[UT assistant coach] Mario Sategna had a similar style to my previous coach. I came for a visit, and it was incredible, the facilities they have here, the magnitude of the university. It's an athletics mecca. It felt right. It felt like I was where I needed to be." And in the run-up to the games, it was still the right place to be.
The Olympic decathlon will be contested Aug. 21 & 22. For more information on Hardee, go to www.treyhardee.com.
High jumper Andra Manson came perilously close to never donning the burnt orange. When he shocked the track world after high school with an American junior record of 7 feet 7 inches ("junior" in the track world basically means teenager), he was committed to competing for the Arkansas Razorbacks. Thankfully for the Longhorns, the Brenham native changed his mind and decided to stay closer to home. Might his life have turned out differently in Fayetteville?
"I don't know," Manson says. "I haven't thought about that. It might have been the same – Arkansas has a great coach, Dick Booth. He's done a tremendous job with the high jump. But I'm happy I came here; it's just been a warm feeling representing Texas."
Indeed, things turned out well. He went on to an NCAA championship his freshman year (2004), last year he raised his lifetime best to 7 feet 7¾ inches, and now, in his first year as a pro, he's on the U.S. Olympic team.
"Making the Olympic team was a great feeling," he says, a feeling he earned by placing second at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene last month. "Words can't describe how I really feel."
Manson might be a former small-town kid, but his athletic career has made him rather worldly. That aforementioned record came in winning the World Junior Championships in Kingston, Jamaica, and this year he was on the American squad for the World Indoor Championships in Valencia, Spain, where he placed third. And he's traveled all over America.
"Some people don't get to see that much of the world," Manson says appreciatively. But he also has to take care of his body while he's abroad and avoid mishaps with unusual foods: "I just try to find a McDonald's."
The traveling is nice, but he plans to keep living here in Austin.
"As long as [UT assistant coach] Mario Sategna is here," Manson says (see UT Coaches Represent in Beijing). "The weather is great here. You can be outside all year round. It's a great place, and I like the people here. I'm not much of a party person, but the atmosphere here is great. And having a big airport like Austin has makes it easy to get in and out.
"It's a really beautiful sight when you're practicing [at UT's Mike A. Myers Stadium] and you can look over there and see the state Capitol. Once every blue moon, I just kind of find myself looking over there."
The preliminary round of the men's high jump will be held Aug. 17. If Manson qualifies, he will compete in the final on Aug. 19.