James (left) works with his training partner Tim Wadsworth in the backyard of his Pierrefonds home.

Mancini wrestles with future:
Vanier student
strives to be first Canadian-born world champion
Montreal Gazette article by Arpon Basu. June 19, 2002

It was all just a big misunderstanding gone right.

Six years ago, when Pierrefonds native James Mancini heard a message over the school public-address system announcing wrestling tryouts, images of launching himself off the top rope to drop an atomic elbow raced through his mind.

Imagine his surprise when he learned, as a precocious seventh-grader at Pierrefonds Comprehensive, that there weren't any ropes at all, and there would definitely be no atomic elbows. Just a mat, some funny outfits,and a lot of grappling.

"I had no idea what I was getting into," said Mancini, 17. "At the first practice I saw what we had to wear, and it pretty much turned me off."

Freestyle wrestling was a far cry from the "sports entertainment" world of the pros. Thankfully, the one-piece tights didn't turn Mancini off too much. He took part in his team's first competition that year, and was instantly hooked.

"Though I got creamed every single match, I saw the competitiveness in the sport, the individualism, which I love," he said. "I'm a very competitive person. I love being able to know that if I won, I won on my own."

Then imagine Mancini's satisfaction when, two months ago in Fredericton, N.B., the first-year Vanier student won the national 58-kilogram juvenile freestyle wrestling title and added a bronze in the Greco-Roman discipline.

"I had never been in such an atmosphere in a wrestling match before," he said, estimating there were about 1,000 people watching his final against B.C.'s Chris Bellefeuille. "It was exciting, like nothing I'd ever had."

Mancini swept through the competition en route to the freestyle semi-final, winning his first three matches on a mercy rule after going up 10-0 each time. But he really had to bear down in the semi-final, when he went down 5-2 early but came back to tie it 5-5 before scoring the winning point with only six seconds remaining in the match.

The final wasn't any easier. Mancini said most of the crowd was cheering for Bellefeuille, which might have contributed to the Westerner jumping out to a short-lived 5-0 lead before Mancini rallied to make it 5-2.

Bellefeuille had to take an injury time-out at that point, giving Mancini time to settle down.

"I knew I had to wake up, and there were certain things I had to change right away," he recalled. "I knew I was a lot better than the other guy, and I knew there was nothing stopping me from taking a lot of points on him. So I just told myself to stay focused."

Considering Mancini ran off the next 12 points to win the match 14-5, you could say his strategy paid off. He won the title and was honoured as the tournament's outstanding juvenile-class wrestler.

Mancini credits this year's success to Victor Zilberman, the highly esteemed coach of the Montreal Wrestling Club.

Mancini had evolved under coach Jay Bradbury at the Pierrefonds-based Riverdale Wrestling Club for two years, winning a bronze at nationals in the cadet category last year. This year Mancini moved on to Zilberman's club, which includes Gia Sissaouri of Georgia - an Olympic silver medalist in Atlanta and one of only two men to ever win a wrestling world championship for Canada.

"Victor and Gia are the two people who gave me the confidence I needed to succeed at any kind of level," Mancini said. "You wrestle a world champion and then go out against guys of your calibre, the transition is like going from Mario Lemieux to minor-hockey kids. To have him throw you around a bit, you just learn so much."

Has Mancini ever managed to pin the great Sissaouri?

"I've taken a few points on Gia," Mancini said. "But in terms of winning a match against Gia, I can't see myself doing that for a while. But every time you score on him you feel great."

Though he could probably find numerous college suitors in the United States willing to pay for his education, Mancini is eyeing Concordia University, where Zilberman heads up the wrestling program.

"I feel I have the best coach I can have," he reasoned. "Victor and I interact at a good level, and I wouldn't want to ruin anything."

That means Mancini can expect at least four more years of training 30 hours a week, sometimes even three times a day.

In a somewhat masochistic way, Mancini is looking forward to it.

"My reason to wake up every morning is to train hard and get to my goals in the sport of wrestling," he said. "There should be no reason for me to complain about training hard, because in the key situations this is what's going to help me. This is what's going to get me to the top."

With Sissaouri serving as inspiration and mentor, Mancini hopes to become the first-ever Canadian-born world wrestling champion. That would carry far more weight than his original aspiration of dropping people with pile drivers.

"I wasn't hitting people over the head with chairs or punching people in the face," he recalled with a laugh, "but the thing that kept me in the sport was being able to know that I could be on top of the province, then the country, and maybe one day being a world-class athlete."

Two down, one to go.

© Copyright 2002 Montreal Gazette

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