By Mark Soltau
STANFORD, Calif. -
When you raise two wrestlers, you better have good homeowners insurance. At least, that's what you would think.
"Not too much broken furniture," said Deborah Mango. "Ryan was always younger than Spenser and there was a little bit of a weight difference there."
Spenser, 25, wrestled for the U.S. Olympic team in 2008, finishing eighth in Beijing, China. Ryan, 20, is a junior at Stanford University and recently won the Pac-12 Championship at 125 pounds. Beginning Thursday, he will compete for the Cardinal in the NCAA Championships in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri.
"I'm a little bit nervous," said Deborah, who will root on Ryan with family and friends. "Nothing could keep me away. It's everything that you work for all year."
Nobody knows the meaning of hard work more than Deborah. She has spent most of her life sacrificing for Spenser, Ryan, and Natasha, 27, working the nightshift - 11:30 p.m. to 8 a.m. - as a registered nurse.
When Mango was 13 months old, his father, Thomas, was killed in a drive-by shooting outside the family home while he was getting into his car to go to work. The murder has never been solved.
"They never found out any reason or who did it," Ryan said. "A city bus driver saw him in the street and called the police. They came to our door and knocked, and my brother and sister ran outside. It was just a crazy time."
Deborah didn't have time for self-pity and put all three kids through private school. Spenser joined the Army last October and is hoping to wrestle for the U.S. Olympic team in London at 121 pounds.
"As far as my mom raising all three of us, she did an incredible job," said Ryan. "I don't know how she did it. All three of us played sports and she did it mostly on her own. She'd come back from work each morning, cook us breakfast, take us to school, run errands, pick us up, take us to practice and go straight back to work. I'm definitely grateful."
As you might expect, the family is close. Deborah credits Ryan for keeping her busy after her husband's death.
"I guess that's why I gave so much of myself to him," she said. "He helped me stay focused and gave me something to do every day because he had to be taken care of. It's been 20 years. It seems sometimes like yesterday, but it's better than it was."
Spenser played football growing up. When he was 14, he was cut from the team because, at 92 pounds, the school considered him a liability.
Fortunately for Spenser, his health teacher was also the "B" team wrestling coach and asked him to join. Spenser went on to become a two-time state champion.
"That did motivate Ryan because he was playing football as well,"
Deborah said. "As soon as he changed sports (fifth grade), Ryan wanted to be like his big brother."
At first, Mango wrestled at a local club. Then, he rotated between three other locations. The more he improved, the more mileage Deborah put on the car.
"We ended up like 35 miles from home every Monday, Wednesday and Friday so he would be where the competition was," said Deborah. "After that, we would go all over the countryside to various meets every weekend. That's how it all started."
Mango earned two letters in soccer and four in wrestling at the Whitfield School in St. Louis. He placed second in the state meet at a sophomore and won back-to-back state titles as a junior and senior, compiling a 95-0 record, and was named 2009 Class-1 state wrestler of the year by the Missouri Wrestling Association.
At Stanford, Mango posted a 25-15 record at 125 pounds his freshman year and placed third in the Pac-10 Championships. Last year, he finished 26-7 and placed fourth in the Pac-10s. During one stretch, he recorded 14 consecutive wins, the 10th-best streak in school history.
Mango rebounded from a knee injury to place sixth in the NCAA Championships and was named an All-American.
Mango started the 2011-12 season wrestling at 133 pounds, but changed to 125. He finished the regular season with a 25-5 mark, all five losses coming at the higher weight.
"As the year went on, I realized I could do a lot better at 125," he said.
"I made the drop pretty late in the season and had three matches at 125 going into the Pac-12s and came out with a championship. Hopefully, I can do that same thing this week."
Stanford wrestling coach Jason Borrelli likes Mango's chances. He'll need five victories to secure an NCAA title.
"They're as good as anyone's in the tournament," he said. "Ryan is a very special kid and certainly has the mind and skill set to reach the top of the podium."
Borrelli said Ryan's biggest strengths are "his quickness, strength, explosiveness and flexibility. However, his competitiveness and desire to be the best in the sport are very evident to me."
Mango is a tireless worker. Following the NCAA Championships, he'll switch to Greco-Roman and freestyle and will try to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team, although he thinks his chances for 2016 might be more realistic.
"It's a 24/7 thing," he said. "After nationals, I'll take a little break just to clear my mind. But for the most part, I train all-year round."
What does he enjoy most about wrestling?
"The fact that it's one on one," said Mango. "It's not team dependent, so if things don't go my way and I don't get a W, it's my fault and I know what I need to do to fix it. I like to win."
The easy-going Mango is self-confident, soft-spoken, and has lived with Cardinal football players the last two years. He seldom gets butterflies before a match.
"When I was younger I would get nervous and try to get pumped up before matches," he said. "But now, I just kind of relax, listen to music, and remind myself of all the things I did to get there."
A biology major, Mango is interested in attending pharmacy school and his favorite class is Psychology 102, where he is studying longevity - the study of aging and increased life spans. What has he learned? "Stay active," laughed Mango.
For a guy who is always watching his weight, it might be surprising to learn Mango loves food.
"In general, I like to eat and cook," he said. "A lot of it has to do with wrestling and a lot of it doesn't have to do with wrestling. I like cooking and trying new things. I like Shrimp Alfredo, seafood in general and I'm a big Mac and Cheese fan."
Mango went to China to watch Spenser compete in the 2008 Olympics and it would be a dream for them to make the same team.
"When I was younger, he was more like my mentor and tried to teach me everything he knew," said Mango. "As we got older and kind of got the same size, a rivalry started in high school. Now, we practice and wrestle together. We're old enough where we can separate our sport and our relationship outside of the sport. We're in each other's corners."
Which begs the obvious question: Have you ever wrestled against each other in a match?
"No," Mango said.
Who would win?
"I win," he smiled.