CHAMPAIGN — First, there was a backflip.
Then came a mad dash.
Cameron Mammen’s victory celebration was, in itself, an event.
The Urbana High School senior concluded his career as a dual-sport athlete Saturday night as a wrestling state champion while thousands of onlookers watched at the Assembly Hall.
He took an 11-point lead before the title bout was a minute old, then had to fight off his back in the second period before settling for a 15-5 major decision against East Moline’s Markus Murphy.
“An amazing feeling; the best feeling in my life,” Mammen said.
That wasn’t what he was thinking in the second period when he not only got taken down for the first time in 33 matches, but was also put in a precarious position on his back for several seconds. It was a position he had not been in at any point during the season.
“When he lifted me off my feet, I was scared to death,” Mammen said. “I knew I had only one more chance. I had to fight my butt off.”
The second period started with Mammen holding an 11-0 lead. He was more than confident.
“I was thinking technical fall,” he said.
Less than a minute later, his lead was reduced to 11-5.
“He caught me off-guard,” Mammen acknowledged.
For the match’s final 3 minutes, he became conservative instead of aggressive.
“After that, I didn’t want to mess up again,” Mammen said.
As the final 10 seconds ticked off the clock — the second time all season Mammen was extended to the full 6 minutes — he began dancing around the edge of the mat, out of Murphy’s reach. The backflip was pre-planned.
“My friends said I should flip,” he said. “I did it for them.”
As soon as his arm had been raised in triumph, he sprinted up the Assembly Hall stairs to the aisle separating the A and B sections. He leapt into his father Mark’s arms.
“My dad has been with me throughout my life, at everything I’ve done,” Cameron Mammen said. “He was the first person I thought of.”
Mammen is no newcomer to the victory stand.
He won three state titles while competing in the one-class Illinois Kids Wrestling Federation program, starting with an 89-pound crown while in fifth grade and following with IKWF titles back-to-back at 138 and 147 as a seventh- and eighth-grader.
“This one’s the best by far, better than all the others put together,” Cameron Mammen said.
Mammen’s journey was assisted by former Illini wrestler Sean Reynolds, a two-time state champion (2004 and 2005) at Providence New Lenox. For more than a year, Reynolds has donated his time to work out privately with Mammen.
“I don’t ask for anything,” Reynolds said. “There were people that helped me. I’m giving back. I do it in my free time.”
Reynolds said he didn’t need to make many changes in Mammen’s technique.
“I saw right away he had good basics and was pretty athletic,” Reynolds said. “He always stays in good position and sets up his shots well.”
Mammen’s father, Mark, is appreciative of Reynolds’ efforts.
“In this day and age it is very rare to find a top-tier wrestling coach or instructor who works with kids because of his love for the sport and truly wants nothing in return,” Mark Mammen said. “This is especially refreshing in central Illinois, which has very few facilities anywhere close where a wrestler can get the additional training necessary to compete on a statewide level.
“Sean has been a God-send. He has taken a strong interest in Cameron’s development as a wrestler and Cameron respects him tremendously.”
Mammen was looking forward to the rest of his Saturday evening.
“We’re going to Alexander’s and I’m getting a big ol’ steak,” he said. “I haven’t had a full meal in a while.”
Thanksgiving was the last time. Saturday at the Assembly Hall, Mammen had plenty of reasons to be thankful.
More than a quarter of a century after Urbana last crowned a wrestling state champion — Mammen’s uncle Kirk in 1987 — the school was returned to a position of prominence on the awards stand.