URBANA — Cameron Mammen’s story is one of success. It is also one that should provide athletes — and their parents — hope if they are unable to funnel every free waking moment — and dollar — toward the pursuit of excellence in a specific sport.
The 170-pound Mammen won every wrestling match he had as a senior and was the choice as News-Gazette Wrestler of the Year.
There were 33 matches in all. The 33rd was for a state championship in Class 2A.
He was dominant in each of his matches, winning either by pin, forfeit or technical fall in all but two of the bouts. No opponent was closer than eight points at the final buzzer.
From the time Mammen’s junior season ended in wrestling last February — with a fifth-place state medal — until his senior season began in November, his athletic commitment was to his first love, football. He competed in one offseason wrestling event. The rest of his energy for nearly nine months was devoted to football or training for football.
How did he do it? How did he finish 33-0 while allowing two opponents to score offensive points, other than an escape, all season?
Mammen’s uncle, Kirk, understands what it takes to become an unbeaten state champion. He achieved that distinction for Urbana in 1987 after winning the second of his two prep crowns at 185 pounds.
“I can imagine many wrestlers and coaches asked themselves the same thing about him while watching his senior year,” Kirk Mammen said. “That is who he is. I hope it provides encouragement to other local athletes and parents that is proof you don’t have to travel year-round and spend your life’s savings to invest in a private or elite club team to have success in a sport.
“These clubs were far less prevalent during our time and people were still successful. I realize it offers a lucrative profession for those who can offer the service, but I believe it only limits those who might otherwise have a chance to change their future by widening the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots.’”
There is even more inspiration to Cameron Mammen’s journey. Wrestling is a sport that often gets a bad reputation when competitors lose weight during a season and follow unhealthy practices to make sure they don’t gain it back.
Mammen’s father Mark not only wrestled for Urbana, but also for Illinois State University. He drew on his experiences to help benefit his son in his formative years.
“Cameron has never cut any weight in his years of wrestling,” Mark Mammen said. “After a few years of cutting weight in high school and college, I came to believe that cutting weight does more harm than good and never helped me to perform at my best.
“Plus, it made wrestling less fun to me. So I never let my sons cut any weight through youth or high school wrestling. He may have to watch what he eats, and eat more sensibly at times, but he has never cut weight. He ate good all season, including Thanksgiving and Christmas meals.”
For Cameron, the issue was resisting temptation, not dieting.
“I would have to watch my eating portions,” he said. “There would be some occasions when I wanted to eat a second helping of something our family cooked for dinner the day before a meet, but I knew I couldn’t.
“That was about it. I never have cut weight for wrestling. After a week or two of preseason wrestling practices, I would naturally drop down from my football weight to very close to my wrestling weight class.”
During the football season as a senior, Mammen played at 180 pounds.
Though the majority of Cameron Mammen’s offseason commitment was to football — the sport he will play next year at Malone University, in Canton, Ohio — it didn’t affect the effort he put into wrestling once that season began.
“I set my goals really high and that is really the thing that motivated me the most,” Cameron Mammen said. “I wanted to reach my goal of being a state champion. It can only be done if you are pushing yourself well past your comfort zone each and every day.”
When his hand was raised in victory at the UI Assembly Hall following his 15-5 title-bout win over East Moline United’s Markus Murphy (whom he led 11-0), Mammen absorbed the atmosphere more than the fact that he had achieved his goal.
“It was one of the coolest moments to look up and see an entire section of the Assembly Hall filled with family and friends on their feet cheering,” he said.
With the speed of a sprinter, Mammen immediately raced into the Assembly Hall stands following his final triumph.
“My parents encourage and support us in everything we do,” he said. “We’re a close-knit family. That’s one of the reasons why I ran up into the Assembly Hall bleachers to give my dad a big hug after I won state.
“He and my family were the thing I thought of first right after accomplishing my goal.”
Some of his best wrestling advice came from his father.
“My dad has always told me that if you have a few moves that you are really good at, just keep working on perfecting those moves and setups for those moves until they cannot be stopped by anyone,” Cameron Mammen said. “He said that is how you become a champion in any sport. I’ve tried to do that to the best of my abilities. That way of doing things worked out well for me this season.”
Mark Mammen will remember his son’s final wrestling match as vividly as he recalls the first one, which occurred when Cameron was 6 years old.
“Cameron won a hard-fought overtime match,” Mark Mammen said. “Right after the match, his older sister Miranda was so overcome with emotion, that she snuck past everyone and ran onto the mat to give Cameron a big hug while crying.”
Midway through his senior season, Cameron Mammen had extra reason to succeed. Rodney Egelston, a close family friend who helped tutor Mammen during his years in the Urbana Tiger Youth Wrestling Club, died unexpectedly on Jan. 10. He was 45.
“I dedicated the remainder of my wrestling season to his memory,” Cameron Mammen said. “I wrote ‘Rod’ on my wrestling shoes. It meant a lot for me to reach my goal for him as well.”
In all endeavors, Cameron Mammen exhibits one trait which his father said, “cannot really be taught or coached into a kid.”
He is described by friends and family as the most competitive person they know.
“He has a burning desire within himself to be the best at everything he does athletically,” Mark Mammen said. “He is easily the most competitive person I know. He will compete fiercely in anything, fishing, playing cards, whatever.”
The competitiveness doesn’t translate into a personality that others find repulsive or distasteful. In fact, it’s the opposite.
“Cameron has a magnetizing personality,” said Kristi Mammen, Cameron’s stepmother. “It’s natural for people to be drawn to him because of his easygoing, fun-loving spirit. Although he has been blessed with natural athletic abilities, Cameron has always worked extremely hard to succeed.”
For many athletes, it’s not cool to be seen in the stands cheering at events where the school is participating.
Mammen showed up at a regional basketball semifinal game adorned in a bright orange full body sleeve suit. One reason for his willingness to be supportive is he recognized the value of the fans last fall when the Tigers made their historic run in football, a season which ended with the school capturing its first-ever playoff victory.
“I have a blast cheering my friends and classmates on in their other sports,” Cameron Mammen said. “We had a great student cheering section at our football games this year and I really appreciated that. The other sports deserve the same, so if I can help with that, I do. It’s a lot of fun.”
Mammen won his first Illinois Kids Wrestling Federation state title as a 10-year-old. If he hadn’t experienced so much success at a young age, he might have considered a different winter sport as he grew older.
“Believe it or not, I’m a really good basketball player,” he said. “I can shoot the ball well. I actually play a lot of pickup basketball games at the UI intramural courts with and against a lot of high school and college players and can hold my own.
“Basketball just happens to be played in school at the same time as wrestling and there’s no way I could have done both, especially in our house.”
He doesn’t regret wrestling nor does he find it hard to leave behind.
“If you’re going to stop competing in a sport, the best way I can think of is to end it with a championship,” Cameron Mammen said.
The teenager’s last win earned more than a state title. It improved his career won-loss record to 114-10. That was one more varsity win than was achieved by his father. Mark Mammen’s prep career ended with a 113-21 cumulative record.