By Christian Taske ’07
When Michael Mannozzi met with Notre Dame’s Vice President for Enrollment Dave Armstrong in 2006, he was wearing a light-green, slightly ill-fitting, three-piece suit that used to belong to his dad, eager to leave an impression and hopeful to be admitted to the College.
Mannozzi wasn’t exactly at the top of his high school class and he couldn’t really afford a private college education. But Armstrong, impressed by Mannozzi’s humility and courtesy, decided to admit the Youngstown, Ohio, native; and Mannozzi received a wrestling scholarship that would allow him to pay for the education he desired.
“If I give you this great opportunity,” Armstrong told Mannozzi, “you have to do something great in return.”
“I am gonna do that,” Mannozzi replied.
Four years later, Mannozzi spoke at Notre Dame’s commencement as the recipient of the Sr. Mary Agnes Bosche Award, which is given to an undergraduate student who demonstrates honesty and trustworthiness, a commitment to excellence, and selfless service to Notre Dame and the larger community.
Mannozzi had graduated from his light-green suit to the black commencement robe and in the meantime had tossed his wrestling gear for a track and field outfit. He was leaving Notre Dame College as a 3.0 GPA student and a national champion in race walking.
The success story was complete, but it didn’t end there. Today, Mike Mannozzi is a graduate with a bachelor’s in education who is serious about living the College’s mission of personal, professional and global responsibility. He will do so on an international stage this October when he represents the USA at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Mike Mannozzi will race in the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, in October.
Mannozzi qualified for the second largest multi-sport event after the Summer Olympics through a combination of hard work and luck. Coming off a hip injury, the former Falcon placed sixth in the 20k at the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships in Eugene, Ore., on June 26, with a time of 1:34:40. It was Mannozzi’s race of his life. He managed to cross the finish line below the 1:36:00 mark, which gives him the opportunity to race in the U.S. Olympic Trials next year and compete for a spot on the London 2012 U.S. Olympic Team.
His sixth-place finish, however, didn’t immediately qualify him for the Pan American Games, since only the top two finishers could opt to book a ticket for Guadalajara. But as fate would have it, four of the five race walkers who finished ahead of Mannozzi in Oregon declined due to injury and other conflicts. When Mannozzi received the call from USA Track & Field offering him the second spot next to former Olympian John Nunn, he jumped on the opportunity.
“Next to the Olympics and the World Championships, this is the biggest track and field event,” Mannozzi says. “As an athlete participating, you are considered one of the best in your country representing your nation. It’s a great honor for me.”
The Pan American Games are held between athletes from the nations of the Americas every four years during the year before the Summer Olympics. The XVI Pan American Games will take place from Oct. 14 to 30. Mannozzi will travel to Guadalajara all expenses paid by USA Track & Field.
For Mannozzi, the competition marks the highlight of his athletic career, even though he knows he will have a tough time competing with the some of the world’s top race walkers. (In Oregon, Mannozzi finished nearly 11 minutes behind Nunn.)
“Every step of my journey has been a huge milestone that I have accomplished,” Mannozzi says. “Two years ago, I never thought I would be talking about the Pan Am Games.”
The fact that Mannozzi qualified for the Pan American Games and the U.S. Olympic Trials is an accomplishment in itself, especially when you consider how he entered the sport of race walking.
As an average wrestler on Notre Dame’s future national championship-winning team, Mannozzi quickly decided to step off the mat and onto the track instead. The Falcon track & field coaches in 2007 hesitantly welcomed him as a walk-on, not realizing he would soon race walk right past his teammates and opponents.
“I never knew what lied ahead as a walk-on to the track team. I don’t think anyone knew,” he says.
Mannozzi quickly exceeded everyone’s expectations including his own. In 2010, his last season as a Falcon, his meteoric rise culminated in winning the national indoor championship in the 3,000-meter race walk.
“Notre Dame was the first place that really gave me a chance to grow. The community embraced me as a person. It was something like I’ve never known in my life,” Mannozzi says. “Notre Dame helped me chase my dreams.”
Mike Mannozzi will compete in the Olympic Trials next year.
But his successes didn’t end at the College. After graduation, Mannozzi began working with Coach Vince Peters who has trained two other Olympic Trials qualifiers in his 20-year-long career. With Peters, whom he calls his “jockey,” Mannozzi scored some impressive results.
He finished fifth in the 1-mile race walk at the prestigious Millrose Games, the most venerable indoor meet in the country, at Madison Square Garden in New York City on Jan. 5.
Three months later, he won the Ohio 50k Championships in Yellow Springs in 4:41:50. The time allows Mannozzi to participate in the 50k Olympic Trials in San Diego next January, in addition to the 20k trials in Eugene next June.
“The 50k is such a brutal race,” Mannozzi says, “there’s only five of us who qualify for both distances.”
Mannozzi went a considerably shorter distance on April 30, when he won the bronze medal at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia, the largest and longest-running track and field competition in the U.S. that draws more than 15,000 athletes. He finished the 10k in 44:57.
In preparation for the national championships in Eugene, Mannozzi ran the 20k at the Jack Mortland Race Walk in Dayton, Ohio, on May 8. He won the race in 1:36:02.
Mannozzi was the runner-up with a time of 45:57 in the USA National 10k Race Walking Championship in Albany, N.Y., on June 4.
Mannozzi will continue to compete in high profile races leading up to the U.S. Olympic Trials, including the USA National 40k Race Walking Championship in Ocean Township, N.J., on Sept. 12. His dream is to qualify for the 2012 Olympics in London, but he knows that he faces a nearly impossible task, as he would have to improve his 20k and 50k times by about 12 and 32 minutes respectively.
“It’s very unlikely to cut off that much time at this level in less than 10 months before the Olympic Trials,” Mannozzi says before falling right back into his usual optimism. “But I’ve shocked people in the track world and myself in terms of the strides I’ve made. It’s never impossible. If I don’t make it 2012, if I stay healthy, I have a shot at 2016.”
Whether he qualifies or not, Mannozzi’s story is one that exemplifies the mission of Notre Dame College, says Armstrong, who is now vice president for advancement.
“One of our goals is to provide a private, values-based, Catholic education in the liberal arts to students who might otherwise not have access to such an experience,” he says. “This is really a Cinderella story that we are proud of at Notre Dame.”
Part of that Cinderella story is the light-green suit Mannozzi wore for his admissions interview in 2006. The suit once belonged to his dad who had died in 2001 from multiple sclerosis and had been confined to a wheelchair for the last 10 years of his life.
“I race for him,” Mannozzi says, “and carry his name.”
Christian Taske ’07 is the editor & writer at Notre Dame College.