By John Bassetti
Fifty-thousand of anything — tons, dollars, acres — is a lot.
So is 50,000 meters, especially if you try to walk it — fast.
That’s the task facing Mike Mannozzi of Boardman when the 25-year-old competes in the 50k race-walk event at the Olympic trials in California next month.
Not only did Mannozzi qualify for the 50k event in 4 hours, 41 minutes and 23 seconds, but he also qualified for the Olympic trials’ 20k, which is still six months away.
Actually, Mannozzi qualified twice in the 50k: once in Dayton in November and earlier in April in a slower 4:41.49.
The 50k trials will be Jan. 22 in Santee, Ca., while the 20k trials will be in June in Eugene, Ore. — the same place he qualified for the 20k a year earlier in 1:34.40.
“These are the only two [events] offered for the race-walk in the Olympics, but the 50k comes first,” said Mannozzi, nicknamed the “Italian Stallion.”
Besides the obvious — the distance, Mannozzi addressed the differences in the events, both of which require technically precise physical control.
“I think the 50k is more difficult,” he said of the 31.1-mile event. “The 20k is shorter and quicker, while the 50k is long, fast and brutal.”
Mannozzi said it takes a couple months to adjust to training from the 50 to 20.
“It’s a different animal of a race; it’s just not the same event.”
Not only will the Boardman High graduate be in his first trials, but it’ll a first for his college alma mater, Notre Dame College in South Euclid.
“They’ve never had an athlete in the trials, so it’s sort of ground-breaking for them, too.”
Mannozzi is one of two area residents scheduled for trials in January; the other is women’s marathon qualifier Sarah Flament of Poland, whose trials date is Jan. 14 in Houston.
Also, shot-putter Adrienne Blewitt of Boardman has a June date for her trials.
The race-walking field for the trials is quite tight, Mannozzi said, comparing the 225 qualifiers for the women’s marathon to no more than 16 for race-walking.
“It’s limited to 16 [for both the 50k and 20k],” Mannozzi said, “but I don’t think there are 16 who can do the 50k in that [the required] time.”
The circumstances surrounding Mannozzi’s qualifying time in November were unexpected.
“I wasn’t supposed to race [for qualifying time] that day because I was going to be a pacesetter and wind-breaker for a teammate,” Mannozzi said of his role and intentions in what was billed as the “Ohio last-chance race-walk qualifier” in Dayton on Nov. 26. But the teammate had cramps and pulled out at 23 miles [roughly 38k], so Mannozzi finished the last seven miles.
“My coach [Vince Peters of Yellow Springs] said that it wasn’t my job to go out and race. My job was to pace the teammate and break wind on the backstretch,” he said of the controlled workout, primarily meant to benefit Mannozzi’s conditioning.
“When the teammate dropped out, I looked at my coach and put up my hands as if to ask, ‘What do I do?’ He motioned for me to ‘catch the others.’ ”
At that point, Mannozzi was third out of three other racers, and had already been lapped by one of them. First, he un-lapped himself from the closest race-walker, then caught the leader at mile 30 and led the last mile and won.
“It was atypical,” he said of the pacesetter-turned-competitor development that bettered his previous qualifying time and bumped him up one or two spots in the USA Track & Field rankings.
It was his second-ever 50k race-walk.
“I didn’t assume anyone’s chance of qualifying or selfishly deny another race-walker an opportunity,” Mannozzi said in defending his move. “I was 500 and 200 meters behind,” he said of the two race-walkers ahead of him.
“I did no harm to anyone,” he said. “My coach felt that the worst I could do was motivate the two other guys. I didn’t demoralize or ruin the effort of the other guys.”
Mannozzi may be unique because he claims to be the youngest, least-experienced individual in the trials, but then he adds another classification: lowest income.
One the reasons he believes his resources pale by comparison to other competitors is the fact that he has no car.
“The family that I go to church with lets me borrow their car when I go to training or competition in neighboring states. They don’t want me to not make the Olympic team just because I don’t have steady transportation. But they’ve been helping long before I got to this point.”
Until recently, Mannozzi didn’t have a cell phone — an unthinkable handicap by today’s standards.
Although he has a degree in education, Mannozzi has been working odd jobs and substituting in YMCA daycamps. Presently, he’s a gym monitor at the Boardman ‘Y’.
If not the caliber of a Michael Phelps, Olympian-level athletes have to be creative to survive.
“Phelps has sponsors, but, as a bill-paying athlete, I’m not in that position,” Mannozzi said of having an income and simultaneous freedom to train. “There aren’t too many jobs where one or the other doesn’t suffer.”
Mannozzi does, however, receive a training jacket and new training shoes from the Achilles’ Running Shops, located in Mentor and Erie.
“In return, I’m going to wear their hat [with logo] and athletic shirt for the warm-up and cool-down, at the trials. I’ll also represent my coach’s club (Miami Valley] and wear his jersey,” he said
By coincidence, Mannozzi and Flament hooked up with each other through his work at the Y.
“I found out through her 8-year-old kid that his mom is going to the Olympic trials,” Mannozzi said of one of his daycamp students. “When she [Sarah Flament] came to pick up her kid, we found out that we were both distance runners going down similar paths.”
Mannozzi said he’ll arrive in San Diego about four days prior to the trials to maintain his training regimen.
Plus, he wants to adjust to the better climate.