The clock is approaching 6 p.m. on the second Tuesday in February and the last two wrestlers inside the Iowa practice room are the lightweight linchpins of the Hawkeye order.
Cory Clark takes a seat in the bleachers of the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex and begins to recount the evolution of his relationship with Thomas Gilman, a bond forged through hundreds of mat battles between two Iowa natives who share almost nothing else in common.
Maybe the last part is a stretch, but Clark smiles and shakes his head as he starts to rattle off a few of the polar-opposite personality traits between him and the former rival he now calls a close friend.
Take a couple of their favorite diversions, for instance. On a normal day in Iowa City, you might find Gilman in a coffee shop reading a newspaper.
“You’d never find me in a coffee shop,” Clark said. “And you’d never find me reading a newspaper.”
The best place to look for Clark when he’s idling down from wrestling: Near his television with an Xbox controller in his hands. His specialty is "Halo," the futuristic military-science fiction game. At one point, he was ranked the eighth-best player in the world.
Gilman, on the other hand, would rather talk about genealogy than gaming.
“I have no interest in (video games),” he said. “I never really enjoyed it.”
Gilman considers himself an old soul who has a passion for studying history, listens mostly to classic rock and country legends like Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash and opts for comfort over style when it comes to fashion.
Clark would blend in on the California surf shores with his demeanor that Iowa coach Tom Brands says is “as carefree as it gets.” His music collection is heavy on hip-hop and he prefers his jeans baggier than the ones Gilman wears.
“We definitely like different things,” Clark said. “If I went through his closet, I’d have trouble finding something to put on. And vice versa.”
But then there’s wrestling. There’s always been wrestling with Clark and Gilman — or Gilman and Clark if you prefer the chronology of their place in the Iowa order.
Wrestling introduced the two nearly 15 years ago at a youth tournament in Newton. It turned them into fierce competitors, championship-level combatants, rival adversaries, teammates, training partners and, ultimately, friends.
Combined, the returning All-Americans are 66-2 this season heading into this week’s NCAA Championships in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. Gilman is seeded fourth at 125 pounds. Clark claimed the No. 2 seed at 133 after winning the Big Ten title.
“They’re different in the things they like to do, but they’re the same in that they’re competitive, ornery little SOBs,” Iowa 184-pounder Sam Brooks said. “In everything they do.”
The battles between Clark and Gilman began when they were 50-pound third-graders. The first occurred at a tournament in Newton. Young wrestlers came from all over the state for an opportunity to take home 4-foot-tall title trophies. Gilman beat Clark and took the big prize home to Council Bluffs.
A few weeks later, they wrestled again at the state AAU tournament and Clark claimed the title.
It was the beginning of a series that teetered back and forth throughout their formative years in the sport. One year the results would tip in Gilman’s favor. The next they’d tilt toward Clark.
Gilman estimates they wrestled at least 100 times before they took divergent paths in high school. Clark went to Southeast Polk and won four state championships. Gilman attended Skutt Catholic High School in Omaha and won four titles of his own in Nebraska.
They figured they’d clash again at some point in college. They didn’t realize how often.
'I'm not going to Iowa because Clark's going there’
College wrestling’s lightest weight class became a top priority for Iowa when Brands mapped out his recruiting plans for the 2012 class. At a minimum, the Hawkeyes needed to find the heir to their 125-pound spot with two-time NCAA champion Matt McDonough set to exhaust his eligibility in 2013.
But Brands also wanted to find the 133-pound successor for national champion Tony Ramos after the 2014 season.
The Hawkeyes zeroed in on Clark and Gilman, two of the consensus top-20 recruits nationally.
“We knew they were two of the best guys in the country and they were right here. and they were both tuned in to being Hawkeyes,” Brands said. “I’m not saying it was a done deal, but they were both tuned in.”
But the signals momentarily got crossed in the summer of 2011 when Iowa scooped up a commitment in August from Clark. At the time, Gilman had gone weeks without hearing much from the Iowa staff.
“I’m pretty hot-headed as it is and I was like, ‘I’m not going to Iowa because Clark’s going there,’” he said.
Brands was at a promotional outing that summer for the Hawkeye Wrestling Club when he received a call from Skutt coach Brad Hildebrandt, who informed the Iowa coach that Gilman was planning to choose between Nebraska and Oklahoma State.
The response from Brands: “Well, that’s not going to happen.”
Brands explained that the Hawkeyes wanted to give Gilman time to focus on preparations for the Cadet World Championships. He vowed the Iowa coaches would pick up their recruiting dialogue after the tournament.
“I started thinking about it,” Gilman said. “I admire the Russians and I study what the Russians do. … I thought about why the Russians are so good, and it’s because they’re three-, four-, five-deep at every weight where they can win the Worlds or the Olympic championships. I thought if I’m going to be the best in the world I’ve got to go where the best partners are. I started thinking, Me and Clark are going to be at the same weight maybe for five years. But whoever comes out on top is going to be the best guy on the planet. That’s how I thought and that’s how I still think.”
‘I was extra ornery, especially to him’
A couple of weeks into their first year at Iowa, Clark and Gilman joined teammates for an early-morning jog.
“I was chit-chatting with somebody when we were running, and Gilman looks back and says, ‘Hey, how about you shut the (bleep) up?’” Clark recalled. “I laughed and I was like, ‘You’re right. We’re working out.’ I wasn’t going to argue back with him because he was right. It was time to work out.”
Not long after that, the freshmen stood in line to climb the ropes inside the Iowa wrestling room. As Clark waited his turn, Gilman jumped over his back to latch onto the rope. It fueled another exchange.
“He said something to me and I was like, ‘If you want it, then get up the (bleeping) rope or drag me off it,’” Gilman said. “I was extra ornery, especially to him.”
Thomas Gilman scored a first-period pin against Minnesota.
The tension spilled into the following year when they clashed for a spot in Iowa’s starting lineup.
“We tried to outwork each other every single day, so there were no days off,” Clark said. “That was one of the tougher years of my life because every day was a battle to prove yourself, prove to the coaches and prove to him. And he was doing the same thing.”
Clark seized the 125-pound job at the start of the season by beating Gilman in the finals of the Luther Open. Gilman grabbed the upper hand after Christmas by winning the title at the Midlands Championships.
The Iowa 133-pounder was happy for the most part.
Though Gilman lost just one more match the rest of the season, it opened the door for Clark to reclaim the starting spot for the postseason.
“I really had to come to terms with swallowing my pride and humbling myself,” Gilman said. “It wasn’t easy supporting the guy who got the nod over you. I wanted to say, 'screw that and screw him,' but that wasn’t me. I was a dedicated teammate and I was loyal to this program.
“I made a decision right when Tom said we’re giving the nod to Clark to get behind him. (I thought) I’ve got to do everything I can to make him a national champion because that’s going to make me better. I grew up a lot and it took a lot to swallow my pride.”
He offered to help in any way possible, whether it meant fetching water for Clark or volunteering as his training partner. It galvanized their relationship.
Don’t count on Gilman purchasing an Xbox or Clark switching his music collection to classic country, but they’ve grown to appreciate some of each other’s quirks.
The compulsive competitiveness that made Clark one of the world’s best gamers is one of the traits Gilman admires most about his teammate.
And Clark gets a kick out of Gilman’s propensity for saying and doing things that might get under the skin of his opponents.
“We’ve come a long way,” Clark said. “We’ve gone from the biggest enemies to the biggest fans of each other.”