US Medalist Makes No Apologies For Mexican Flag

Leo Manzano became the first American since 1968 to win an Olympic medal in the men's 1500 meter run in the London Games this summer. But he got a lot of criticism for carrying both Mexican and American flags during his victory lap. For Hispanic Heritage Month, Manzano speaks with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Switching from political games to athletic ones now, the Olympic games are over, but the victory tour is still going on for many Olympians. Today, we check back in with Leo Manzano. We met him just before the Olympic trials and he told us about his Mexican roots and his unusual path to track and field stardom. Since then, he has won the U.S. National Championship in the 1,500 meters, which some call the Modern Mile, and he took silver at the Olympics in London in that event.

That was the first time since 1968 that an American has been on the podium for the 1,500 meters, but he found himself in a little controversy after the race. We caught up with him recently when he was in Washington, D.C., where he was honored along with other Olympians at the White House, and it also happens to be Hispanic Heritage Month, where the contributions of Latinos are celebrated, so what better time to invite him back?

Leo Manzano, welcome back to the program, and congratulations.

LEO MANZANO: Thank you so much, Michel, and thank you for having me.

MARTIN: With medal in tow, which you are nice enough to show us. All the cliches apply. It's really heavy.

MANZANO: It is. It is pretty heavy and - yeah - and we brought it home, so...

MARTIN: Yeah. You sure did.

MANZANO: Yes, ma'am.

MARTIN: You sure did. So what's changed since you won the silver?

MANZANO: You know, I still feel like I'm the same person. I haven't changed. If anything, we have had a lot more media coverage, a lot more people, a lot more interviews. But other than that, it's the same.

MARTIN: It's the same. You're still training?

MANZANO: Yes, ma'am. I have one more race, the Fifth Avenue Mile in New York.

MARTIN: And we first spoke with you, as we said, during the Olympic trials. We were just profiling Olympians with different backgrounds.

MANZANO: Yes, ma'am.

MARTIN: One of the things we talked to you about is that you were born in Mexico. You came here when you were very young. Your family didn't really have any tradition of competing in sport.

MANZANO: Yes, ma'am.

MARTIN: And you kind of had to explain to them why that was valuable to do. You also got some criticism when you carried the U.S. flag and the Mexican flag around the track after your race. Tell us why you did that.

MANZANO: Yes, ma'am. Well, you know, the U.S. is my home. I love the U.S., but my roots are still in Mexico, and you know, I still have family there. I still see my grandparents and I still have roots in Mexico.

MARTIN: Was it a spur of the moment decision or was it something you had always planned to do?

MANZANO: Within the euphoria of the moment, it just kind of happened. I didn't plan it.

MARTIN: You realize there was some criticism after that. There were some people who were criticizing you on, you know, Twitter and other social media, and I just wondered - did any of that reach you at the village or how did you hear about that?

MANZANO: You know, a lot of people were reaching out to me very positive, and if it was negative, I didn't think - it was very minor.

MARTIN: It was very minor. So what were some of the other responses?

MANZANO: Yes, ma'am. Well, I mean, you know, there's a lot of people out there, you know, that - kind of the same background as me, a lot of young kids, and it felt like they - a lot of them really got inspired, not just in the Hispanic community, but in the entire U.S.

MARTIN: Well, give an example. What were some of the things that they said?

MANZANO: You know, a lot...

MARTIN: I can tell you what I noticed. I mean, what I noticed was that, in taking the silver, you were actually pretty far back in the field.

MANZANO: Yes, ma'am.

MARTIN: And what brought you over the line and what got you on the podium was this final kick, an amazing final kick, and I also hope you don't mind my mentioning that you're shorter in height...

MANZANO: Yes, ma'am.

MARTIN: ...than a lot of your competitors, which means you had to take more steps and put on more burn to get there.

MANZANO: Yes, ma'am.

MARTIN: And I think that that's one of the things that a lot of the commentators noticed.

MANZANO: Yes, ma'am. Well, I am - you know, I am five-five and a lot of the runners, on average, are five-seven, five-eight, and on occasion like six-two. So when a lot of people see me, they're like, I've never seen anybody that small compete against people that big. It's almost like David and Goliath, in a way. You know, and that just kind of goes to show that it doesn't really matter how big or how tall you are. It's just - it's kind of more the determination that you have and how much you want it.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'm speaking with Olympian Leo Manzano. He became the first American since 1968 to win a medal in the 1,500 meter run at the London Olympics this summer.

We happen to be speaking to you during Hispanic Heritage Month.

MANZANO: Yes, ma'am.

MARTIN: And this is the month where we recognize the contributions of people of Hispanic heritage to the American story. And I was still interested in this whole question of the criticism for carrying both flags, and I realize that you obviously aren't enjoying that part of the conversation. But it does reflect something that is kind of in the air, which is there are those who worry that people from immigrant backgrounds aren't embracing the United States as thoroughly and as deeply as they feel that people in the past did and as they wish they would now.

MANZANO: Yes, ma'am.

MARTIN: And as a role model, can you speak to that a little bit, that feeling?

MANZANO: Yes, ma'am. I mean - well, first of all, I mean, I love the U.S. and I'm glad that, you know - and I'm very, very honored and privileged that I've had all the opportunities that I've had. I know the opportunities in Mexico would be very scarce, but also, you know, there's a lot of people in the U.S., especially in the Hispanic background, you know, that - it's just kind of hard for them to have role models or people to kind of look up to, and in a way I guess they've kind of seen that in me.

And at the same time, when I was running, I mean I wanted to include people. I definitely didn't want to exclude anybody. I mean I'm very tied down to my roots. My roots are still in Mexico. The U.S. is my home. I love the U.S. and I wouldn't change it for the world, you know.

MARTIN: What do you think your career stands for? I know you said that you do take being a role model seriously, and I wonder what you think it stands for. I mean, one of the things that stood out for me was that, you know, many people in the U.S. revere sports. I mean, they see sports as an avenue for all kinds of things, an avenue to getting an education, to, you know, upward mobility, and your sport is less visible, except during the Olympics.

MANZANO: During the Olympics.

MARTIN: You know, track and field is not something we generally see televised, but how do you see your career? How do you see it working, you being a role model to inspire people?

MANZANO: Yes, ma'am. Well, Michel, some of the things that I've kind of done within my community - you know, I've helped start track teams in my hometown of Marble Falls. I also have a small foundation and we focus on health and fitness, and I do a lot of community outreach. I speak and talk to the Boys and Girls Club at Marble Falls. I also work on occasion with the River City Youth Foundation in a zone in Austin that's an impoverished area, you know, and so it's kind of tough there, but I try to go and I try to motivate kids to do well and to follow their dreams.

And, I mean - again, I mean, I'm five-five. You look at me. And I hope that they look at me and they're like, man, if this guy can do it, man, I hope I can do it.

MARTIN: What's next for you?

MANZANO: In the future, I'm still looking forward to another Olympics.

MARTIN: Are you pretty sure you want to go to Rio in 2016?

MANZANO: I mean, I would love to. If I have the opportunity and if I can, I will. I mean, of course the Olympics aren't just given to you. They're all attained and you have to work for them by performances on the track, so you have to compete and you have to train and you have to do all of the things that you have to do to be able to get to where you want to go. So I mean I've spent over a year and a half just really training hard to compete for one of those three spots that you get. So they're - by no means are these spots given to you.

MARTIN: Was it everything you expected? I mean, I know this was - you competed in Beijing. You didn't medal. This was your first time on the medal stand. Was it - and as you said, you know, you trained for years for that moment. When it finally came, was it what you expected?

MANZANO: Oh, yeah. Yes, ma'am. The euphoria - I mean, I came across the finish line and really just fell to my knees and there was a lot of emotion. Just a lot of emotion because I knew that I had gone through a lot, I mean physically, emotionally, and my past - I mean everything just kind of culminated to that one moment, and I think that's why - I mean it was just a euphoria all the way around the track with both flags, you know.

MARTIN: Well, congratulations once again. I think I'm on firm ground when I can say that we are very proud of you.

MANZANO: Thank you so much, Michel.

MARTIN: Leo Manzano won a silver medal for the United States at the London Olympics. He made some history and he joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Leo, thank you.

MANZANO: Michel, thank you so much.

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