‘Fort Greco’ With Army Coach Spenser Mango — April ’21

Spenser Mango -- Photo: Sandy Slater

Another US Trials. An Olympic Trials, at that. And Army’s World Class Athletes Program has two card-carrying Olympians and altogether seven National Team members across six weight categories.

Not bad.

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All of this sets the tone for the latest edition of Fort Greco featuring Army assistant Spenser Mango, whose squad had entered the postponed Olympic Trials without the benefit of a relevant competitive sample size. Only one Trials-qualified athlete was able to “get matches” prior to the goings-on in Fort Worth, eventual 60 kilogram champ Ildar Hafizov. The lack of action did not prove too detrimental, as indicated by Army’s overall team performance.

Mango provides perspectives on each key run through the tournament beginning in weight-class order with a spotlight on the two Olympians (Hafizov and Alex Sancho at 67 kg). Younger brother Ryan Mango‘s memorable march to the finals on one working ankle is emphasized, which is the same case with Ellis Coleman, who had not stepped on a competitive mat since October of ’19 prior to the quadrennium’s main event. Michael Hooker (67 kg), Luke Sheridan (97 kg), and heavyweight Jacob Mitchell are all involved in the discussion, as well.

To close out is a matter of impending importance: the US Senior Nationals, which take place at the end of this very month. Coach Mango shares an outline of the training and recovery plan observed on base at Fort Carson and how the unusual turnaround is being approached.

5PM: Army athletes wrestle other Army athletes all the time domestically. It’s incredibly common, if not anticipated. But is it different coaching Army wrestlers against one another at an Olympic Trials?

Coach Spenser Mango: No, not really. Not for me. I guess my stress level was a little higher because it was the Olympic Trials. But we talked to our guys before the tournament to let them know that we weren’t going to be screaming and going crazy in the corner while they were wrestling another one of our guys. If they wanted the (challenge) block or it was blatantly obvious that a bad call was made, we’d throw it. But if it was close, we told them to let us know and that we would throw the block for them. And, we would give them advice during the :30 break.

Our guys know that we are going to stay professional in the corner. There are no favorites because we are all one team.

5PM: This tournament in 2016 was your final tournament as a competitor. Did you have any feelings, any memories, any thoughts about that at all, while you were at the Trials?

SM: Actually, no. I was really just focused on our guys. The athlete portion of my wrestling career is over, and I’m perfectly at peace with that. Now it is all about making sure that all of our guys have what they need and that I coach them and push them to the best of my abilities.

5PM: Were you pleased, or maybe a better word might be ‘relieved’, that Army guys wound up performing so well given that all but one had zero matches coming into the tournament?

SM: Yes, I was extremely satisfied with the way our guys competed. I have to admit that going into the tournament I was a little bit nervous. I knew what guys were doing in our room, but anyone who has ever competed knows that competition is different from what goes on in a practice room. I had been seeing guys do great things during that whole year when we weren’t able to travel and compete. But going out to the Trials, I was like, Oh, man, it has been a while since they have gotten their weight down and had that feeling of being down to weight and getting up early in the morning, getting their backpacks, going to weigh-ins and getting fuel in… Also, they hadn’t had that feeling of sitting in the staging area and hearing their names called out to the mat.

It was a little bit of an unknown in my mind how they were going to compete. And the first round or so, they were a little rusty. The thing is, these guys are tough as nails. Some of our guys didn’t wrestle great matches but they still came out on top. After that first round, we kind of got rolling and guys started wrestling better. But it was definitely a concern of mine just because it had been so long.

5PM: Ellis, he had been through a lot. A real lot. People still expected him to make the final despite that. Yet he was tested a bit by two very tough younger guys in Alston Nutter and Benji Peak, and still wound up where many expected him to be, in the best-of-three final. With an overall kind of glance, what did this tournament say about Ellis to you?

SM: Just his resilience. Ellis has had deal with a lot of adversity throughout his career. Injury after injury after injury, and I’m not talking about sprained ankles and sore shoulders. He has had big surgeries from which to come back. Year after year, he has had to deal with these injuries and see guys in his weight get better while he was just trying to get back to the Ellis Coleman he was the year before. And it seemed like every single time he was able to get back to as close to 100% as you can ever be in this sport, something else would happen. His ability to bounce back time and time and time again, and still be able to compete at such a high level for so long, is really something.

ellis coleman, 2020 us olympic trials

Ellis Coleman left an unmistakable impact on American Greco-Roman wrestling throughout his decade-long career on the Senior level, garnering five US National titles, four World Team appearances, and he was also an Olympian in 2012. Upon falling to Alex Sancho in Match 2 of their ’20 Olympic Trials final, Coleman took off his shoes before exiting the mat, wrestling’s unofficial but still poignant signal for retirement. (Photo: Richard Immel)

5PM: Michael Hooker started off looking really good. I had heard that he was injured, tore his intercostal not long before the event. And he was doing well against Ray Bunker, too. But he did not end up with the kind of results he wanted, certainly. People were saying that he was looking better than ever before the injury. Hooker is a severely talented wrestler, so what is it like to see a guy who is this good have to go through that? Does it hurt as a coach to see that? 

Coach Spenser Mango: Yes, like I was saying about some of our 60 kilogram guys, you see what they can do in the room and it’s like, Wow. Hooker is one of those guys who I feel that his result from this tournament… He came in banged up and his result didn’t match his ability because he was obviously dealing with an injury.

It is definitely heartbreaking when you see guys put, in this case five years, into this tournament trying to get their bodies and minds ready to compete at the Trials and something catastrophic happens — yet, you have to go out there to compete, anyway. You’re not going to sit it out. It’s the Olympic Trials. It only comes around every four or five years and, realistically, you’ve been working towards this your whole life since you started wrestling. That is the goal for most guys.

Hooker wrestled tough. He wrestled through it and gave it his all. But yes, definitely, the result did not match what a healthy Michael Hooker can do.

5PM: If we’re going to talk about Hooker and an injury, we have to talk about Ryan Mango and an injury. He basically had no ankle, had torn up two clusters of ligaments plus a fracture. He made the final against Ildar, which is incredible. What were the conversations like before the Trials? And have you ever been prouder of Ryan from a competitive standpoint?

SM: No, I think this was definitely my proudest moment. We were talking (at the tournament) and he said, “I don’t know, I was trying to do what you said but nothing was working. I wish I was healthy, because I was able to focus on what the guys were giving me, and I was able to do it.” Physically, Ryan is so athletic, explosive, and powerful that, sometimes, I think it maybe clouds his judgement. In this case, he was operating at, I don’t even know what percentage, maybe 35, 40%, so he wasn’t able to do everything. But he went out there and did the absolute most he could given the shape his ankle was in. And he wrestled awesome.

Before the tournament even started, he had some good days at practice, and he had some days where he struggled to even get through a practice. When we got to the tournament, I told him, Hey, there is nothing we can do it about now. The decision has been made and you’re going to wrestle on it. It was going to hurt. There was no around that due to the severity of the injury. So I said, It’s going to hurt, and it’s going to be bad, but you’ve got to make your mind up now if you want to push through this — or injury default out. It’s up to you, only you can decide. Then he went out there and definitely gave it his all.

In the match with (Mike) Fuenffinger, like I said, we weren’t going to be yelling. Instead, just giving advice during the :30 break if they were wrestling a teammate. In the first period, Ryan had gotten the (passivity) call, got on top, and couldn’t do anything. Whether because he couldn’t drive off of his foot or even make a decent attempt, he couldn’t do anything. The only thing I told him was, Hey, know the situation: you went on top first, he’s going on top second. You can either score in the first :45 of the period, or he’s going to get on top and you will have to defend. If you don’t get turned, you will have to score with just a little time left before the end of the match. And that dude, he went out there and got a takedown.

Stuff like that I was just, Man, he’s listening so well, he is so focused. He is so intent on doing exactly what he needs to do… Honestly, it’s so weird to say, but that was the best I’ve ever seen him wrestle — hurt at the Olympic Trials. It is crazy to say. There wasn’t anything flashy. It was just super, super efficient.

5PM: I think this was Jacob Mitchell’s best tournament. He legitimately had to dig down in Fort Worth. Usually, he doesn’t. Usually when he wins, it is pretty convincing. But in his match for third against Donny Longendyke, he really had to push. Longendyke was solidly in that match and it was a tough one. I know Mitchell is a National champ, and I know there are people who think we’ve not seen his apex yet. Either way, this is the most impressed I’ve ever been by him.

SM: Oh, yeah, I think Jacob wrestled really tough in this tournament. And I do think he has a lot more to give. He has so much potential. He is big, strong, athletic… I think this is just the beginning for him. Once we get him to focus a little more on match tactics and and learn how to consistently put himself in position to win tough matches, I think he’s going to be right there.

As you said, he had to fight a little more in this tournament. For him, a lot of times winning comes pretty easily. But with that doesn’t always come the ability to grind out close wins. I think he made a big leap, and he still has a lot more to show everyone.

5PM: Last but not least for the National Teamers is Luke Sheridan, who got past Jake Clark but was then surprised by the 19-year-old, Braxton Amos. Luke battled back, won his next two, and made his third straight National Team. What was it like, lack of a better term, “resuscitating” him after the Challenge semi loss to Amos?

SM: For me, that loss was definitely unexpected. I wholeheartedly believed that Luke would be in the final with Tracy (G’Angelo Hancock). But after that it was just, Hey man, come on. We can’t feel sorry for ourselves now, we’ve got to come back and take third. It was definitely not what we wanted, but we had to make the most of what we had left. Coming back to make that National Team was definitely something we needed to do, and he went out there and pinned and tech’ed his way to third place. After that loss, he wrestled lights out.

That’s the crazy part about wrestling. Unless you had won that match, there is no way you can make the Olympic Team, the thing you’ve been striving to do for so long. But I think he rebounded well, and we will have another shot at it in 2024.

luke sheridan, national team, olympic trials

Sheridan (red) broke out his familiar go-to headlock against rival Daniel Miller at the 2020 US Olympic Trials, winning the bout via fall. Sheridan later defeated reigning National champ Nick Boykin to place third, thus earning a spot on the US National Team. (Photo: Tony Rotundo)

5PM: The first of the Olympians is Ildar, who really emphasized how important the Rome trip was for him to shake rust off. Do you think this is all happening for Ildar at maybe the best time in his career? I know he is 33, but he is a 33-year-old who just had a year off of competition and saved his body to a certain extent. I also happen to think he has put together the best wrestling of his career the past two seasons. That’s why I ask if this could be the most opportune time for him to have made the US Olympic Team. 

Coach Spenser Mango: Yes, he is really fine-tuning the little details at this point in his wrestling career that are going to make a huge difference. Ildar, he is very, very smart. He is a very technical wrestler, and I think this is coming at the right time.

He did want to go to Rome. He is one of those guys where the more he wrestles, the better he gets. I was a little worried with such a long layoff for Ildar because I do know that he is a guy who wants a lot of competition; but at the same time, he is 33. He is one of those guys who if you give him a day off, he’s going to work out, anyway (laughs). That is why I think that long break was good for his body, to get him rested and recovered from all of those injuries. Now he is ready to go.

5PM: Everyone knows why this is so huge for Sancho. You had a similar situation in a way, though you didn’t have to wait as long. You had Lindsey (Durlacher) at the 2008 Nationals, which started your run at the top. Does that make a difference? Does finally getting past that one guy, whom for Sancho was Ellis, bring about the kind of breakthrough that creates momentum? 

SM: Absolutely. As a high-level athlete, you’re confident in your own ability even if you’ve never won. But if you’ve never done it, no matter how confident you are, there is always that little bit that says, Well, I didn’t do it last time. Now he has done it, so I think his confidence level is through the roof.

Sancho is a competitor. He goes out and gives his all every time. He finally did it. He broke through, he won, and now he is an Olympian. I am looking for him to keep riding that wave. Sancho always thinks that he is the best. I joke around with him all the time and say that I can beat him, but I’m definitely not wrestling Sancho because I know he’d kill me (laughs). But he is a phenomenal competitor who has a bunch of confidence now, so I am excited for Tokyo.

5PM: Ildar is an American citizen but was a foreigner and wrestles like one. Sancho, when given the chance, performs well overseas. Objectively, if you could, why do you think Ildar and Sancho are Olympic medal candidates?

SM: Honestly, I think both of those guys are medal candidates because of their ability to score points and defend from par terre. Those two guys are two of the best Americans we have who are capable of getting a turn from top and will also defend on bottom. With the way the Greco rule-set is right now, matches are typically won in par terre. Having some Olympians from the US who we don’t have to worry about getting put down and falling behind 6-0 or 7-0 and having confidence in them on top to get a lift, gutwrench, or both, I think is a huge credit to both wrestlers and the main thing that makes them medal contenders.

5PM: So in other words, they are both good in the ways 95% of matches are decided. That’s like, a complete textbook answer. 

SM: (Laughs) I mean seriously, Sancho is a beast on top. Leading up to the Trials, he couldn’t go 100% in practice until maybe a week or two before the tournament. In that match against Ellis, it felt like he had a lot of time on top, but that was only because he was relentlessly pursuing his lift. I didn’t know if he would be able to do attempt after attempt after attempt on top. But when he went out there, he was on it. And when he got on top, he was going.

That is what makes him dangerous. A lot of foreign opponents, they play that par terre game. They know we’re going to fight on our feet, but then we’re going to go down and get turned. Then they assume they will be able to defend anything we’re doing from the top position. But Sancho and Ildar, I know you say it’s “textbook”, but they are two of the most dangerous guys the US has when they get on top of you.

5PM: You have a US Nationals coming up right away, which is obviously weird in that it is after the Olympic Trials and in the same month, or just about. Is this going to be full or large roster for Army? And how many guys who were in the Olympic Trials will compete? 

SM: We definitely won’t be sending a full roster to the Nationals. For some guys, it makes sense; for others, it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense for them because our team isn’t all college kids.

5PM: Plus, if they wrestled at the Olympic Trials, they are already qualified for the World Team Trials. 

Coach Spenser Mango: Right. After having a layoff that long, then having them compete at the biggest tournament of the quad, and then telling them to compete again three weeks later at the Nationals? I don’t know, I just don’t think it is a good idea for some of our guys. But we will have some of our younger guys there and a couple of our vets, as well.

For this time in between the tournaments, we have mostly been doing one-a-days. There is an optional second practice if they need it, which some of our guys are young and full of fire and are getting two workouts in per day still. For the most part, it’s one a day. We’re breaking a good sweat with a little bit of live and technique. We are just trying to keep the rust off in between tournaments, though they just competed a couple of weeks ago. They are already in shape. They don’t have to try to get in shape. We’re just trying to keep them fresh and ready to compete again.

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