A rising star in the race walking world until a leg injury sidelined him, Michael Mannozzi has battled back into contention thanks to an indomitable drive and the support of his family.
Michael Mannozzi earned 17 national race walking titles from 2010-16, so one might think placing fifth at the 2021 USA 50K National Championships in February would be a somewhat unremarkable result for him. Not so, the 35-year-old says.
“That race, for me, was in all ways a success,” he says. “That was so rewarding.”
That’s because Mannozzi, now a religious affairs airman at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, posted his best time in four years after a hard journey marked by injury and a struggle to help provide for his family. He didn’t give up the fight to be a world-class race walker, he says, thanks to his love for the sport and the support of his wife, Jemema, with whom he has two young boys. “She was always there,” he says.
Mannozzi grew up in Ohio and attended Notre Dame College in Ohio, where he was a wrestling recruit and walked on to the cross country and track teams. At one point, his coach asked if he’d be willing to try race walking, noting that he seemed to have a natural talent for the sport. Mannozzi began to train, seeing it as a new opportunity to stand out at the college. His first major victory was winning the 2010 NAIA Indoor 3K Collegiate National Championship, but that was followed by a slew of other achievements.
After graduation in 2011, Mannozzi continued to train and race, making a living with part-time jobs. Among his career highlights: He was a six-time Team USA member, participated in several Pan American competitions, and earned a bronze medal in the 50K race walk at the 2016 Olympic trials.
A memorable experience was being the first in three generations of his family to return to Italy, where he participated in the 2016 World Athletics Race Walking Team Championships in Rome. His father had dreamed of visiting Italy but was held back by a long battle with multiple sclerosis prior to his death when Mannozzi was 14. The trip, and meeting his Italian relatives, felt like fulfilling his father’s wish, he says.
His racing career came to a halt when Mannozzi suffered a leg injury in 2017. “I came crashing down,” he recalls.
Despite visits with doctors, chiropractors and trainers, no one could figure out what was wrong with his leg, so he stopped training, gained weight and felt discouraged, he says.
In search of opportunity, he and his family moved to Canada, where Mannozzi got a job in retail footwear. Eventually, he started training again, slowly regaining his form and participating in races around Canada. Still, things continued to be difficult financially. Mannozzi is open about his battle with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which he says has hampered his ability to make long-term plans.
He was considering becoming a police officer when he was accepted into the U.S. Air Force, a process he’d started with recruiters more than two years prior, he says. He enlisted in July 2019. Two months later, he set the record for the fastest Air Force race walk marathon. This year, his superiors nominated him for Male Athlete of the Year within the Air Force.
Mannozzi says he’s grateful for where he is in life and trains with as much dedication as ever, getting up between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. about 360 days per year. “It’s become my time in prayer, and it’s become my time of regulating my ADHD,” he says.
After all he’s been through, he’s a smarter racer now. He’s aware he doesn’t have that “extra gear” anymore and has lost some speed, but he knows how to leverage his talent and training. His mental attitude has shifted for the better, too. Now that his family is enjoying financial stability, it’s easier to commit to a healthier lifestyle, he says.
Mannozzi placed 10th at the Pan American Race Walking Cup trials on April 11 and is waiting to hear whether he will qualify for the Olympic trials. He absolutely plans to stick to race walking long term.
“I know now if you don’t get up at 5 a.m. — even though you are tired and it’s dark and it’s cold out and nobody is out there — this is your only shot,” he says. “This is all you have.”
The above appears in the June 2021 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.