Leo Manzano remembers his first race.

It was against his grandfather, on a dusty road in the small farming town in Mexico where he grew up.

His grandfather won. And kept winning, too, until he broke his foot in a fall from a horse and had to race his grandson while wearing a splint.

"That was the first time I won," says Manzano, 26, who has won plenty since then. Even non-runners might recognize the former University of Texas track star by the time the 2012 London Olympics roll around.

Today, he's just wrapped up an hourlong, easy run along the trail around Lady Bird Lake, where he does most of his training. He stretches on the lawn of Zilker Park, slugs a pink-tinted recovery drink, then starts in on a cup of coffee.

Short for a track athlete and wiry, Manzano can run a mile faster than anyone in Austin.

His times of 3:32 in the 1,500 meters and 3:50 in the mile are among top American performances, and he's one of the most decorated track athletes in NCAA history.

His personal story makes his accomplishments all the more remarkable. As a kid, Manzano lived in the rural town of Mojoneras, in central Mexico. There was no electricity or running water, and boys were expected to work at an early age to help support the family.

"Sports was considered a pastime, only for lazy people or people with a lot of time," Manzano says.

When he was 4 years old, Manzano's family moved to Granite Shoals, near Marble Falls. His father worked as a machine operator at a gravel quarry and his mom held odd jobs while Manzano focused on school.

He joined his first real track program the summer after sixth grade. "I actually wasn't that good at first," he says.

Initially, his parents discouraged him. "All they saw was I was running and had no job. They thought, ‘What are you doing wasting your time?' "

In seventh grade, he joined the cross-country team and quickly showed promise. During his four years at Marble Falls High School, where the track around the football stadium now bears his name, he won a total of nine Texas high school track and cross-country titles.

"People started talking about it as a way to go to college, then the Olympics," he says.

Manzano, who became the first in his family to graduate from high school, landed a track scholarship to the University of Texas, where he became a five-time NCAA champion and an 11-time NCAA All-American. He also earned a degree in Spanish and Portuguese, with a minor in business.

The most impossible dream became a reality when he won a spot on the U.S. Olympic team — and a chance to race on a worldwide stage in Beijing at just his third international competition.

At 5 foot 5 inches, Manzano was one of the smaller guys on the track.

"My legs are not as long," he says. "But it's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog."

It's also about the size of the heart and aerobic capacity — two areas in which Manzano is exceptionally gifted.

Ed Coyle, director of the Human Performance Lab at UT, tested Manzano a few days before he left for the Olympics. Results showed that Manzano's heart was the size of that of a man over 6 feet tall, and that his aerobic capacity was roughly twice average for his age. He had a VO2 max, defined as the maximum ability of the body to deliver oxygen to working muscles and considered the best measure of physical fitness, of about 82 milliliters per kilogram per minute.

"That's as high as you'll see in endurance athletes," Coyle says. "Lance Armstrong had about the same value."

People said Manzano had a Ferrari engine packed into a Pinto body.

Manzano's parents traveled to China to watch their son in the Olympics; the quarry where his father worked paid for their flight. It was the first time they'd flown on an airplane.

Manzano, though, was eliminated in the semifinals.

"I was 23, and I was just excited to be there," he says now. "I think at the time I just wasn't ready. Now I've had a chance to dip my feet in a little more and see what international racing is like."

A year ago, though, Manzano wasn't sure he wanted to keep running. Expectations were high, but running had become monotonous. Then he placed last in a race in Monaco in July. It was time for some soul searching.

"At times it's been a battle to keep running fun," he says. "I had to look deep. And I realized I do this because I love it, and I have one of the coolest jobs in the world."

He also realized the importance of encouraging other young athletes. He hosted the Manzano 5K Classic in late November, with proceeds benefiting the Highland Lakes Track Club, a team for kids ages 7 to 18 that he helped start during his freshman year at UT. Now he's applying for nonprofit status for the newly created Leo Manzano Foundation.

"I definitely want to give back to the community," he says.

These days, Manzano logs between 50 and 80 miles a week. He is sponsored by Nike. He runs with seven other elite runners in the Austin Track Club, all of whom are trying to make it to the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., in the summer of 2012. He lifts weights and does core strengthening work at Pure Austin gym.

"We go out and put ourselves through pain and see who the last guy on top is," he says. "A lot is within yourself. You've got to push yourself."

Before the Olympic Trials, though, comes a series of important meets. The Penn Relays this spring, followed by the Prefontaine Invitational and USA Championships, all lead up to the 2011 World Championships in Athletics in South Korea in late summer. (He and his coaches haven't decided if he'll also run in the Texas Relays, held in Austin in April.)

Manzano's goal is to run under 1:44 in the 800 meters, sub 3:50 in the mile and under 3:30 in the 1,500 meters.

Manzano is known for his kick, that last-minute burst of speed that pushes him out of the pack and into the lead as he crosses the finish line.

"He's always able to have a strong finish, and that's what championships are about," says Ryan Ponsonby, one of his coaches. "I think more than anything he's a very strong competitor. He hates to lose."

Many in Austin's running community know of Manzano's mission. They yell their encouragement as he buzzes past them on the trail on his daily runs.

The time, he says, is now.

"I'm better prepared, more mentally and physically stable and mature. If it's in God's will, I'll be on the podium."

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994