Ohio natives return to compete in 2023 Air Force Marathon as ‘World Class’ athletes

  • Published
  • By Matthew Fink
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – This year’s Air Force Marathon has attracted a pair of competitors from the Air Force World Class Athlete Program, both hailing from the state of Ohio. 

Senior Airman Michael Mannozzi, 37, of Youngstown is a former college national champion in the racewalk and has been internationally ranked for over a decade. Airman 1st Class Daniel Michalski, 28, is a former college national champion in the steeplechase from Xenia. 

Both come back this weekend for the 27th annual Air Force Marathon to compete alongside over 8,000 runners in several events.

Known as WCAP, the program’s mission is to help select Air Force athletes qualify for the U.S. national team in their chosen sport and compete on the world stage at the Olympics. While the athletes go through the same boot camp and job training as other Airmen, they are allowed to practice and compete full time while in the program. 

Olympic pursuit leads to enlistment

Mannozzi was involved in sports from an early age, and by the time he reached high school, he was participating in football, wrestling, and track and field. After a disappointing freshman year at Youngstown State, where he had been unable to walk on to the football team or form a wrestling club, he transferred to Notre Dame College in Cleveland after being recruited for wrestling.

There, he walked on to the cross country and track programs. He initially threw the javelin in track, but his coach ended up suggesting racewalking. 

“That was the beginning of something special,” Mannozzi said. “After the end of the wrestling season, I started practicing racewalking every day. Literally took it to the streets. That began what really became a fairytale of a journey.”

Racewalking is an Olympic track and field event that requires athletes to walk as fast as possible while maintaining a specific body motion and keeping contact with the ground at all times. It’s distinct from running, as racewalkers must always have one foot on the ground, and the advancing leg must be straight from the moment of first contact until it is in the vertical upright position.

Athletes who excel in racewalking, like Mannozzi, must be able to combine speed with precision and technique.

“Racewalking is unique because it is the most technical of all the endurance events,” he said. “It is judged by the human eye. Like LeBron James might push the envelope without being called for traveling, you are constantly pushing yourself within a certain set of rules.” 

Mannozzi started making a name for himself in 2010 when he won an NAIA championship in the 3,000-meter racewalk, and his career trajectory only went up from there.

Upon graduation in 2011, he had fully dedicated his life to racewalking. He qualified for his first Olympic trials that year, then again in 2015 and 2019. Although he never made the Olympic team, he was racing internationally and consistently ranked in the top 10 in the U.S.

He was living what many would consider an exciting life, but Mannozzi said chasing a gold medal was not easy on him financially. 

“Only celebrity athletes like Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt end up successfully monetizing their Olympic pursuit,” he said. “For the majority, you have to get a day job. That is the puzzle that every athlete has to figure out for themselves.”

By 2017, Mannozzi was married with a small child and another on the way. He found himself living in South Carolina training for yet another Olympic cycle when he got the opportunity to reconnect with his uncle, a Vietnam veteran, and cousin, who is a master sergeant and Air Force recruiter.

“My uncle and cousin were such a good influence,” Mannozzi said. “They had their priorities straight and knew how to handle adversity, which I really admired. Wouldn’t you know it – at this point, I began to consider joining the Air Force.” 

After nine years trying to make a living while maintaining his racewalking career, Mannozzi felt like it was time to make a change. He wanted to support his family and become part of something greater than himself, so the Air Force seemed like the right answer.

Mannozzi spoke with other Air Force veterans, including a former WCAP racewalker named Kevin Eastler, and was convinced. He began talking to recruiters but had difficulty moving forward because his wife is not an American citizen.   

“Enlisting was quite the juggling act,” he recalled. “But I thought that serving my country, even with a 1 percent chance of competing again, was better than being stuck on the margins trying to make the Olympics with a family to support.”

Mannozzi’s determination paid off, and he finally made it to basic military training in October 2019 (unsurprisingly, he graduated with the highest physical fitness scores in his flight).

He then reported to Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, for training as a weather specialist. Although fully dedicated to his new life as an Airman, he couldn’t forget that he had already qualified for the 2020 Olympic trials and had a spot waiting for him.

“Racewalking for the Air Force seemed like a pipe dream to me, but I never let go of it,” Mannozzi said. “I always kept that fire alive.”

Through an exception to policy, Mannozzi was allowed to briefly leave training to race in the trials. He finished in sixth place, which prevented him once again from making the Olympic team, but Mannozzi said he was ecstatic with his results because he had done so little training beforehand. 

Over the next few months, he reclassified from weather to religious affairs and received his first duty assignment: serving in the chapel at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Through what he describes as both good timing and fantastic support from his chain of command, he ended up getting nominated for and winning the Department of the Air Force 2020 Male Athlete of the Year Award for his Olympic trials performance.

At this point, Mannozzi said he began setting his sights on WCAP. He applied for the program while on his first deployment in Saudi Arabia but received a lukewarm reception because he hadn’t made a national team in five years. Not to be discouraged, he was granted leave by his chain of command once again to race for a spot on the national team in San Diego.

This time, he made it.

“After that, I raced for the national team in Oman and was the third point scorer,” Mannozzi said. “I reapplied for WCAP, now as a U.S. team member and international point scorer, and I was finally accepted.” 

Now, Mannozzi lives with his family in San Diego. As a WCAP athlete, he is able to race, train with his coaches and work out with other racewalkers full time with the sole purpose of achieving what he has always wanted: a place on the Olympic team. 

“In WCAP, the Air Force sees you as a professional athlete,” he said. “That is your job. Early on in the program, I told myself I would treat my life like I was still in basic training. Get up early and work hard, or else you are going to miss the wave.” 

Chasing the dream, despite obstacles

Michalski’s journey from running spikes to military boots shares many similarities with his counterpart. A lifelong athlete, he only began running competitively late in high school and became serious about it his senior year.

He committed to running cross country and track at Cedarville University, and his career blossomed from there.

“I was starting from a pretty untrained and inexperienced place, but I was also getting better fast,” Michalski said. “Eventually, I realized that I really had something.” 

By his freshman year, Michalski knew his best event was the steeplechase. The Olympic steeplechase is a 3,000-meter track and field race that combines distance running with the challenge of jumping over 35 hurdles, seven of which have water pits a yard deep at their base. Unlike other track events, steeplechase does not have lanes.

Athletes are free to choose their path around the track, but they must not impede other competitors. To succeed, runners need to find a competitive speed while also conserving energy to clear the hurdles and water jumps.

Michalski said falls are common in the sport. 

“The Spanish translation of steeplechase literally means ‘obstacle race,’” he added. “It requires a little more coordination. It’s not a race where a coach will throw an athlete out there who might be really fast but can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.” 

Once he honed in on steeplechase, Michalski began to succeed exponentially. At Cedarville, he qualified for nationals his freshman year and made All-American (finishing in the top eight in his division) his sophomore year. He capped his junior campaign by winning the NCAA Division II title.

After that, he suffered an injury that took him out of running his senior season, but he competed one more year at Indiana when he moved there to begin a master’s program.  

While at Indiana, Michalski was able to recover from his injury and improve. He set two school records in steeplechase and the distance medley relay, finishing All-American in both events.

He and his wife married in 2019 and they moved to Florida, where she had a job coaching volleyball at Palm Beach Atlantic University. However, Michalski felt he still wasn’t finished with steeplechase.

They tried moving back to Indiana so he could work while still training with his old team, but then the coronavirus pandemic swept the country and made that difficult. It also nearly put Michalski out of work. 

“I didn’t have a professional team or any kind of deal,” he said. “On top of that, we found out we were going to be parents. I started working at Walmart because my job in real estate had gotten so slow. We were very much frozen.” 

Michalski knew it was time for a change. As luck would have it, one of his running connections suggested him for a position as head distance coach at LeTourneau University in Texas. He ended up coaching there for two seasons.

“I didn’t have any experience at that time,” Michalski said. “I had an idea of how coaching would be, but that was a bit of a trial by fire. Very rewarding, too.”

In 2020, another friend approached Michalski and encouraged him to get back into running, reminding him he still had a qualifying time for the upcoming Olympic trials.   

“I had pretty much stopped training at that point,” he said. “With COVID, I was thinking, ‘When are they even going to have an Olympics again?’ The world was suddenly different, and there I was trying to provide for my pregnant wife.” 

Despite these obstacles, Michalski’s love of the sport won out, and he soon found himself training solo in the Texas heat. Shortly before the trials in summer 2021, he received a contract with Nike and was able to call himself a professional athlete for the first time. He ended up finishing in fourth place, one spot away from making the Olympic team.

Again, Michalski was not deterred.

“I gave an interview to a running newsletter, and they ended up titling the article, ‘The Happiest Fourth-Place Finisher in the Olympic Trials,’” he said. “It was pretty funny, but I am happy that I was able to react graciously, considering the circumstances.”

Upon finishing out his coaching contract, Michalski and his family moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, and began training for the next Olympic cycle in earnest. He had a disappointing result after a fall at the 2022 U.S. national championships – and his Nike contract was expiring at the end of that year.

That’s when he began looking into WCAP and the Air Force as a means to get another chance. 

“It seemed too good to be true,” Michalski said. “What an incredible opportunity to be afforded as a professional athlete.”

Michalski was accepted into WCAP and enlisted in the Air Force, going through basic training in January.

Although he was older than many of the recruits at boot camp, Michalski said his experience as a coach and athlete helped him stand out from his peer group. 

“It was a little like coaching again,” he said. “Here I am at 27, and most of these guys are 18, 19 years old, which is the same ages I was used to dealing with. I was able to relate to them and be kind of a big brother. It was fun.”

Although he signed a contract as an aircraft hydraulic systems specialist, Michalski received a waiver to defer his job training until after the Olympic cycle. After basic training, he moved back to Colorado Springs and resumed his training regimen.

He now practices full time in the hope of qualifying for the Olympic team next year.

“To be included in such a select group, some of whom have been operational Airmen already and are trained to do some pretty cool things, is an honor,” Michalski said. “It is a dream.”

‘Like coming home’

This weekend, Mannozzi is running the 10K and racewalking the 5K and half marathon, while Michalski will compete in the 10K and half marathon. They will both proudly wear their Air Force Marathon singlets, a symbol not only of their military service but also the Air Force’s flagship sports event.

The two said they will be taking this opportunity to greet old friends and reflect on how far they have come since their days growing up in Ohio.

“We are coming to represent WCAP and the Air Force,” Michalski said. “It’s a bonus that the marathon is in my hometown. I still keep up with my coach at Cedarville, so when I come to town, I am definitely stopping by and will try to speak with the team.”

Added Mannozzi: “It’s like coming home. The marathon office and my leadership at Wright-Patt were a key part of my journey to WCAP, so coming back to the community that made my dreams come true is very meaningful to me.”