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Cinderella Story

Former Falcon Mike Mannozzi ’10 Competes at Pan American Games

By Christian Taske ’07

When Michael Mannozzi ’10 met with Notre Dame’s Vice President for Enrollment Dave Armstrong in 2006, he was wearing a hand-me-down, brown, slightly ill-fitting, three-piece suit, 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’m 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 traded his wrestling gear for a track & field outfit. He was leaving Notre Dame College as a 3.0 GPA student and a national champion in race walking.

Mike MannozziThe success story was complete, but it didn’t end there. Today, 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. This past October, he exhibited this on an international stage, when he represented the USA at the Pan American Games, the second largest multi-sport event after the Summer Olympics, in Guadalajara, Mexico.

“Next to the Olympics and the World Championships, this is the biggest track and field event,” Mannozzi said. “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 took place from Oct. 14 to 30. Mannozzi traveled to Guadalajara all expenses paid by USA Track & Field.

Even though he finished last in the 20k race walk, his first international event for Team USA was the highlight of Mannozzi’s athletic career as he won the hearts of the fans.

Mannozzi, 25, held captive thousands of fans watching the race along the Avenue Vallarta near the Arcos de Guadalajar Monument. The crowd boisterously cheered as Mannozzi finished the last 1,000 meters of the race and crossed the finish line nearly 11 minutes behind Argentina's Fabio Gonzalez who placed 11th.

After cooling down and entering the recovery tent, Mannozzi received a standing ovation from 20 students studying physical therapy at the Universidad Autonoma de Guadalajara.

Mike Mannozzi“We had lunch with Mike in the Pan Am Village on Friday,” said Jesus Briseno, a student physical therapist. “He was an easy person to get to like and he showed his perseverance today.”

Mannozzi posed for pictures and signed autographs even as he was boarding the bus back to the Pan American Village.

“I honestly didn’t realize the Mexican people would be cheering for me so extremely loud,” Mannozzi said. “That was an amazing experience. They kept me going considering I was pretty much solo most of the race.”

Mannozzi said the biggest bonus of his experience, other than representing his country, was meeting people from other countries. “They believed in me and didn’t even know me and were supportive,” he said. “There are no words to describe what kind of experience that is.”

Mannozzi had qualified for the Pan Am Games 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. His time of 1:34:40 qualified him for the Pan Am Games after four of the five race walkers who finished ahead of Mannozzi declined to participate due to injury and other conflicts.

But the race in Oregon resulted in more than just a ticket to Guadalajara. Since Mannozzi managed to cross the finish line below the 1:36:00 mark, he also qualified to race in the U.S. Olympic Trials next year to compete for a spot on the London 2012 U.S. Olympic Team.

Mannozzi knows he will have a nearly impossible task qualifying against some of the world’s top race walkers. But the fact that he 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 lay ahead as a walk-on to the track team,” he said. “I don’t think anyone knew.”

Mike MannozziMannozzi 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 said. “Notre Dame helped me chase my dreams.”

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, 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 4:41:49. 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 said. “There are only five of us who qualified for both distances.”

Mannozzi went a considerably shorter distance on April 30, when he won the bronze medal in the 10k at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia, the largest and longest-running track and field competition in the U.S. that draws more than 19,000 athletes.

Mannozzi came in second at the USA National 10k Race Walking Championship in Albany, N.Y., on June 4; he finished fifth at the USA National 40k Race Walking Championship in Ocean Township, N.J., on Sept. 11; and he won silver at the USA National 5k Race Walk Championships in Kingsport, Tenn., on Oct. 1.

Then came the Pan Am Games.

“Every step of my journey has been a huge milestone that I have accomplished,” Mannozzi said. “Two years ago, I never thought I would be talking about the Pan Am Games.”

His dream is to qualify for the 2012 Olympics, but he knows 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 said 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, said Armstrong, who is now vice president of development.

“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 said. “This is really a Cinderella story that we are proud of at Notre Dame.”

Part of that Cinderella story is the brown suit Mannozzi wore for his admissions interview in 2006. The suit belonged to his father 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 said, “and carry his name.”

Christian Taske ’07 is the editor and writer at Notre Dame College.