Senior Airman Michael Mannozzi, 36, of Boardman, is one of nine U.S. Air Force athletes to be selected for a two-year program that will allow him to train for the Olympic Trials for a chance to gain a berth in the 2024 games in Paris, France.
As a part of the Air Force’s ‘World Class Athlete Program,’ (WCAP), Mannozzi will train at a location (probably in California) that will provide him with the greatest potential to make the U.S. Olympic team as a race walker.
In 2019, Mannozzi (known in race walking circles as ‘The Italian Stallion’) enlisted in the Air Force and following basic training, he was assigned to Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Oh. as a religious affairs airman. Still, he didn’t give up race walking and he was a familiar site at Wright Patterson practicing his craft at 5:00 a.m. in the morning; all the while touting his potential in the sport to just about anyone who would listen—including a tech school squadron commander who was impressed at the race walker’s efforts to help fellow airmen pass physical training tests. The commander wrote letters up the chain-of-command that moved hurdles and gave Mannozzi the chance to represent Wright Patterson, and the U.S. Air Force at race walking events.
This July, Mannozzi won the 10K racewalk at the United States Track and Field Masters Championships held in Lexington, Ky., his 18th national race walking title.
His first crown came in 2010 when with two laps to go and trailing the field in the NAIA national championships, he came back to win the race representing Notre Dame College in Cleveland.
Mannozzi’s remarkable run into an elite status among American race-walkers actually began at Youngstown State University in 2005, where as a freshman, he wanted to form a wrestling team at the school, which at the time had none. While at YSU, he tried as a ‘walk-on’ to join the Penguins cross country, track and football teams. He was spurned at every turn.
Then, while attending a wrestling meet at Kent State University, he wore a ‘YSU wrestling sweatshirt’ that he made.
At that meet, he was approached by the father of an Austintown Fitch wrestler who was on the KSU mat team, and who asked about the YSU program.
At that point, Mannozzi had to explain there was no wrestling program at the school—and the father suggested he contact Notre Dame College, that was just starting their own wrestling team.
Mannozzi visited the school and soon joined the ND wrestling program on a scholarship. But he was ‘sub-par’ on the mats, and decided to try out for the school’s track program.
Though he scored some points in track and field, it didn’t seem he would attain any status in the sport.
So, his javelin coach suggested Mannozzi try racewalking, since the school did not have any athletes competing in that event. He wasn’t very good at that either, and in his first race in Mar., 2008, the whole field of competitors beat him.
Then he came out of nowhere two years later to win the NAIA championship and since that time has been doggedly pursuing his Olympic dreams.“I don’t intend to give up on my dream,” he says,
After college graduation in 2011, Mannozzi continued to train and race, making a living with part-time jobs, including at Tee Up golf range in Boardman; and the D.D. and Velma Davis Family YMCA, all the while competing in the sport he loves at venues across America, and around the globe.
Among his career highlights: He is a six-time Team USA member, has participated in several Pan American competitions, and earned a bronze medal in the 50K race walk at the 2016 Olympic Trials, but his time was too slow to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team.
A memorable experience was being the first in three generations of his family to return to Italy, where he participated in the 2016 World Athletics Race Walking Team Championships in Rome. His father, Russ, had dreamed of visiting Italy but was held back by a long battle with multiple sclerosis prior to his death when Mannozzi was 14-years-old. The trip, and meeting his Italian relatives, felt like he was fulfilling his father’s wish, he says.
His racing career came to a halt when Mannozzi suffered a leg injury in 2017. “I came crashing down,” he recalls.
Despite visits with doctors, chiropractors and trainers, no one could figure out what was wrong with his leg, so he stopped training, gained weight and felt discouraged, he says.
In search of opportunity, he and his family moved to Canada, where Mannozzi got a job in retail footwear. Eventually, he started training again, slowly regaining his form and participating in races around Canada. Still, things continued to be difficult financially. And, Mannozzi is open about his battle with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which he says hampered his ability to make long-term plans.
He was considering becoming a police officer when he was accepted into the U.S. Air Force, a process he’d started with recruiters more than two years prior, he says. He enlisted in July, 2019. Two months later, he set the record for the fastest Air Force race walk marathon, and in 2020 was honored as Wright Patterson Athlete of the Year.
Mannozzi says he’s grateful for where he is in life and trains with as much dedication as ever, getting up between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. about 360 days per year.
“It’s become my time in prayer, and it’s become my time of regulating my ADHD,” he says
After all he’s been through, he’s a smarter racer now. He’s aware he doesn’t have that ‘extra gear’ anymore and has lost some speed, but he knows how to leverage his talent and training. His mental attitude has shifted for the better, too. Now that his family is enjoying financial stability, it’s easier to commit to a healthier lifestyle, he says. He absolutely plans to stick to race walking for the long term.
“I know now if you don’t get up at 5 a.m. — even though you are tired and it’s dark and it’s cold out and nobody is out there — this is your only shot,” he says. “This is all you have.” He is also aware, at 36-years-old, his days at achieving his Olympic dreams could be numbered.
“I’ve got a long way to go, but I’m building by first base camp on Mt. Everest, and working hard to get to the summit.”
Mannozzi and his wife, Jemma, are the parents of two sons, Matthew and Jason. His wife and children provide constant inspiration along his journey.
This article is being republished with permission from the Boardman News.