What started out as a way to stay in shape for soccer has become a full-blown passion and way of life for distance runner Diego Leon at Montana State University. Leon, who is from Hollister, but attended Anzar High School in San Juan Bautista raced in last weekend’s Big Sky Indoor Championships and has a personal best of 3:57 for the converted mile. Leon's time is the 13th-fastest mile time for a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) D1 male athlete in the 2017-18 indoor track season.
Though currently attending Montana State, Leon’s first stop for collegiate athletics was Hartnell College in Salinas. Aiming to avoid the loan debt most college students are left with after getting their degrees, Leon decided to go to Hartnell first, to complete his general education requirements and improve his running to the point of earning a university scholarship.
According to his father Peter, Leon "really wanted to run after high school and he wanted to pursue a degree in environmental engineering, specifically renewable resource engineering. There weren’t many options out there to do both. He received several offers from universities after high school but most were from schools that didn’t offer the degree program he wanted.”
Crediting Hartnell as the place that made him “shoot off in running,” Leon recognizes Coach Christopher Zepeda as a major reason he has been able to go under four minutes for his mile. “Z is as much a part of my achievements today as everyone else is,” Leon said, adding that “Z’s influence will stick with me for the rest of my life.”
Part of this influence includes a passion for running and applying lessons from the sport to everyday life. “Running just changes you,” Leon said. “What you kind of get is a drive for life. You translate your drive for running to your major or whatever you are interested in.”
Leon's growth has also been noticed by his father, who intends to support his son every step of the way. “D is one of the most focused and driven people I’ve ever known. Distance running, in my opinion, is one of those sports that requires extreme dedication and discipline (mentally, emotionally, and physically) in order to achieve success. He is one of those people that can see the goal and is willing to put in the time, work and push through what it takes.”
Former Hartnell coach Zepeda said he was impressed by Leon's ability to stay humble and driven despite his accomplishments. He said he believe that these traits can inspire other young people to work hard to achieve their dreams. "Having these examples in our community lets other kids know anything is possible."
Some of Leon’s accomplishments that chart his growth include being named CCS Cross Country D5 Champion during his senior year of high school; winning the CCCAA State Championship for Cross Country his sophomore year of college at Hartnell; and winning the state championship for Track and Field in the 10,000 m, 5,000 m, and 1,500 m races. That same year, Leon was awarded the 2014-15 CCCAA Male Athlete of the Year.
These achievements have continued while at Montana State, where Leon clocked a personal best of 3:57 in the converted mile.
Instead of focusing on times recorded, Leon puts his focus on challenging himself to grow and develop daily. “I am only concerned with the fact that I am growing and I am PRing.” PRing stands for personal record, indicating an athlete's highest achievement, or best performance.
His next steps are to continue improving daily in order to become a professional runner with Olympic aspirations. What makes him confident to continue running after college is his “progression from my whole life. It is not that I have always been good at it, it is that I have grown.”
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