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Olympic Wrestling Trials: Former Hawkeye Thomas Gilman wins spot on men's freestyle team


FORT WORTH, Texas — Thomas Gilman may not be reppin' black and gold anymore, but he's still mostly the same Thomas Gilman that Iowa wrestling fans spent nearly a decade rooting for.

Take, for example, his military analogy when describing how he won his semifinal match on Friday night, when he led 3-0 after one period but scored a 10-0 technical fall within the first minute of the second.

“You open the battle with some artillery to loosen up the infantry,” Gilman said, “then you storm the trenches.”

See? Same Thomas Gilman.

And, by the way, he’s still very good at wrestling.

On Saturday night, Gilman punched his ticket to the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo, defeating Vito Arujau, two matches to none, in the championship finals at 57 kilograms (125 pounds) of the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Team Trials.

"It's a little surreal right now," Gilman said. "But I'm just trying to be present. I want to enjoy this. I'm gong to take it all in. I'm an Olympian. That's something to be very proud of."

Gilman, a three-time All-American for Iowa, is the 19th former Hawkeye wrestler to make an Olympic team. The state of Iowa has had a wrestling connection at every Olympics since 1948. That streak continues with Gilman, a Council Bluffs native.

This weekend was a masterclass in domination from Gilman, eerily reminiscent of his performances that lit up Carver-Hawkeye Arena every winter. He outscored his four opponents 34-6. On Friday, he beat Zane Richards, 11-0, then defeated Joe Colon, an All-American at Northern Iowa, 10-0 to advance to Saturday.

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The first match against Arujau, a standout Cornell wrestler and 2019 Junior world silver medalist, followed a similar script. Arujau actually jumped out to a 4-0 lead on a takedown and turn in the first period, but Gilman rattled off 11 unanswered points, the last of which put Arujau on his back for a pin in 5 minutes, 42 seconds.

In the second match, Arujau made adjustments, wrestling more from space and hoping to pounce on angles. Gilman didn’t bite, scoring a takedown near the edge midway through the first period. Arujau leveled the score thanks to a pair of step-out points in the second, but Gilman’s higher-scoring sequence gave him the win on criteria.

"That first match, he wanted to get it over with quick," Gilman said, "and he spent a lot of energy on that takedown and that leg lace, and shame on me for being there, but that took a lot out of him.

"That second match, they were staying away a little more. They were wrestling on the outside. But in the second period, I started doing the same thing. That's not how I want to win, but it's a win. At the end of the day, that's what history remembers, winning."

As such, Gilman will represent the United States in Tokyo this summer. This is his third Senior-level world or Olympic team. He first made the 2017 world team and stormed to a silver medal at the world championships.

He made the team again in 2018 and took fifth at the world championships. But he failed to make it in 2019, losing to Oklahoma State star Daton Fix, two matches to one, in the world team trials finals. Fix was the 2-seed this week, and Gilman, ornery as ever, hoped to see him on Saturday, but Arujau beat Fix, 7-5, in the semifinals.

But Gilman has long dreamt of this opportunity. His Olympic dreams began in the lunch line in elementary school, when he saw Rulon Gardner, an Olympic gold medalist in 2000, on a milk poster. They grew when, a few years later, the world team trials came to Council Bluffs and he saw some of the nation’s best inch closer toward their dreams.

Then they became real in 2017, when he helped the United States’ men’s freestyle team win the team title at the world championships. He has spent countless years, months, days, hours, minutes, even seconds relentlessly chasing that dream.

He craved it so much that he even left Iowa City.

More: Wrestling mailbag: Freestyle and Greco, Spencer Lee, Olympic Trials, Jordan Burroughs, and more

Gilman spent the first few years after his collegiate career as the premier member of the Hawkeye Wrestling Club, Iowa’s post-graduate Senior-level wrestling club. A year ago this month, he left to join the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club at Penn State. He sought a change of scenery and new coaching to try and reignite that Olympic dream.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the perfect time to change, he said. All of the country’s Olympic hopefuls had to wait a year for this weekend. Gilman used that year to grow. He made a home in Pennsylvania, and found new teammates from a rival school. He felt reenergized and refocused. He felt like he loved wrestling again.

"In my head, there were a lot of reasons why I came to the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club," Gilman said, "but the main reason was to get better at wrestling, and finding the love for the sport again. I was ready to retire, to be frank. I wanted to win the trials, win the Olympics, and be done, and never look at the sport again. That's where my mind was at.

"That's not a good place to be when you're trying to compete. I'm finding a love for the sport again. People say, 'Well, you've been at Penn State for a year and you're doing the same things.' Well, maybe, but my mind is different. I have more confidence in the things I'm bringing to the mat."

The prospect of Iowa star Spencer Lee being in Iowa City will always be a talking point. Lee is a three-time NCAA champion, a three-time age-level freestyle world champion, and won a U.S. Senior men’s freestyle national title in 2019. He would’ve been a favorite this weekend, too, had he not withdrawn because of two torn ACLs.

But Gilman could only wrestle those who entered the tournament, and he took that opportunity and chased greatness this weekend. His goals are much larger than winning a big wrestling tournament in Texas on a Saturday in early April, but it was the necessary first step toward those larger goals.

"I'm going to take a page out of Nick Lee's book, because after the national tournament, he said, 'Chop wood, carry water,'" Gilman said. "For me, that means back to work tomorrow. How did I get here? Chopping wood, carrying water.

"How am I going to be an Olympic gold medalist? By chopping wood and carrying water."

Those are goals Gilman first formed as a child, but he’s spent more of his life’s years chasing them than not. Those dreams took him from Council Bluffs to Skutt Catholic in Omaha to the University of Iowa to the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club and, now, to Tokyo later this summer.

So, yes, Thomas Gilman may not be reppin' that familiar black and gold anymore, but he's still mostly the same Thomas Gilman that Iowa wrestling fans spent nearly a decade rooting for, because that Thomas Gilman has always had the goal of representing the United States on the sport's biggest stage — and winning gold, too.

How did the other Iowa wrestlers do?

Joe Colon, a Cyclone-RTC member and an All-American for Northern Iowa, reached the 57-kg semifinals in men's freestyle, where he lost to Gilman, 10-0. Then he medically-forfeited out of the consolation rounds. He finished 1-2.

David Carr, a 2021 NCAA champ for Iowa State, reached the 74-kg semifinals in men's freestyle, where he lost to Nittany Lion WC's Jason Nolf, 10-0. He wrestled back on Saturday but lost to Wolfpack WC's Thomas Gantt, 7-1. He finished 1-2.

Sam Brooks, a two-time All-American for Iowa and Hawkeye Wrestling Club member, competed at 86-kg in men's freestyle, but lost both of his matches Friday and was eliminated.

Pat Downey, a 2016 All-American for Iowa State, competed in men's freestyle at 86-kg. He lost his first match to Nickal, but advanced through the wrestlebacks to reach the third-place match. There, he lost to Zahid Valencia, 11-1, to finish fourth.

Kyven Gadson, a 2015 NCAA champ for Iowa State, competed in men's freestyle at 97-kg. He lost his first match on Friday, but advanced through the wrestlebacks to Saturday's third-place match, where he beat Ty Walz, 6-0. He followed with a first-period pin over Mike Macchiavello to finish true third and earn a spot on the U.S. national team.

Felicity Taylor, a South Winneshiek grad and 2021 national collegiate champ for McKendree, competed at 53-kg in women's freestyle. She finished 2-2.

Rachel Watters, a Ballard grad and current assistant coach at William Penn, competed at 68-kg in women's freestyle. She finished 0-2.

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