The arduous months-long process of preparing for the 2022 World Championships is almost over for members of Army’s World Class Athletes Program, not that assistant coach Spenser Mango is ready to exhale anytime soon.
From the domestic tournament season of the spring that determined World Team selection, to a brief European getaway after that, all the way though what has been a grinding summer training block in and around Colorado Springs, Mango has found dull moments to be rare. In that sense, the United States’ impending trip to Belgrade in advance of the Worlds may elicit an air of relief, for the year’s hardest work will have already been accomplished. The goings-on of July and August have not offered much in the way of rest. Or comfort, or clarity.
Training for the sport’s most significant competition tends to take a toll, and not just on the athletes. Coaches who invest heartily into their wrestlers are putting in the hours, as well, with their focal points unable to remain in one place. They have to mind myriad circumstances pertaining to all of their charges, an endeavor that only ends once on a flight back home. Thus, the luxury athletes have over coaches like Mango is that they can concentrate on their own individual wants and needs as tournament time looms over the horizon.
Meanwhile, Mango’s work for this season will not cease until his two feet touch back down on US soil in mid-September. And these days, he is especially busy. Five Army/WCAP wrestlers made the Greco-Roman World Team this past June: Max Nowry (55 kg), Ildar Hafizov (60 kg), Jesse Thielke (63 kg), Alex Sancho (67 kg), and Kamal Bey (77 kg). With the tournament itself now inching closer and closer on the calendar (wrestling begins on September 10), there is little time to relax and reflect. Tapering, weight management, preparing to travel, and, ultimately, preparing to fight for medals, are all they care to think about these next 11 days. The same is true for Mango, though he did take a time-out in order to provide a full scope of perspectives on the Army World Teamers in this special pre-Belgrade ’22 report.
5PM: Max is on another World Team and he is an automatic medal candidate in the eyes of many. That said, he has struggled just a little recently in terms of being called passive, at least when it came to his matches versus Brady Koontz in Final X and again in Rome against (Florin) Tita. It’s not all him, opponents know where he is a threat so they want bottle him up. But it seems like a topic with the Worlds a couple of weeks away. Has this sort of thing been worth addressing?
Coach Spenser Mango: It is really just about being more aggressive. Looking for more ways to score, opening opponents up, and creating those opportunities. The lighter weights, those guys are ninjas. The more opportunities we create for scoring, more scoring hopefully happens. We are looking to put ourselves in good positions and going from there.
5PM: The Army athletes on this year’s Team are not anonymous. Opponents and coaches from around the sport know who they are. You yourself competed in however many World tournaments and two Olympics, and I’m sure you had a reputation among foreigners. Do these thoughts cross your mind, that people from other countries might be scouting and thinking of ways to stop your guys?
SM: I would assume they are. At this point in wrestling, you can game plan for just about everyone in your bracket. There are so many videos and so much content out there that you can watch and prep, especially for a tournament as big as the Worlds. Coaches can go through the brackets and find the guys they think are medal contenders or threats to their athletes, and then develop a game plan.
5PM: The Army guys this year were only able to travel to Rome and Austria, with Austria apparently having been a very positive camp. With that being the case, do you think Rome and Austria combined provided enough of the foreign feel for your guys going into this World Championships?
SM: Honestly, I’m not sure if it is enough or if it hasn’t been. At this point, it is what it is. We can only control the things we can control. It’s going to have to be enough. We got some good looks at the camp in Austria. Guys got some good matches in Rome, which was kind of our “welcome back” to international competition. It wasn’t that long ago. We can build off of those two experiences for the World Championships.
5PM: Sancho and Kamal are your biggest throwers/lifters on this World roster, and both have their own individual stylistic ways in which they go big. As a coach, if what your athletes are doing is not textbook but is yet still effective, do you chime in and make adjustments? Or is it more about managing improvements to what they are already doing?
SM: No, I am a firm believer in that there are plenty of ways to skin a cat. If a guy is successful doing something in a manner in which maybe I didn’t have success, then I encourage them to keep doing it their way. They should develop their own style and make whatever the individual technique is their own, and continuously improve on it. I’m not really for cookie-cutter techniques. There are basic principles that everyone is going to follow; but as far as their own individual lifts or other techniques, at this level you should make it your own.
5PM: Two-parter about Kamal specifically: how has he fit in with the environment thus far that Army has to offer? And what have you seen from him when it comes to embracing the process of having another opportunity to be on a World Team?
Coach Spenser Mango: Kamal fits in great with the team. He has grown up on us. He is married now and looking to purchase his first house. Everything is kind of falling into place for him right now. He is an extremely hard worker, he is extremely talented, and we expect big things from him. Kamal is one of those once-in-a-generation type of talents who we are looking to show the world at the Senior level what he can do.
5PM: You have guys who aren’t on the World Team but were close, like Spencer Woods and Britton Holmes, also going through the training camp. How are they doing as far as making the most of it?
SM: Those guys are young, they are hungry, and they are expecting success. You put those guys in a room with anybody and they think that they will come out on top. That is the kind of mentality that really drives the room to become better. Everyone has heard the saying “iron sharpens iron, and that is definitely the case. Britton Holmes and Spencer Woods both believe that they are the best in the country and they want to prove themselves at the World level. They have been a valuable asset to the room. We are fortunate to have guys of their caliber and skill-levels. And with as hungry as they are, they are really helping out our guys who are #1’s.
5PM: This has been a different World Team camp with a different format. How have you and the rest of the Army coaching staff guided your athletes through this transitional period?
SM: There were a lot of moving parts this summer. A lot of uncertainty at times. It is all about keeping our guys focused on the goal, which is to be as prepared as they can possibly be for the World Championships and to focus on what they can control. Effort, attitude, and the pace at which you work is all under your control. We focus on that. I feel like they are prepared going into the World Championships despite all of the change they have endured throughout the summer. We are looking to put the best possible product for the US out there at the World Championships.
5PM: As of now, we don’t know if UWW (United World Wrestling) is going to adopt the new rule protocol for Serbia, referred to as “chest to chest” and with the upgraded enforcement involved. Whether they do for September or it goes into effect next season, it is potentially impactful. It is not just procedural. It may influence the mechanics of how matches are wrestled. How will you address it from a fundamental perspective in the room? Do you think this will be more impactful than other rule changes from the recent past?
SM: Yes, I think so. It is a lot of power being given to the referees on a judgement call. It does boil down to These are the rules and we are going to comply, as well as putting an emphasis on it so that we do not get dinged. I don’t see it being a big problem if it is adopted for this World Championships, but you don’t want to leave it in the hands of the referees. In the US, for Greco, we have been the underdogs for a while now, so we have to expect it to not go our way. Going into the Worlds knowing that, don’t leave it close. We need to win the battles that we can, and look to execute the plan as best as we can.
5PM: You just said that our country is looked at as “underdogs” on the World level. There has been a thought among some older types that maybe there are younger athletes from this generation who might give foreigners from powerhouse countries too much respect at big tournaments. Do you think that is true? Or do you think the overall mindset is healthier than that?
SM: Honestly, I think being a Greco-Roman wrestler from the US that you’re going into every match against a foreigner like, Oh, this guy has probably been doing this he was five or six-years-old. But that is something you have to deal with in wrestling. And, it can be the reason why you lost, or you can win in spite of that.
My mentality is, In spite of the fact that he has been wrestling Greco for maybe a decade longer than I have, I’m going to go out there and take it to him. At the Senior level, every match is going to be hard, even the ones when you might be the favorite. Because, it’s the Worlds. Every match is a tough match. The guys who are winning the Worlds, for the most part, aren’t tech-falling their way through the tournament. They’re going to have some tough matches when they will need to dig in and grind the match out. Our guys are prepared to do that. They know going in that for USA Greco, we typically start later. It’s not as popular of a style here as it is elsewhere. But in spite all of that, we are expecting to be successful. That’s our job, and that is what we need to do.
5PM: Max will be occupying the 4th seed at the Worlds. For you as a coach, does that kind of thing matter to you at all?
SM: Every little bit helps. But at the same time, it’s the World Championships, you know? I’m happy that he is seeded in the top-4 but we need to take it one match at a time. We need to go out there and wrestle to the best of our abilities every single match. It doesn’t matter if we start seeded or if we are unseeded. It’s always nice to be seeded, but I don’t put too much stock in it.
5PM: Maybe it is before you guys leave for Serbia, or maybe it is during the week before the tournament, or maybe it is at the tournament itself. But will there be a pep talk or meeting that the Army coaches give to the wrestlers? How do you keep morale up before a tournament like this?
Coach Spenser Mango: We’ll definitely have a team talk before we take off, and I’m sure we’ll have one once we get there, too. But also, when we are in Serbia we will approach guys on an individual basis. Some guy need a little pick-me-up. Some guys need to hear, You’re the best. It just kind of depends from athlete to athlete. But yes, it is definitely a process. We like to stay on top of it. We do not want anyone feeling left out or that they aren’t getting what they need from a sports standpoint. Not just on the mat, but all-around. Personal life, how they’re feeling — all of that. We will definitely conduct those meetings and approach guys individually, but the main portion of that will be once we get to Serbia.
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