Olympian Spenser Mango overcomes obstacles to excel

July 19, 2008, 9:15 p.m. (ET)

It was the biggest moment of Spenser Mango's wrestling life, so far, and there was no question who he wanted to share it with.

Just moments after making the U.S. Olympic Team in Greco-Roman wrestling on June 13 in Las Vegas, the 21-year-old Mango glanced up into the crowd and made eye contact with his mother Deborah.

Not exactly sure if he was going to get into trouble for running up into the stands, Mango quickly glanced at U.S. Army coach Shon Lewis.

Lewis knew exactly what was going on and nodded toward Mango, who then darted straight up the stairs at UNLV's Thomas and Mack Center. He landed directly in the arms of a lady wearing a brand-new gold dress.

"My mom, she means so much to me, I can't even put it into words," Mango said. "She sacrificed as much as I did for this to happen. She put just as much work in as I did. I can never thank her enough for all she's done for me."

No words were exchanged between mother and son. None were needed. Their emotional embrace was the culmination of years of sacrifice and overcoming their share of adversity.

It was more than 15 years ago when 5-year-old kindergarten student Spenser Mango was getting dressed for school in a rough section of St. Louis where the family lived.

There was a knock at the front door and a policeman was standing on the other side of the door. Something was wrong. Terribly wrong.

Spenser's father, Thomas, 32, who worked as a pipe fitter, had been shot and killed. He was gunned down while walking to his car as he prepared to go to work that day.

They never found the person who did it.

"It was a rough time," Spenser said. "I remember my mom crying and going crazy. My uncle came and got me and took me and my sister to school that day. The whole day I remember the teachers looking at me weird. I didn't know exactly what had happened to my dad until I got home from school."

Deborah said the incident is still puzzling to their family.

"I heard the gunshots," she said. "But we lived in a neighborhood where gunfire was nothing out of the ordinary. About 6:15 that morning, a police officer knocked on the door and asked if I knew Thomas Mango. He wasn't robbed or anything. They left his wallet, his watch, his ring, everything. They didn't take anything, except his life."

An enormous burden fell on Deborah with three young children to raise by herself. Spenser's sister, Natasha, was 7 at the time. Spenser's younger brother, Ryan, was just 13 months old.

One of the people who provided Deborah comfort was her young son, Spenser.

"We were at the funeral home and Spenser came up and put his arm around me and said, ‘Don't worry Mom, everything is going to be all right,'" she said. "I'll never forget that. For someone his age to say that is pretty amazing. Spenser's a pretty special kid. He's always looked out for Ryan and been a great mentor to him."

Shortly after his father died, Spenser and his family moved in with his grandmother. They lived in the upstairs of the home.

Deborah Mango, a Registered Nurse, eventually moved her young family out of the city and into the St. Louis suburbs.

She worked nights, as she still does now, to be able to stay involved in her kids' lives and activities during the day. She enrolled her children in private schools and encouraged them to become involved in athletics.

"It was the kids that helped me cope with everything," Deborah said. "I had to stand up and be strong for them."

Deborah has taken Spenser and Ryan, who has won a number of USA Wrestling national age-group titles, all over the country to wrestle in tournaments.

Spenser didn't start wrestling until his freshman year of high school.

"When Spenser first started wrestling, he took some pretty good beatings from the guys he was going against," Deborah said. "He would come home with a black eye or a bloody lip or scars on his face. But he kept working and eventually he didn't have any scars. Just by looking at his face, I could tell he was getting better."

Spenser won Missouri state titles at 103 and 112 pounds his final two years of high school, but was undersized and drew little recruiting attention from colleges.

He signed with NCAA Division II Truman State in Missouri, but never competed there. He instead joined the Greco-Roman program at the U.S. Olympic Education Center at Northern Michigan University.

The move to the USOEC has paid huge dividends for Mango. He won a World University title and a Junior World bronze medal in 2006. He placed second in the 2007 U.S. World Team Trials.

"We have great coaches and great workout partners at the USOEC," said Mango, who competes for the Gator Wrestling Club. "We have some tough young wrestlers in our room who want to be Olympic and World champions."

Mango knocked off three-time U.S. World Team member Lindsey Durlacher in April's U.S. Nationals before winning June's Olympic Trials at 55 kg/121 lbs. Durlacher was a World bronze medalist in 2006 and placed fifth in the World in 2007.

"To know somebody you've had success against has placed high in the World," Mango said, "it's definitely a confidence-booster."

Mango served as a training partner in Baku, Azerbaijan, for the 2007 U.S. squad that won the Greco-Roman team title at the World Championships for the first time.

"I've sat back and watched the World Championships for a couple of years now," he said. "Now I finally get my shot. I plan on bringing back a gold medal from the Olympics."

The 5-foot-2 Mango is one of the most athletic American wrestlers in any style.

"Spenser has won two World-level medals in his age division and now has beaten World bronze medalist Lindsey Durlacher," U.S. National Coach Steve Fraser said. "I think this proves Spenser is for real. He is very talented, extremely powerful and very fast. Spenser needs to focus on refining his skills and managing his weight properly as he prepares for the Olympics. The key for Spenser to win an Olympic medal is to go out there with confidence and poise and give it his all. He has great potential to be an Olympic gold medalist."

Mango survived a huge scare in the Olympic Trials in the semifinals. Mango was caught and thrown in the first period by high-schooler Jimmy Chase. Mango recovered to win the final two periods to advance to the finals.

Chase went on to place a surprising fourth at the Trials.

"He definitely caught me sleeping on that reverse lift," Mango said. "That throw definitely woke me up. He just planted me straight down and I landed on the top of my head. I spit out my mouthpiece, went back to the corner and I had to turn it up when I got back out there."

Mango came back to sweep another top young Greco-Roman prospect, Sam Hazewinkel, in the best-of-3 finals series. Hazewinkel, who won a World University title this past weekend, beat Durlacher in the semifinals of the Olympic Trials. Durlacher came back to place third before peeling off his wrestling shoes and retiring.

"Lindsey and Sam are both great wrestlers," Mango said. "We knew whoever came out of our weight class at the Trials would be a medal contender."

Mango will spend much of July training at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

"I need to get some more video of the opponents I will see in Beijing," Mango said. "I never watch video of my opponents, so this is something new for me. I don't want to be surprised by anything when I get over to the Olympics."

Ryan Mango will be a senior in high school next season in St. Louis. He has already won two state titles and is a top recruit. Ryan could end up following his brother to Northern Michigan or he could end up wrestling at a top NCAA Division I school.

"Ryan's so much better than I was at his age," Spenser said. "I try to help him out any way I can. By 2012, I hope he's on the Olympic Team with me."

Being on the 2008 Olympic Team has not totally sunk in yet for Spenser.

"It still feels kind of like a dream to me," he said.

Deborah says she will be wearing the same gold dress she wore at the Trials when she watches her son in Beijing.

"When Spenser ran up and hugged me at the Trials, it was great," she said. "I can't even use words to describe what it was like. His dream was to become an Olympian. He's worked so hard to get there."

Spenser is hoping a scenario similar to the Olympic Trials unfolds after his final match at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China.

His mother will be there. So will his grandmother, his brother and his mother's boyfriend, Orvelle Hughes.

Spenser said he doesn't have anything planned if he strikes Olympic gold, but you can imagine his eyes will be fixed on his mother.

"After I won in Vegas, she told me she was proud of me and she knew I could do it," Mango said. "Then she said, ‘You have another tournament to go and you have another gold medal to win.' It would be amazing to share that moment with her if I win the Olympics. It will mean a lot to have her in Beijing. I owe her so much for everything."

Spenser will carry his father's name, Thomas, into the Olympic Games with him. Spenser's middle name is Thomas.

"I know Thomas would be very, very proud of Spenser," Deborah said. "He would be so happy. I know he's looking down on Spenser from Heaven and he's proud of his son. Very proud."