More than a decade ago, Boardman High School graduate Mike Mannozzi was at a wrest-ling meet hosted by Kent State University where he gained entry as an ‘unattached’ wrestler. At the meet, he wore a hoody bedecked with a logo of YSU wrestling.
YSU had dropped its wrestling program, but wearing the singlet with the YSU logo opened a door for Mannozzi to attend Notre Dame College in South Euclid, Oh. when a father of a Kent State wrestler approached Mannozzi, and inquired about YSU not having a wrestling program.
Mannozzi explained he was seeking an opportunity to wrestle at the collegiate level and was actively in contact with multiple colleges after unsuccessfully trying to revamp the program or start a wrestling club at YSU.
Mannozzi immediately researched Notre Dame, set up a campus tour, visited and signed his letter of intent within 90 days. His timing could not have been more perfect as he was part of the inaugural recruiting class for wrestling and was one of over 65 wrestlers to enter the program.
“When I first went to a wrestling practice, I learned I was the only member of our team who had never competed in a state championship meet,” Mannozzi recalls. “It was daunting.” He stuck with the program and was one of only 24 wrestlers to return to the program for its second year, despite posting just a 4-12 record in his first season on the college mats.
Believing he could be better in another sport, Mannozzi had a burning desire to compete in cross country and track and field.
Boardman Boosters announces the 2022 Hall of Fame Class, set for Sept 23-25(Opens in a new browser tab)His focus on running was met with doubt and questioned by many, especially the Notre Dame cross-country coaching staff that required approval to switch sports from the school’s wrestling coach, and also mandated that Mannozzi be able to keep up with the runners on the team.
Notre Dame’s head mat coach, Frank Romano, okayed the move and it was the beginning of the now 36-year-old’s career as a race walker.
In his first competitions, Mannozzi wasn’t that good, often times finishing his events at the back of the field. Showing persistence, he began to improve, eventually becoming a scoring member of the Falcons varsity team in every race.
His college coaches reminded him that he was “not a bad runner for a wrestler.” In track, he competed in the 800 meter run, and threw the javelin, although they were not events in which he showed much promise.
Work Begins on Notre Dame’s New Spire—On Track for a December 2024 Reopening(Opens in a new browser tab)His javelin coach, Dave Bellar, asked Mannozzi if he was willing to try the race walk.
Knowing nothing about racewalking, Mannozzi accepted the offer and turned his attention to racewalking.
After becoming Notre Dame’s first walk- on to qualify for national competition, his scholarship was changed from wrestling to cross country, and indoor and outdoor track and field.
Despite being a back-up on a national championship wrestling team with a paltry 4-12 record, Mannozzi applied the mental fortitude and discipline honed during his time as a grappler to help him persevere in race walking, and despite finishing last in his first race in 2008.
Just a year later, his dedication and hard work paid off. He won his first race collegiate race walk.
Then in 2010, something magical happened—Mannozzi competed in the 2010 NAIA national racewalking championships in Johnson City, Tenn. at Eastern Tennessee State University. Trailing by at least 80 meters on the final lap of the race, the former Erskine Ave., Boardman resident surged to take first place in the race, including defeating the defending national champ.
After graduation in 2011, he didn’t give up on his racewalking career and competed in meets at venues all across the world, becoming known in his sport as ‘The Italian Stallion,’ first qualifying for a spot in the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2011 where he also finished 12th in the Pan Am Games. Despite strong performances finishing 9th and 5th respectively in the 20k and 50k race walks, he didn’t reach his goal of making the cut to be on the 2012 U.S. Olympic team
Following that, he went on to win the 1-mile racewalking title at the prestigious Millrose Games in 2012, as well as competing in the 2013, 2015 and 2017 Pan Am Cups, 2014 World Cup, and World Racewalking Team Championships in Italy in 2016.
In 2017, he became the first student-athlete in track and field to be inducted into the Notre Dame Hall of Fame, while also being the first to be inducted as part of two different sports in the same ceremony, as he was part of the 2010 national championship wrestling team.
In 2019, Mannozzi enlisted in the United States Air Force where his first duty assignment was at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Oh. He was up early in the mornings while there, at 4:00 a.m., practicing his racewalking before he assumed his duties as part of the Chaplain Corps, where he was a Religious Affairs Airman while also competing as a race walker for the Air Force.
In 2020, he gained recognition as the Air Force Male Athlete of the Year.
Including his time in college, as a civilian and as a military member, Mannozzi is now an 18-time USA national champion in various distances and events in racewalking.
At 36-years-old, married and the father of two children, Mannozzi still hasn’t given-up on his Olympic dreams.
Now stationed in San Diego, Calif., he is a full-time athlete for the Air Force and in Jan., 2023 he qualified for next year’s 2024 racewalking Olympic trials in the 35K distance (21.75 miles). It will be his fourth try at making the United States Olympic team. At the qualifying meet, he finished eighth, walking the 35 kilometers in a time of 3:18.41, overcoming a torn adductor and not being able to train every day.
“Getting assigned to the World Class Athlete Program (WCAP) as an Air Force athlete is a dream for me—I now have the opportunity to train with the most U.S. Olympic racewalkers in one location. Qualifying for the for a fourth consecutive trials is wonderful!” Mannozzi said.
Truly an underdog story, ‘The Italian Stallion’ hasn’t given up on his Olympic dreams
PICTURED: NEVER GIVING UP ON HIS DREAMS, Boardman native Mike Mannozzi qualified for his fourth racewalking Olympic Trials in the 35K event that will be held next year. Mannozzi now competes for the United States Air Force where he is now stationed in San Diego, Calif. and is a member of the World Class Athlete Program. He is pictured crossing the finish line in a qualifying event held in January in Santee, Calif.
This article is being republished with permission from the Boardman News.