Follow WIN during Postseason College Wrestling
WIN Magazine will provide comprehensive coverage of the 2023 NCAA Division I...
Photo: Jesse Thielke (right) returned to the highest level in Greco-Roman wrestling in the U.S. for the first time since 2018 as the Wisconsin native beat Sammie Jones in two matches at 63 kilos in Stillwater. (John Sachs photo)
By Mike Finn
Once upon a time, men like Spenser Mango and Ildar Hafizov were rivals of Jesse Thielke, who had to beat each of those two veteran Greco-Roman wrestlers on his way to making the 2016 U.S. Olympic team at 59 kilos as a then 24-year-old native of Germantown, Wisc.
Now, Thielke is 30 years old and has joined the likes of Mango and Hafizov and other members of the United States Army World Class Athlete Program.
Among other things, this is a story about how rivals become friends in this sport and who give a former rival a second chance at wrestling success.
That was never more apparent than in Stillwater, Okla., on June 3, when Mango — the 2008 and 2012 Olympian, four-time World Team and now a coach for the WCAP — was in the corner as Thielke returned to the World stage with a victory over Sammie Jones at 63 kilos.
“Spenser was actually an idol of mine, my favorite Greco-Roman wrestler. It started with (former Olympians) Dennis Hall and Garrett Lowney when I was growing up in Wisconsin,” said Thielke, who was a four-time Wisconsin state champ for Germantown High and considered wrestling college folkstyle at Wisconsin but chose to focus on Greco instead.
“I started going to Northern Michigan (and the Olympic Education Center) and that’s where I met Spenser, who would reverse lift people and throw them. It was like watching art.
“Going from that and competing against him to having him coach me, life is pretty funny.”
But life was not fun back in 2018, after he beat Mango’s brother, Ryan, at the Trials to make that World Team at 63k. Things did not go well for Thielke at the Worlds that fall in Budapest, Hungary, where he lost his only match and then expressed his displeasure about the team’s training regiment, which he called “awful” and said he was “wore out.”
That was also the last time that many in the sport saw Thielke, who was sidelined from Greco because of the pandemic and an unspecified injury.
Many thought he had retired from the sport. He did not. He also believes he is a different man from those days.
“I was an immature young man then,” he said. “I’m married now and grown up, a big difference.”
Fortunately, men like Mango played a big part in Thielke joining the WCAP in 2020 as did his wife, Alexis, after they were married.
“They gave me the motivation to become the man I was supposed to be,” said Thielke, who admitted the move to the WCAP was a “culture shock, but I was made to be a soldier. I was made to be part of this team. It’s been wonderful and different in ways I could not have predicted.”
Thielke hoped he would return to the mat. In 2022, that became a reality after he first won the U.S. Open in April and then made the finals of World Team Trials in May, qualifying him for Final X. He then eventually defeated Jones, the 2021 World Team member, in two matches at Oklahoma State’s Gallagher-Iba Arena in June.
“There was a lot of rehab,” said Thielke, who will not say what type of injury he had. “Not being able to do all the same training that everyone else was doing. We had to monitor our training and adjust. It’s a lot different than back then.”
Thielke also said he and Mango have spent time reminiscing about their battles on the mat.
“We’ve spent so much time together,” he said. “We’ve gone through a lot, almost identical things.”
“Everyone plays a part,” said Mango, who has been with the Army since 2010. He became a coach after he retired from competition in 2016.
“We work as one big team and we contacted Thielke because he is an awesome wrestler and we saw a lot of potential in the man. Since he has come to the program, he has grown tremendously and he’s continuing to impress.
Thielke is one of five WCAP wrestlers who will compete in the 2022 Worlds. Another is Hafizov who will wrestle at 60 kilos.
“Once people get on our team, they realize it’s not just a team, it’s a family,” added Mango. “He’s one of those people who really thrives when he knows someone really cares about him.
“He wants to be successful in sports and in life. Given those conditions, he got here and really has blossomed as a person and an athlete.”
2022 USA Greco-Roman World Team
The following wrestlers will represent the United States at the 2022 United World Wrestling World Championships this September in Belgrade, Serbia. This includes their wrestling clubs, age, hometown and current place of residence … as well as any past World/Olympic/NCAA experience.
55k/121lb — Max Nowry (U.S. Army WCAP), 32, Wheeling, Ill./Colorado Springs, Colo.
• Third World Team/also competed in 2019 (5th) and 2021 (9th)
• 2012 Olympic Trials runner-up
• Member of U.S. Olympic Education Program at Northern Michigan
60k/132lb — Ildar Hafizov (U.S. Army WCAP), 34, Tashkent, Uzbekistan/Colorado Springs, Colo.
• Sixth World Team/Three for Uzbekistan (5th in 2007, 2009, 2011) & three for USA (2017 and 2019)
• Two-time Olympian/2008 for Uzbekistan/2020 for USA
• Second in 2016 Olympic Trials for USA
63k/138.75lb — Jesse Thielke (U.S. Army WCAP), 30, Germantown, Wisc./ Colorado Springs, Colo.
• Two-time World Team Member/Also competed in 2018
• 2016 Olympian (split two matches)
• Joined Army WCAP in 2020
67k/147.5lb — Alejandro Sancho (U.S. Army WCAP), 28, Miami, Fla./Colorado Springs, Colo.
• First World Team
• 2020 Olympian/went 0-1
• 2021 World Team Trials runner-up
• 2017 U23 World Team member
72k/158.5lb — Benji Peak (Sunkist Kids), 22, Elkhorn, Wisc./Elkhorn, Wisc.
• First World Team
• 2021 World Team Trials runner-up/third at 2020 Olympic Trials
• Member of U.S. Olympic Education Center at Northern Michigan
77k/169.5lb — Kamal Bey (U.S. Army WCAP), 24, Bellwood, Ill./Colorado Springs, Colo.
• Second World Team/also competed in 2018 when he won two of three bouts
• 2017 Junior World champion
82k/180.5lb — Ben Provisor (NYAC), 31, Stevens Points, Wisc./Des Moines, Iowa
• Third World Team/also competed in 2017 and 2021
• 2012 (1-1) and 2016 Olympian (0-1)
• Currently a student athlete at Grand View
87k/191.5lb — Alan Vera (NYAC), 31, Santiago, Cuba/Jersey City, N.J.
• Second World Team/also competed in 2021
• Defected in 2016 from Cuba where he was a four-time Cuban national champ
• 2020 USA Senior National champ but lost in 2020 Olympic Trials to John Stefanowicz
97k/213.5lb — Tracy G’Angelo Hancock (Sunkist Kids), 24, Ft. Carson, Colo./Colorado Springs, Colo.
• Fifth World Team/earned bronze in 2021/also competed in 2017, 2018 and 2019
• 2016 Junior World bronze medalist/also competed in 2017 Junior Worlds
• Two-time U23 World Team member in 2017 and 2018
130k/286.5lb — Cohlton Schultz (Sunkist Kids), 21, Ponderosa, Colo./Tempe, Ariz.
• Second World Team/also competed in 2021
• 2017 Cadet World champion/also competed in 2017 Cadet Worlds
• 2019 Junior World silver medalist/2018 Junior World bronze medalist
• Currently a junior at Arizona State, where he is a two-time All-American (2nd in 2021)