USA Greco

Witnessing a Sunset – The Impact of Spenser Mango Part I

Spenser Mango retirement sunset
Original photo: John Sachs/Image: Paul Garcia

Scott Casber and Van Stokes calling the action live on April 9th, 2016 inside Carver Hawkeye Arena, the sight of the US Olympic Wrestling Trials:

Van Stokes: “Now we’re sharing the stage with two really, really fine wrestlers up here in this semifinal bout, Jesse Thielke and of course, Spenser Mango.”

Scott Casber: “We switched out Mangos, we had Ryan, now we have Spenser. And both wrestling for the Army WCAP program.”

Van Stokes: “They are, they’re wrestling for the Army’s ‘World Class Athlete Program’, the acronym is WCAP, W-C-A-P. You know, I had Ryan Mango in an earlier match and I all of the sudden reverted to calling him ‘Spenser.’ They wrestle similar, but this is the veteran, this is the older of the two, and this is the one Ryan learns from, this is Spenser. This is the guy who has owned this weight class since 2008.”

Scott Casber: “Amazing performer, too. So dedicated and they are lucky to have him in that program but boy, he has absolutely exploded, hasn’t he?”

…………………………

Maybe you were lucky.

Maybe you have been around for the last decade and on occasion, caught a glimpse of the comet, its brilliant, fire-red trail screaming across the sky. Surely, you couldn’t turn away. That’s asking a bit much. It isn’t every day that you are privy to the spectacular. A trajectory which seemingly knew no bounds but was only limited by the confines of your imagination.

Or perhaps you were one of the less fortunate. Life gets in the way of things. So does sticking your head in the sand. No apologies are necessary. The uninitiated are people, too. Maybe this was you, bothered by your own preconceptions, failing to recognize what was unfolding before your eyes.

If that is the case, you missed quite a show.

Spenser Mango took off his wrestling shoes on an early April Saturday and neatly placed them in the center of mat number two at the 2016 US Olympic Wrestling Trials at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa. Of course, he struggled for a minute removing these shoes, what, with the laces double and triple-knotted into a vice that rested around his ankles. Some in attendance breathed this in as a slight air of levity in what was an overall very heavy moment. But for many still, they needed him to have trouble getting those Asics’ off, if only because they weren’t ready yet. We weren’t ready, to accept him walking away, barefoot and in tears.

There was a fair amount of sunlight peeking in through the doors and windows which surrounded the concourse looking down on the arena floor, making it seem as though this was all the beginning of a new day. It is fair to infer that it was. But it was also the conclusion of one; the end of a long, twelve-year day filled with superlatives and exclamations, achievements and congratulations, medals and passports. It was time to rest, at least a little. To pack some things and contemplate what the next day might bring. Us mortals, we do this all the time, shut it down and plan for tomorrow. Folks all over the world have rituals for this occurrence. Its arrival is announced on the news each morning. We refer to it as a sunset.

…………………………

Spenser Mango’s career was one of great discovery. From 2006 through 2015, the St. Louis native took ownership over the lowest weight class in the United States, turning back the most ardent of challengers to his throne while displaying a penchant for dynamism and exemplifying the kind of humble elegance fans and fellow competitors couldn’t help but revere. Winning always remained the primary priority, as it does for all world class wrestlers. And nobody took the mat with more ferocity or downright meanness than Mango.  His accomplishments, like stars in the sky, are arranged in clusters for everyone to see. Though the crazy thing is, that is probably not what most will remember him for.

Victory was never at the expense of sportsmanship. To Mango, combat simply represented the basic desire to see who the best was on a particular day. There were goals, carrots to chase, medals to win. Of course. However, the legions need heroes who can conquer without pillaging. Who can knock foes down but extend a hand to help them up. There can be grace in dominance, so long as the dominant know when it’s safe to rest their shields and sheath their swords.

Just to think, this wasn’t even an athlete who wrestled his entire life. Mango stumbled upon the sport his freshman year at Christian Brothers College High School. Virtually lilliputian, he originally opted for football. Thankfully, everything changed when a Christian Brothers assistant coach intervened by leading him to the wrestling room. Things snowballed from there, as it didn’t take long for the newbie to realize he was onto something. High school success followed in a blur. By the time his senior year came around, Mango was looking to compete in college. That script would wind up taking an altogether different direction soon after.

The new foundation

Following his bronze medal performance at Fargo the previous year, Mango wrestled throughout the summer yet again and made it to the finals, falling just short of a championship to future freestyle Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo. But it was his presence there which would ultimately alter the course of his life. Ivan Ivanov, the head coach of the United States Olympic Educational Center at Northern Michigan University, was in attendance with rising star Joe Betterman watching the action. The USOEC program, still in its formative years, was beginning to grow and it needed more athletes. Betterman, who himself by this point was already a multiple-time Junior National champion and just beginning to blossom on the Senior level, needed another body.

“We were at Fargo in 2004 and Ivan told me, ‘Go find yourself a training partner,'” says Betterman . “I said Okay, so I was looking around at all these wrestlers and I could have went up to Cejudo or anybody. I saw Spenser, there was something about him I liked right off the bat, so I kept bothering him after every single match.” His coach was was equally impressed. For Ivanov, Mango’s first hurdle was passing the eye test. “It was his physical ability,” recalls Ivanov. “He was a great athlete. He had the frame.”

It would take some convincing. Spenser was intent on going to Division II Truman State, a situation where he would still be responsible for paying tuition. The duo of Betterman and Ivanov used that information to their advantage. Only instead of continuing their pitch to Mango, they went after his mom. “I just went to her and was like, ‘Hey, we’re willing to offer him a full scholarship'”, Betterman remembers.  “She asked, ‘Do they have pharmacy classes?’ I said ‘Sure!’ I didn’t even know, I just wanted to get him that badly.”

Hurling yourself into full-time Greco Roman training would seem like quite the adjustment for any American-born wrestler. It is a different style, there aren’t traditional dual meets, and to top it all off, considerable travel is involved. No matter, Spenser Mango adapted to the routine, waking up early for practice before classes and then hit the mats again in the afternoon. His development flourished. Sixth-place finishes at two domestic Senior events, the Sunkist Kids International and the NYAC Holiday International, were just the beginning. By the end of the next season, Mango added both University and Junior World Team Trials titles to his resume along with displaying constant improvement against his older, more experienced competition in Senior tournaments. This, while going head-to-head with Betterman on a daily basis.

“There was just a chemistry”, Betterman says. “He was a fighter and I knew he would be a perfect training partner, but he wasn’t just that. I decided to move up in 2006 and he just ran with it, he took over that weight class from 2008 all the way up.” Mango’s ability also caught the eye of then US Greco Roman National Team Head Coach and 1984 Olympic Gold medalist Steve Fraser, who watched the Missouri-born wrestler bloom stateside. “I saw an explosive, extremely fast, power-plug of a wrestler with great athletic ability and skill. Right from the start, I knew he was going to make a mark.”

Fellow future US Greco superstar and NMU roommate Harry Lester had a similar, but somewhat more comical first impression of Mango. “He could’ve just stood on the corner of a street in Vegas making money being a black Mega-Man. I actually met him in Fargo before he came up to Northern Michigan and I just thought, This little dude is stacked.”

Spenser Mango at the 2008 Schultz Memorial

Mango waiting for action to resume at the 2008 Dave Schultz Memorial (Photo: John Sachs)

A new recruit became necessary for the duo of Betterman and Mango and it would arrive in the shape of future US National Team member Nate Engel. Engel, coming off reaching All-American honors at Missouri Valley, was almost ready to dip his toes into serious Greco waters. “I was coaching the Team Missouri Cadet and Junior National teams and he needed a workout partner, or throwing dummy is more like it”, says Engel. “Spenser told me I should wrestle at the Sunkist Kids and I thought, Alright, I’ll try my luck. I took third after getting beaten pretty bad by him in the semis and then Ivanov offered me to come up to NMU to wrestle for a semester before eventually coming on scholarship, and the rest is history.”

The nucleus was taking form. The anchor of the crew, however, might have been Lester, one of the first legitimate “blue chip” prospects the emerging program had landed. Lester was a four-time state high school champion in his native Ohio before he set sail for Iowa State University. It wouldn’t be long before he, too, began to concentrate on Greco Roman wrestling full-time at the USOEC. There wasn’t a steep learning curve for the Ohioan. Lester had become a force right out of the gate, picking up numerous age-group titles ahead of winning big on the Senior level. In 2005, Lester further startled the wrestling world by capturing victories at both the US Nationals and World Team Trials.

This all made the Northern Michigan situation the perfect platform for the up-and-coming Mango to rise from. He had the benefit of being coached by a former Bulgarian World medalist in Ivanov; there was the competitive leadership of Lester and Jake Fisher; Betterman had begun to stake his claim as the nation’s top athlete at 60 kg; and in Engel he had found a smart, hungry partner-in-crime who also was coming into his own. After all, if it was Betterman’s job to provide Mango with trial-by-fire on a daily basis, then it was Engel’s responsibility to keep pushing him towards the top.

“It was a great relationship because we knew each other so well”, says Engel. “We cut weight together, we battled together, and I knew I wanted to be there to help our country put the best representative out there to win a World and Olympic medal.” They knew each other so well that Engel, Mango, Lester, and Fisher would wind up rooming together, meaning there was no escape from each other’s constant influence. And torment.

“We lived on 752 Anderson Street”, Lester recalls. “We called ourselves the ‘7-5-2 Crew.’ We had a couple parties, they got broken up super fast, we had some people over. It was just a good time, but I think that’s when we all came together and got better, too. If someone got slammed on their dome in practice, they were going to hear about it at the 7-5-2. It made you want to get better so that didn’t happen and you didn’t get made fun of.”

For Spenser Mango, the good times were indeed rolling. 2006 clocked another step up. He won the World University championships, both the Sunkist and NYAC tourneys, and took second in the US Senior Nationals behind the late Lindsey Durlacher, who along with Sam Hazewinkel, would go on to represent the primary stepping stones for Mango to overcome. But that would happen later. It was all blending into a massive developmental phase. Mango was making the most of the rule-set, which allowed him to show off his nearly-unrivaled explosiveness. On par terre top, he would in a flash reverse-lock around his opponents’ waists and lift them up in the air, almost majestically. The landing sometimes just as beautiful as the lift. On his feet, his height became a weapon, not a hindrance. Mango could get inside quicker than just about anyone at 55 kilograms, often lowering his level into a “high dive” as he tackled opponents to the mat. It was exciting but more than that, it was effective.

Few knew this better than Engel. As a chief workout partner, he could attest to the gifts his teammate possessed. “I never wanted to get him in a front-headlock because I knew what could happen. In a matter of seconds it could go from nothing happening to him scoring. It was unbelievable. I think both on his feet and his lifts in par terre are among the best the US has ever had.”

…………………………

Van Stokes: “Now you’ve got Spenser at this point in time, his hands full with Jesse Thielke. Thielke a young wrestler who burst on the scene years ago, making a big splash when he came aboard, Scott. But now as he’s grown into the weight class, as he’s grown into himself a little bit, things have begun to even out a little for Thielke.”

Scott Casber: “You know, and everybody says it just a little differently. I’ve always called him ‘TH-ielke’, but you say ‘T-ielke.’ I’m gonna, you know, take your lead on this one. He’s not just a top-flight contender, he was runner-up to Mango at the US World Team Trials.”

Van Stokes: “I softed my ‘h’, I softed my ‘h’, which is what I do. But, but when you put that in there and harden it up a little bit, you got Jesse TH-ielke.”

Scott Casber: (Laughs) “Okay, I see what you’re doing.”

…………………………

Grabbing on and not letting go

The tide further began turning in Mango’s direction in 2007. An impressive second-place showing at the David Schultz Memorial coupled with a bronze at a tournament in Serbia sustained his momentum. The pulsating charge would eventually lead to another University National championship, but notice would be served further at the World Team Trials that June when Spenser would fall to Durlacher in the best-of-three final, losing the second period of the second match on criteria. Even still, it became apparent: Mango was no longer a mere “contender.” He was inching closer to the mountaintop.

Waiting for him there was the veteran Durlacher, who after the retirement of stars Dennis Hall and Brandon Paulson, was itching for his first taste of Olympic competition. And 2007 wasn’t exactly a down year for him, either. The 2006 World bronze medalist took second to Mango’s other 55 kg rival, Sam Hazewinkel at the nationals and he would also go on to become part of the 2007 US World Championship team in Baku, Azerbaijan, the first in the country’s history.  Hazewinkel, for his part, presented different problems. The son of a former Olympian, Hazewinkel was practically born wrestling. On top of that, he was a Division I runner-up and and a multiple-time All-American at Oklahoma.

Durlacher’s attributes were his experience, technical know-how, and physical strength. Hazewinkel showcased excellent balance, a knack for scrambling, and an innate feel for where things should go. For the outside observer, it seemed all-too daunting. As the calendar flipped to 2008, Durlacher had beaten Mango ten consecutive times. And now Hazewinkel was demonstrating that he, too, was a serious force to be reckoned with. But in an “Olympic year”, baby steps are not an option.  Mango could either leap up, or watch his first major opportunity to assert his presence on the international stage pass him by.

It would all come to a head at the 2008 US Open in Las Vegas, for it was here where Spenser Mango took his first step towards realizing the summit. The best part? He’d have to get past both of his major adversaries to do so. The day started off fast. First was an opening round victory via fall over Andrew Perez of Air Force. Next up was tough newcomer Eric Grajales, a high school senior from Florida who was jumping onto the Senior level to make his own mark. Mango would breeze past him in two straight periods to advance to the semifinal. Sam Hazewinkel stood by holding the keys to the one door left the NMU product had to walk through.

Wrestling, particularly Greco Roman wrestling, is unique because the struggle exists as a deduction. For most participants, the inability to utilize leg attacks is a component of its restrictive nature. Perhaps that’s why most often, American wrestlers only discover the style at the urging of others; it also doesn’t usually reveal itself as a destiny without first having to seek it out. But for the elite, it is a liberating practice. There is no discernible limitation to speak of. Their bodies understand what needs to be done, their wills in-sync with the commands. On April 25th, 2008, Spenser Mango ascended beyond all restriction.

A gutty decision over Hazewinkel in the semifinal served as a perfect setup for the much-anticipated showdown with Durlacher. It also showed that Spenser Mango, while focused on climbing the wall, understood each moment-to-moment challenge as it stared him in the face. Hazewinkel could chip points and at times frustrated positions Mango preferred, only it didn’t matter. It couldn’t. Mango prevailed, taking the first and third periods to earn the right to face off yet again with the man who had proven to be his biggest foil.

Spenser Mango attempts to lift Sam Hazewinkel

Mango attempts to lift Hazewinkel at the 2008 US Open (Photo: John Sachs)

People know. They just do. Fans in an arena can tell when something or someone is about to break through. The audience isn’t innocently anticipating action, they are waiting breathlessly for the climactic moment they have more than an inkling will take place. It’s an “energy thing”, so much as an occurrence could be described. It is a wavelength, a vibe, a feeling, a gut instinct. Label it however you are comfortable, but this knowledge is one that is to be experienced lest be suppressed in demonstration. The circumstances were built upon too strong of a foundation to crumble at this juncture. Even after Mango dropped the first period, the momentum didn’t feel as though it had shifted — the narrative stayed the same: This was his time.

Mango shut down Durlacher in the second frame, effectively tying up the match. The third period introduced the reckoning. Before a sea of curious onlookers, fans, friends, teammates and family, Spenser Mango had finally been able to exact revenge, turning Durlacher in the waning seconds due in large part to that pure, otherworldly explosiveness most often gleaned when peering inside the inner-workings of a jet engine. Par terre scoring, an idiosyncratic notion at best during this era of Greco Roman wrestling, was where Mango did his damage. The manner in which he executed his assault as memorable as the context in it was taking place in. The wall, finally climbed, ushered in a new dawn. His coach and teammates felt secure in their confidence regarding Mango’s future following the bout.

“Lindsey had a lot more experience, but I knew Spenser was already on top and was going to take over the weight class,” says Ivanov of the 2008 Open final. “I knew the first moment after the match it was going to be hard to wrestle him. He proved that the weight class belonged to him, that’s what I was seeing after that match.” It was also a surreal moment for the workout partner. Engel had been there for the wrestling room wars, the frustrating losses to Durlacher, and the surge to an all-new competitive level. Mango’s win meant something to him, too.

I knew Spenser’s time was coming, but I didn’t realize it was going to be this fast”, admits Engel. “It was a special time for USA Wrestling as a changing of the guard was occurring and and he worked very hard for that to happen.” The significance of the victory was also not lost on Lester, who very well understood what it meant to conquer a stepping stone. “I told him what it was like when I first beat a top-level guy, I had actually beaten two in one tournament. And it was that these guys do everything the same as us, they’re not superhuman. Once Spenser got that, and got this one match, then he knew. And he held onto it for eight years.”

Of course, this all wasn’t a done deal. Sure, Spenser Mango had just defeated the one wrestler he for so long couldn’t solve (and be named the Outstanding Wrestler of the tournament for doing so), but in just two months time the 2008 Olympic Trials would be calling. Another blistering performance was going to be required, otherwise, the win in April might seem hollow, a false rendering of his absolute surge. The whole affair played out similarly, minus a rematch with Durlacher. Aside from dropping the first period to then-high schooler Jimmy Chase, Mango stormed through yet again, getting past Hazewinkel two matches to none in the best-of-three final. National championship? Check? Olympic berth? Check. As Engel had noted, it all happened fast. And the Beijing games loomed ever larger in the foreground.

…………………………

Scott Casber: “Nice shirt by the way, is that a complimentary shirt?”

Van Stokes: “It is. I told them I didn’t come dressed like Scott Casper with my tuxedo…”

Scott Casber: “Right…”

Van Stokes: “…and my gold tie, and they said, ‘Well here, we got this shirt.’ So yes, it is, I got this when I came in last night.”

Scott Casber: “Don’t you feel obligated to dress up though, in this particular house?”

…………………………

The biggest stage

Mango’s first opponent in the 2008 Olympic Summer games was Virgil Munteanu from Romania. The two had previously met up in the finals of the 2007 NYAC International Open. In that entertaining bout, Munteanu at one point was convinced he had pinned the American, demonstratively clapping his hands together to signify a fall while the officials reviewed the action. It was a fairly heated match, but one Mango fought his way through for a win. China would tell a different story. Mango easily brushed aside Munteanu’s offense and cruised past the Romanian. No controversy. No antics. If anything, the entirety of the match was indicative of Mango’s growth as an athlete and his willingness to embrace the environment.

Only, that would be the last time he would have his hand raised in Beijing. In the next round, Mango was upended by eventual 55 kg bronze medalist En-Chol Park from South Korea in a bloody, bruising affair. The dynamics of Mango’s first foray into Olympic competition might have seemed somewhat bittersweet at the time. A loss hurts. Everyone knows that. They stick to you like so many burs after strolling through a wicked garden. But seeing things through that lens provides an incomplete viewpoint. This was technically Spenser Mango’s sixth full year of wrestling. Sixth. And he was an Olympian. At just over 22 years of age, there was a whole lot more to still look forward to.

Check back next week for the conclusion of Witnessing a Sunset – The Impact of Spenser Mango. Have some remembrances of your own regarding Spenser’s career? Share in the comments below!

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