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Olympic Wrestling Trials: Iowa wrestlers have a rich Olympic history. Who will be next in 2021?

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Thomas Gilman’s first Olympic memory came in elementary school. He remembers standing in the lunch line and seeing a Rulon Gardner poster, and his mind ran wild.

“You go to grab your milk out of the cooler, and there’s a poster of Rulon Gardner,” Gilman says. “I was like, ‘That’s cool, that’s a wrestler.’

“I don’t know what I thought, but he was in a singlet, so a wrestler, obviously, and he’s drinking milk, and I like milk, so maybe I can be on that poster someday.”

All these years later, Gilman is now 26, and the former Iowa wrestling star is now closer than he’s ever been to that Olympic dream.

The U.S. Olympic Trials are set for this weekend here at Dickies Arena. The winners of Friday’s challenge tournament advance to Saturday’s best-of-three finals to decide the 18 Olympic Team spots up in men’s freestyle, women’s freestyle and Greco-Roman for this summer's games in Tokyo.

Gilman, from Council Bluffs, is the 1-seed at 57 kilograms (125 pounds) in men’s freestyle. After becoming a three-time All-American with the Hawkeyes, he won silver at the 2017 men’s freestyle world championships. He made the world team again in 2018, then lost to Oklahoma State’s Daton Fix in the world team trials finals in 2019.

Now Gilman, who competes with the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club, is back, the latest wrestler with an Iowa tie to position himself to reach the sport’s pinnacle.

Iowa has a deep and rich history when it comes to Olympic wrestling. Nat Pendleton, born in Davenport, won a silver medal in 1920. Marshalltown’s Allie Morrison became the state’s first Olympic wrestling gold medalist in 1928.

Since 1948, Iowa’s had a wrestling connection at every Olympics, from Clarion’s Glen Brand (’48) to Northern Iowa’s Bill Smith (’52) to Dan Gable (’72), the Banach brothers (’84), Nate Carr (’88), Kevin Jackson (’92), Tom and Terry Brands (’96 and 2000), Cael Sanderson (’04), Doug Schwab (’08), Jake Varner (’12) and, in 2016, Daniel Dennis.

Who could it be in 2021? Here’s a breakdown of wrestlers with Iowa ties competing this weekend:

Thomas Gilman

Weight: 57 kilograms (125 pounds), men's freestyle

Iowa connection: Three-time All-American at Iowa, Council Bluffs native

Trials Analysis: Gilman is the 1-seed at perhaps the tournament's most open weight, and if the seeds hold, his path to the finals could include a pair of guys who have beaten Gilman in the last year: Zach Sanders, a grizzled veteran from Minnesota, and Seth Gross, an NCAA champ for South Dakota State who now trains in Wisconsin.

This weight also Oklahoma State star Daton Fix, the 2-seed and Cornell's Vito Arujau, the 3-seed, plus Nathan Tomasello, an NCAA champ; Sean Russell, an All-American, and Zane Richards, who qualified through the Last Chance. Nick Suriano, another NCAA champ, also qualified, but may not compete due to a positive COVID-19 test.

There's also another Iowa native in this weight …

Joe Colon

Weight: 57 kilograms (125 pounds), men's freestyle

Iowa connection: All-American at Northern Iowa, Clear Lake native

Trials Analysis: Yes, Colon, now a member of the Cyclone Regional Training Center, made the drop to 57 kilos to chase Olympic glory. He won a world bronze medal at the 2018 world championships at 61 kilos (134 pounds).

Colon, currently, is the 6-seed, which would put him opposite of Gilman in the bracket, assuming the seeds hold. If Suriano, the 5-seed, doesn't compete, that would bump Colon to the same side as Gilman, and we could potentially see an all-Iowa semifinal.

David Carr

Weight: 74 kilograms (163 pounds), men's freestyle

Iowa connection: 2021 NCAA champ for Iowa State

Trials Analysis: Carr has tremendous freestyle chops, having won a Junior world championship in 2019 at this same weight, but the Senior-level is a different beast.

Carr drew the 5-seed this weekend, which means he could hit Michigan wrestler Logan Massa in the quarterfinals, then Penn State grad Jason Nolf in the semifinals. Also lurking at this weight is Kyle Dake, a two-time world champ, and, already in the best-of-three finals, Jordan Burroughs, a five-time world and Olympic champion.

This should be a tremendous experience for Carr — and he might open a few eyes along the way.

More: Watch Iowa State coach tackle David Carr mid-celebration

Pat Downey

Weight: 86 kilograms (189 pounds), men's freestyle

Iowa connection: 2016 All-American at Iowa State, 2015 NJCAA champ at Iowa Central

Trials Analysis: Downey is the 3-seed this weekend, behind top-seeded David Taylor and second-seeded Zahid Valencia. He previously competed at the 2019 world championships, and has a Junior world silver on his résumé.

But this weight class is stocked with talented wrestlers.

After Downey, there's Myles Martin, an NCAA champ for Ohio State; Gabe Dean, a two-time champ for Cornell; Bo Nickal, a three-timer for Penn State; plus Princeton coach Nate Jackson; recent NCAA champs Aaron Brooks and Carter Starocci; another NCAA finalist in Brett Pfarr; and one more former Hawkeye wrestler …

Sam Brooks

Weight: 86 kilograms (189 pounds), men's freestyle

Iowa connection: Two-time All-American at Iowa

Trials Analysis: Brooks drew the 8-seed this weekend, and if the seeds hold, he'll wrestle Pfarr first round. The winner would get top-seeded Taylor, a 2018 world champ and two-time NCAA champ at Penn State.

Taylor is considered the heavy favorite at this weight, but there's enough talent here that anything could happen. Brooks will have his work cut out for him.

Kyven Gadson

Weight: 97 kilograms (213 pounds), men's freestyle

Iowa connection: 2015 NCAA champ for Iowa State, Waterloo native

Trials Analysis: This weight is top heavy, but Gadson, the four seed, is among the many in the challenge tournament who could navigate Friday and reach Saturday.

Already in Saturday's best-of-three finals is Kyle Snyder, a three-time world and Olympic champ. Also lurking deeper in the bracket is J'den Cox, a two-time world champ and Olympic bronze medalist. They are the two frontrunners for this spot.

Gadson will not only have to beat them to make the team, but also Ty Walz, a three-time All-American for Virginia Tech; Kollin Moore, who beat Gadson in the U.S. senior national finals last fall; and perhaps even Hayden Zillmer and Mike Macchiavello. 

Felicity Taylor

Weight: 53 kilograms (116 pounds), women's freestyle

Iowa connection: Spillville native, South Winneshiek graduate

Trials Analysis: Taylor qualified by virtue of winning a national title for McKendree last month, and has some freestyle experience, with a Junior national title and a U23 world-team appearance on his résumé.

This weekend, she's the 7-seed, and will likely have to beat Areana Villaescusa, the 2-seed; Katherine Shai, the 3-seed; and Dominique Parrish, the 1-seed, just to reach Saturday's finals against Jacarra Winchester, the reigning world champ.

Most every deep weight in the women's freestyle tournament is deep. This is no exception.

Rachel Watters

Weight: 68 kilograms (149 pounds), women's freestyle

Iowa connection: Ankeny native, Ballard grad, assistant coach at William Penn

Trials Analysis: Watters is back after competing at the 2016 Olympic Trials in Iowa City. She finished in the top-6 then as a senior in high school. She's since reached the world team trials finals and has previously made multiple age-level world teams.

This weekend, Watters will begin as the 7-seed, which means a path to the Olympic team goes through Alex Glaude, the 2-seed; Kennedy Blades, the 3-seed; and Forrest Molinari, the 1-seed. Waiting in Saturday's finals is Tamyra Mensah-Stock, the reigning world champ.

Another deep weight class on the women's side. A fun weekend awaits.

Others of note

  • Joey Palmer, listed as a Cyclone-RTC member, competing at 60kg in greco
  • Alli Ragan, former Hawkeye Wrestling Club member, at 57kg in women's freestyle
  • Lauren Louive, former HWC member, at 57kg in women's freestyle
  • Kayla Miracle, former HWC member, at 62kg in women's freestyle
  • Michaela Beck, former HWC member, at 62kg in women's freestyle
  • Forrest Molinari, former HWC member, at 68kg in women's freestyle

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.