Mango brothers teach life lessons in Burlington

By Matt Levins The Hawk Eye

Spenser and Ryan Mango know all too well the virtue of perseverance, how to overcome obstacles and still find a way to succeed.

The image is etched in Spenser Mango’s mind, a picture he will never forget. He was in kindergarten and his mother, Deborah, held him up to the casket. Inside was the corpse of his father, Thomas, who had been killed in a drive-by shooting near the family’s home in inner St. Louis. Spenser Mango remembers crying. He recalls clutching his mother’s leg, telling her that everything would be all right.

In the end, it was. Deborah Mango packed up her two sons and all their belongs and moved to North St. Louis County. She raised her two sons herself, working a gaveyard shift as a nurse so she could spend as much time as possible with her sons.

Both Spenser and Ryan Mango found an outlet in wrestling. They used the sport to get a college education. Both are on active duty in the Army. Spenser realized his dream not once, but twice, competing for Team USA in both the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games. Now, he is coaching his younger brother, who hopes to follow in his brother’s footsteps and compete in the 2020 Olympic Games.

This week, the Mango brothers were in Burlington helping with a National Guard fitness camp, trying to impart their knowledge to kids, showing them they can overcome any kind of adversity if they put their minds and bodies to it.

“We’re coming out here to assist the Iowa National Guard with the Army Fitness Camp. Basically we come out and act as role models for the kids, tell them a little bit about our story, how we got to where we are. We motivate the kids to make a change, if they need to, in their lives and go in the right direction,” said Ryan Mango, who was a two-time All-American for the Stanford wrestling team. “We are active-duty soldiers. We are full-time soldiers. We are soldier-athlete. We train to make World and Olympic teams in wrestling. We also get the opportunity to give back through events such as this one.”

“It’s been great. We try to do things like this quite a bit, depending on our competition and training schedule. Maybe a kid will tell his kid to do something a hundred times. Then hearing it from us, then they’ll do it. If we can just change a few kids’ lives or say something that helps them become better, it’s well worth it,” said Spenser Mango, five years Ryan’s elder. “A lot of people don’t even know this program exists in the Army. We open the kids’ eyes that there are a ton of different jobs in the Army. You don’t have to go out and just be infantry. The Army has a little bit of everything for you. We teach them that maybe right now academics doesn’t really matter to you, but at some point it actually will. But hearing our story and what we went through and how you can accomplish your goals — you have to put everything together — maybe it will inspire some of these guys.”

The Mango brothers took two completely different paths to escape the violence and crime-ridden inner-city life. Spenser attended Christian Brothers College (Mo.) High School before attending Northern Michigan University. Ryan attended Winfield (Mo.) High School before earning a full-ride scholarship to Stanford.

Each found an outlet in wrestling, even though football was their first love.

“My first true love was football. I started when I was 10 years old and played football up until my sophomore year of high school. Then I went out for wrestling. It was a weight-class smart and I was this small. I fell in love with the sport and decided that was what I wanted to dedicate my time to and try to specialize in that and better myself,” Spenser Mango said.

“We were football players initially and I played soccer, as well. We got too small for football and we needed a new sport to pursue. My brother started wrestling his freshman year of high school. I wanted to do everything he did, being five years younger. So the next year I started wrestling. I just took off from there. It was naturally a good fit for us with our size. You get to wrestle somebody the same size as you. We hit the ground running,” Ryan Mango said.

Life changed for the Mango brothers one day during Spenser’s freshman year at Christian Brothers College High School. The school’s wrestling coach was recruiting athletes in the hallway between classes when Spenser Mango caught his eye. The next few minutes changed the course of life for the Mangos.

“I was actually just walking down the hall my freshman year and I was 88 pounds and had the huge backpack on full of my homework. I saw the wrestling coach outside waving his arms yelling,’ Hey, does anyone want to wrestle? Does anyone want to wrestle?’ He needed guys to wrestle because wrestling is not a huge sport in St. Louis. I put my head down and tried to walk past him. He ran over to me and picked me up and said, ‘Hey Spenser, do you want to wrestle 90 pounds for the freshman team?’ I didn’t have anything going on, so I thought I would give it a try. I got my permission slip signed and came back,” Spenser Mango said. “I remember the first day of practice like it was yesterday. Coach put me in a group of three and all of these guys are my size. My whole life I had been playing football against guys that were twice the size of me. I asked coach, ‘Are you sure you want me to wrestle these guys? I’m going to kill these guys.’ He was like, ‘Yeah, wrestle them.’ I was tackling everyone left and right. Coach was like, ‘Nice double-leg takedown.’ I had no clue what a double-leg was. It was a football tackle to me. I fell in love with the sport and just stuck with it after that.”

And of course whatever Spenser did, Ryan was sure to follow.

“I guess it was actually pretty easy. I figured if I did the right thing, I would set a good example for him and then he, in turn, would do the right thing. Everything I did I tried to do it to the best of my ability, whether it was school or athletics. School always came first in our family. You had to get your homework done before you went to practice. Everything I did I tried to do to the best of my ability and set a good example for him. He came along right away,” Spenser Mango said.

By the time they graduated high school, Spenser had qualified for the state tournament twice, while Ryan was a two-time Missouri state champion.

After college, Spenser Mango had yet another obstacle to overcome, one in the form of one of the best Greco-Roman wrestlers in the world.

“It was a really, really fun time of my career. I was never No. 1 until the Olympics. I had always lost to this guy. I had never beaten Lindsey Durlacher. He was the No. 1 guy in the United States. He finished fifth in the Worlds. He was a great wrestler. I remember my very first match ever at the senior level I wrestled him. I remember I had a guy named Lindsey. I was like, ‘Oh, this will be an easy match. I’m not even sure if it’s a guy.’ He went out and crushed me. It got closer and closer and in 2008 I finally beat him and was able to make the Olympic team,” Spenser Mango said.

While Spenser Mango never realized his dream of being an Olympic medalist, the experience of wearing the red, white and blue and representing his country was the thrill of a lifetime.

“It was an amazing experience being at the Olympic village with all these amazing athletes from all over the world and knowing you are the U.S.A.’s representative, competing against the best athletes. The village was awesome, just getting to meet the different athletes from different sports. The whole experience was unforgettable,” said Spenser Mango, who officially retired from wrestling at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City last year. “It’s a lot of pressure. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a great experience, but no matter how much you prepare for it, you will never be prepared for going out there knowing that you are representing the United States of America in the Olympic Games. I didn’t get a medal, but I was able to wrestle to the best of my ability.”

Ryan Mango is training to follow in his brother’s footsteps in three years. And his brother is there with him every step of the way, just as he has been all their lives. He left a legacy at Stanford as a crowd pleaser, a reputation he hopes to carry over to the international stage.

“I think I turned into a college pleaser in college, which I’m sure gave my coach a few gray hairs. I keep things exciting. Just go for it. A lot of guys in college feel uncomfortable in those positions anyway,” Ryan Mango said. “I wanted to go to the same college my brother went to because he started wrestling Greco right away. He skipped the NCAA level and started wrestling Greco on the senior level. That was a tough decision for me because Greco has always been my favorite style. At the end of the day I chose to wrestle freestyle for four years, knowing at the end of my career I could wrestle Greco. When I got done it was a pretty tough transition after spending four or five years in a college room focusing on attacking legs and mastering the skills it takes to win an NCAA title. I threw a lot of it away and tried to learn new habits and new techniques for Greco is tough. It’s been all right. I went back to Greco because it’s what I love to do. I said, ‘Hey, if I’m going to wrestle after college and forego some of this postgraduate stuff, I’m going to do something I love and love to do on a day-to-day basis.’ That’s why I chose Greco.”

When they get the opportunity, the Mango brothers love nothing more than to help kids along life’s way. Why learn lessons the hard way when you can learn from someone else’s experience? The Mango brothers know all about overcoming obstacles, persevering, keeping their eyes on the prize at the end of the road.

“These opportunities really bring everything full circle for me because when I was growing up, I needed someone to provide opportunities like this to get to where I got,” Ryan Mango said. “When I was younger I didn’t realize that. When we get an opportunity to come back to the Iowa National Guard or other National Guards and help out with kids, that’s my favorite thing to do because I know that not all of them are going to get something out of what I say. But if there are one or two of them, then I’m changing someone’s life the way other people changed my life and gave me an opportunity. I really, really enjoy giving back. I’m thankful for groups like the Iowa National Guard that put on these fitness camps. I’ve never seen this anywhere else in the whole world. It’s awesome. The kids are having a blast. They’re learning a lot about themselves, how far they can push themselves and where they need to go.”

“It was rough. Our father was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting when I was in kindergarten or first grade. After that our Mom was like, ‘We’ve got to move.’ She raised us as a single parent. We moved into our grandma’s house after that and then moved to North St. Louis County. It was rough, but she did an amazing job. She worked nights as a nurse. She got up and had breakfast with us every morning and we had dinner together every night as a family. She drove us all around the country to wrestling tournaments or whatever we were doing,” Spenser Mango said. “Just because you’re down, doesn’t mean you’re out. You have to have the resiliency to get back up and not feel sorry for yourself. Tough things are going to happen in life. It’s how you get back up and overcome it.”