Culture of excellence drives Army World Class Athlete Program to success
by Savannah Asmann, USA Wrestling
In the Rocky Mountains, just south of Colorado Springs, Colorado, is one of the youngest army installations, Fort Carson. Fort Carson is home to the Army World Class Athlete Program which provides all members of the United States Army an opportunity to compete in an Olympic sport. The U.S. Army WCAP wrestling team consists of elite athletes and soldiers that have represented Team USA in competitions all around the world.
Soldier athletes in the program come from different backgrounds, something that has had a positive impact on the culture and environment in the wrestling room. Coach Spenser Mango explained, “A lot of our soldier athletes are from very different walks of life and once we get here and train together, hangout, it’s one big family. You learn how to get along with and work with people who may not have grown up like you.
“I think that makes us more successful and more of a tightly knit group because we are here training with each other every day and you get to hear someone else’s perspective that didn’t grow up the same way that you did.”
As a member of the Army WCAP, you have military obligations that impact everyday life. “Once you’re accepted into the program, your job is to make World and Olympic teams and bring back medals. We do have to stay proficient in our military schoolings and we have formations like any other Army Unit. When you do get accepted, the main priority is to make that World and Olympic team and win medals,” explained Mango.
Five of the 10 athletes on the 2023 Senior Greco-Roman World Team are Army WCAP athletes: Xavier Johnson, Kamal Bey, Spencer Woods, Alejandro Sancho and Ildar Hafizov. In addition, Justus Scott, Dalton Roberts, Ryan Epps and Dalton Duffield finished in the top three of their respective weight classes to make the 2023 Senior Greco-Roman National Team.
The program also features successful women wrestlers like Areana Villaescusa and Bridgette Duty who are on the 2023 Senior Women’s National team.
Johnson competes at 63 kg for Team USA and has developed an impressive career in the sport. In 2023, he secured a spot on his first Senior World team with a win at Final X.
Johnson’s career highlights express his dedication and hard work on the mat. Before joining the Army WCAP, Johnson competed for the Marines and was on the All-Marine wrestling team in 2019. In March of 2022, Johnson joined the Army with the “hope of aiding in the development of young Soldiers while representing the Army through combative sports”.
Johnson's journey began to take shape in 2021 when he claimed titles at both the Senior Nationals and Senior Pan American Championships. In 2020, he placed third at the highly competitive U.S. Olympic Team Trials. Johnson was the 2019 Final X runner-up at 63 kg.
“I believe the World Class Athlete Program is so successful because we actually believe we are a family”, said Johnson. “When you have that type of attitude towards a certain goal, everyone gets a little piece of that success.”
Kamal Bey, representing the U.S. at 77 kg, looks to make an impact at his third Senior World Championships. Bey is a consistent figure in the sport, representing Team USA at four age-group World Championships prior to competing at the Senior level.
Bey is a 2017 U20 World Champion, two-time Final X champion, four-time U.S. Open champion and looks to find a spot on the podium at the 2023 Senior World Championships while representing the Army WCAP and Team USA with pride and determination.
“The Army World Class Athlete program is different from most teams. Everyone here wants to get better and earned the right to be here. People have medals, they have placed high at ranking tournaments, international events,” said Bey.
“There’s also the competitive factor of the program. Our motivation is to make it WCAP versus WCAP in the finals.”
Woods has been on Team USA for three years, and heads to his second World Championship tournament after competing in 2022. He has composed an impressive list of career highlights, including a gold at the 2023 Senior Pan American Championships, a U.S. Open title in 2023 and 2021 Senior Nationals title.
Woods spent one season at the University of Maryland, winning 16 matches as a starter for the Terrapins at 174 pounds. In 2020, Woods joined the Army WCAP and switched his focus to Greco-Roman wrestling. Ultimately, Woods explained his ambition in the program is to win World Championship titles and represent the Army with pride and success.
“It’s so special because of all the people that work day in and day out to make this place a smooth operating machine. We’re here training every day to win medals and get guys on Olympic teams, ” explained Woods. “It’s hard not to get better with guys like our coaching staff, our athletes, our medical team, and the guys that help us do the ins and outs, just the entire World Class Athlete Program staff.”
Alex Sancho competes at 67 kg for Team USA. He began training at Northern Michigan’s National Training Site in 2012 staying through 2017. At the 2016 Olympic Trials, Sancho just missed qualifying for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, after placing third. He joined the Army in 2019, and qualified for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.
Sancho earned a spot on his second World team in 2023 with a strong victory over Robert Perez III at Final X in Newark, New Jersey. The appearance will be the second for Sancho at the Senior World Championships, as he competed at the tournament last year and finished 11th.
Ildar Hafizov is a highly accomplished international success story who has represented both Uzbekistan and the U.S. on the global stage. While in Uzbekistan, he qualified for the 2008 Beijing Games finishing 11th and earned a silver medal at the 2011 Asian Wrestling Championships. In 2014, Hafizov moved to the United States with his wife Dina to pursue his dream while improving quality of life.
Hafizov returned to wrestling after joining the Army WCAP in 2015. In just his second year with Army WCAP, he navigated his way to a second place finish at the 2016 Olympic Team Trials. The following year in 2017, Hafizov made his first U.S. Senior World Team.
Throughout his career, Hafizov has made six appearances at the Senior World Championships and other elite international events. Hafizov earned a bronze medal at the 2019 Pan-American Games and qualified for World Teams in 2017 and 2019. He is a three-time Final X champion and has been on Team USA for eight years.
Hafizov looks to make an impact and earn a medal at the 2023 Senior World Championships. His highest placement for Team USA was 10th at the last year’s event.
The athletes in the Army WCAP represent the U.S. with professionalism and dedication, and the coaches are instrumental in the success of the program. Head coach Shon Lewis has a long list of credentials, developed through an impactful career wrestling and coaching Greco-Roman athletes.
Lewis has been named the USA Wrestling Coach of the Year four times and coached his teams to seventeen U.S. National Championships. He has been to three Olympic Games while coaching WCAP athletes and was named the head coach in 2000.
Joining Lewis on the coaching staff for Army WCAP is Mango, a prominent figure in the world of Greco-Roman wrestling. Mango is a two-time U.S. Olympian, representing the U.S. in 2008 and 2012. His achievements extend beyond his Olympic appearances, as he was a six-time U.S. World Team Member. Mango has earned silver medals at the 2009 and 2015 Pan American Championships. He earned bronze medals at the 2014 Pan American Championships and 2015 Pan American Games.
Since making the transition from athlete to coach in 2016, Mango has continued to make an impact on the wrestling community. He was named the USA Wrestling Coach of the Year in 2019 and 2023, and served as a U.S. Olympic Greco-Roman Wrestling Coach in 2020.
Mango explains that one of the benefits of the Army World Class Athlete Program is the focus on success and making World and Olympic teams while having a career.
“You don’t have to put your life on hold being an athlete, because the Army provides the medical benefits, most of our soldier athletes have houses, you kind of get a jumpstart on life in general once you join the program,” he explained.
“I can just focus on solely being the best athlete that I possibly could be. It set’s you up for success. You have a career outside of athletics and it sets you up for success in the future.”
Former All Army Team and WCAP wrestler Bruce Robinson is an assistant wrestling coach for the Army WCAP program. He began coaching in 2005, following his career as an athlete from 1996 to 2004. Robinson has coached wrestlers to win over 25 Individual National Championships, six World medals, 14 Armed Forces Team Titles, and 14 United States Greco-Roman National Team Titles.
Women’s wrestling coach Jermaine Hodge is also a vital part of the Army WCAP coaching staff, another former athlete with a long list of accolades. Hodge was a six-time U.S. National Team member, 2016 Dave Schultz Memorial International champion and a U.S. Open champion in 2009.
2005 World Champion Iris Smith is the assistant freestyle coach for the Army World Class Athlete Program. Smith is a six-time U.S. National Champion, a three-time University National Champion and a 2010 Military World Wrestling Champion.
The Army WCAP has had many talented, hard-working athletes that have wrestled for Team USA on world and national teams, competing nationally and internationally for the United States. Athletes that have previously been on World and National teams include 2021 World Bronze Medalist, four-time U.S. World Team member and three-time U.S. Junior World Team member Jenna Burkert, 2022 Final X Champion, 2022 U.S. Senior World team member, and 2019 and 2020 U23 World Team member Abigail Nette and 2016 U.S. Olympic Team member, 2022 Senior World team member, two-time Armed Forces champion and runner-up at the 2023 U.S. Open Jesse Thielke.
This remarkable program develops elite athletes and shapes them into champions on and off the wrestling mat. The Army World Class Athlete Program has provided many opportunities for athletes to excel in their sport, and the success that the program has exhibited proves it to be one of the most impactful places for wrestlers to train.
Tune in to the Senior World Championships Sept. 16-24 to catch five Army WCAP wrestlers compete for World medals in Greco-Roman.