‘Fort Greco’ with Army Coach Spenser Mango — Feb. ’24

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Spenser Mango -- Photo: Sandy Slater

Most within the wrestling world are well-aware of how much activity tends to surround the Army’s World Class Athletes Program. Last season, the nation’s dominant collective of Greco-Roman competitors was responsible for producing five members of the US roster for the World Championships. In December, four Army Greco wrestlers won the National tournament, thereby earning for themselves an opportunity to represent Team USA at the Pan-American Olympic Qualifier later this month in Acapulco, Mexico. And just last month, those same athletes in addition to other established American combatants competed and/or trained in Croatia in an effort to further prepare for the principle directive mentioned above.

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Such is how it goes for Army/WCAP. There is rarely downtime when it comes to the happenings on Fort Carson, and assistant coach Spenser Mango is once again back to discuss all of the most pressing issues facing his team as the Olympic Year continues to gather momentum.

The American delegation from Croatia recently returned stateside in advance of the Pan-Am National Team camp being held this week at the US Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Mango shares the strategy that whirs in the background of finishing an intensive overseas camp only to arrive back home to encounter another training cooperative. The Armed Forces Championships is part of the picture, too. Although Army is expected to trounce the field, the event’s spot on the schedule and how it corresponds with the ongoing prep cycle is worthy of a modicum of exploration. Not to be discounted is the approach to the Mexico trip itself. The Olympic Qualifier is, far and away, the priority; but the Pan-Am Championships takes place the week prior, and that tournament carries importance due to the point allocations being made available, which will impact seeding the following week. Mango addresses that, as well, and several other peripheral topics on the minds of Greco-Roman fans from around the country.

5PM: Let’s start with Croatia, both the tournament and camp. It was weeks ago now, but there were some solid moments out of our athletes in the event itself, and obviously the training camp is a big deal. What was your overall assessment of the trip?

Coach Spenser Mango: I thought it was excellent training. We had a room full of World-caliber wrestlers, so we were able to get looks from the Asian continent, the Europeans… There were a lot of high quality guys training and I think it really prepared us for the upcoming test that we’ll have.

5PM: Focusing on Ildar (Hafizov), he competed quite well and, more importantly, he looked like he felt very good physically in Croatia. His par terre defense was also outstanding and two of the best guys in the world could not score on him from that position.

SM: Yes, he wrestled excellently. I was a little disappointed with the finger (caution) call against (Victor) Ciobanu, but overall there was definitely a huge improvement in par terre and that continued over into the camp. He did great in par terre there, too. We’re really just looking to fine-tune and get ready to go here in a couple of weeks.

5PM: Sancho had (Hasrat) Jafarov, who along with his World Championships viability just today won the European Championships. Even casuals know how good Jafarov is. Sancho lost essentially by a turn. What was both his and your perspective on that match?

SM: It just showed us how close he is. He was right there with Jafarov. At the end of the match, you could definitely see that Jafarov was fading whereas Sancho was gaining momentum. Those kinds of looks I think are essential for giving you confidence. It is always hard with us being in the US and not being able to wrestle those guys as often as the European continent can. Having a match like that, we know we’re right there. Do a couple of things differently and we’re winning that match.

5PM: Woods had Komarov, who in a way is similar to Jafarov. Both won this year’s European Championships, and both are top World-level competitors. Woods has seen some of these types now in a few tournaments.

SM: Right. I’ll tell you what, Komarov is an amazing wrestler. During the camp, and I guess at that tournament, he pretty much did that to almost everyone he wrestled. We’ve seen where that level (for 87 kg) is at and we have to figure out a way to get there. That guy has been super-successful at the different age group, and he is obviously going to continue to be successful. If we want to compete with a guy like him, we need to compete against guys like that.

Spencer is working on it. I’ve seen a lot of good progress from him. He is also a student of the game. He wants to get better, he wants to learn, and he wants to work on the areas where he is weak. That is an awesome attribute to have, to want to work on your weaknesses. Because — everyone loves going into the room and doing what they’re good at; but it takes a special person to work on the stuff that you’re not good at. Spencer is that kind of guy. He has been steadily improving and I can’t wait to see how does here (coming up at the Pan-Am Championships and Olympic Qualifier).

5PM: On an aside, I had heard that Woods looked great in camp against a lot of big names from other places. What did that do for him, or has done for him, since coming home?

It has built his confidence. You know, moving up to a new weight class is tough. He is a little smaller for the weight, guys are going to be a little bigger, a little stronger. It’s about figuring out how to adjust because it is going to be a little different wrestling at 87 kg compared to 82. I feel like that Croatia camp helped him figure out, Okay, I can do this at 82, but can’t do it at 87. And I think that is a little bit of a struggle from bottom in par terre. Guys are a little bigger and stronger, and you can’t let them get a strong lock. But everywhere else at the camp he looked awesome. He looked awesome on the feet, and on top he got a lot of turns and throws. It’s just that one part of his game that he is focusing on and trying to improve. But he scored a lot of points in the camp and that really helped boost his confidence coming off of the “Ranking Series” event.

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5PM: The Armed Forces Championships has been moved to March. It is usually in February. Did the schedule change have anything to do with your squad’s degree of participation in the Pan-American tournaments? I ask because it was originally thought that Army athletes might not be able to appear in the Pan-Am Championships the week prior to the Olympic Qualifier.

Coach Spenser Mango: Oh, no, we actually had nothing to do with the schedule. That was the Air Force, they are hosting the event this year and sent out the proposed dates. We were planning that if we had guys who were going to be at the Qualifier and had to miss the Armed Forces Championships, then they’d have to miss it and the other guys would have to step up. But no, that had no impact on the scheduling of the tournament.

5PM: You have intimate familiarity with the process of qualifying weight classes as an athlete, and you’ve now been part of it as a coach. People tend to avoid using the word “pressure” when discussing the matter, but it has to be there. How do you talk about all of this with your wrestlers?

SM: You’d like to say that there is no pressure, but obviously anyone who has a pulse is going to feel pressure, or excitement, or however you want to say it. But at the end of the day, weights need to be qualified and we need to do it at the Pan-Ams. No one wants to go to Turkey (final World Olympic Qualifier) to do that. Our backs are against the wall, so you have to do it here. No one is planning to qualify the weights after the tournament. We plan on getting it done here. It is what it is. We know that we have to beat someone. They’re not giving out the Olympic qualifications, you have take it. Our guys are well-aware of the level of competition. We have been watching film, we’ve broken down the brackets, and they know what they have to do. Guys like to deal with that in their own ways. Some guys like to study their opponents, while other guys just like to get a general idea of what their opponents do. However you handle it or process it, we have weights to qualify and we have to get it done here.

5PM: Pan-Am Camp has now begun. How have National Team camps changed over the years since your days as an active competitor?

SM: I think the focus is pretty similar. You have a job to do; and if you’re the guy, then you have to complete the job. As far as athlete participation, we have guys who have been brought in and are specific for a weight class. For instance, a guy who was brought in for 60 kg, a guy who was brought in for 67… We’re kind of individualizing the partners we bring in and not just depending on US guys. I feel like it has been a pretty good group of guys on the Team. These guys have been through this before. They have been through the grind and know what they need. These guys have been coming up with a game plan and we’re supporting them with that and making sure they get what they need.

5PM: At this stage of the season, and with both Qualifying and the Olympic Trials coming up, is there anything specific that you prefer to see the most during camp?

SM: Not really. I don’t prefer to see anything more than another. With specific weight classes, I think it really depends on the individual competing. We have been trying to focus on each guy’s individual needs as opposed to a general plan. These guys feel confident that they can go out and complete the task, and they’re ready to go.

5PM: You travel a lot. As much if not more than any other coach in the country. No, you definitely travel the most. How do you maintain a sense of balance, or even sanity?

Coach Spenser Mango: One trip at a time (laughs). No, when I’m home, I try to be completely home. I still obviously go to practice, go to work, and all that. But I stay involved with my family and get involved with the extracurriculars that the kids have, and maybe try to go do something on the weekends. When I’m home, I try to really… Well, you can’t make up for lost time, but I want to be involved as much as I can. They all know that when I’m gone, I’m on a trip but it’s for a good cause. The guys, they realize how much I’m away from my family — and some of them have families of their own, too. We can all appreciate each other to a certain extent and know the sacrifices that we’re making, and that we’re putting all of this time in because we want to be the best.

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Listen to “5PM57: Kamal Bey and David Stepanyan” on Spreaker.

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Listen to “5PM55: Recapping Final X with Dennis Hall with words from Koontz, Braunagel and Hafizov” on Spreaker.

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