‘It was a pretty easy decision to stay’: Inside Austin Gomez’s decision to re-commit to Iowa State
AMES, Ia. — One day after the Iowa State wrestling team lost to Iowa, Austin Gomez was back inside the Harold Nichols Wrestling Room, running on the treadmill.
The day before, Gomez, Iowa State’s star 133-pounder, nearly pinned Austin DeSanto in the dual’s final match. Tied 8-8 with 45 seconds left, Gomez used an underhook to throw DeSanto to his back. A pin would’ve given the Cyclones their first win over Iowa since 2004-05.
DeSanto, of course, rolled through. Gomez won, 14-9, but the Hawkeyes won the dual, 19-18. The next day, Gomez was on the treadmill. He ran three miles that evening, and his mind raced about what could’ve been.
“Just thinking about ways that I could’ve gotten the pin,” Gomez says. “Most of the time, if I’m thinking at all, I’m thinking about wrestling.”
This is a typical routine for the redshirt freshman. He started doing it in high school. Running helps him stay loose, recover and keep his weight under control. These extra reps are one reason why Gomez has grown into one of the best 133-pounders in the country.
This week, Gomez will get a chance to show the rest of the country what those in Ames have seen all year. He enters this week’s NCAA Championships, set for Thursday through Saturday at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, with a 21-5 record, the No. 13 seed at perhaps the deepest and most-talented weight in the nation.
Consider: This week’s 133-pound bracket features a Junior freestyle world champion, another Junior freestyle world-teamer, three other past NCAA finalists, three other returning All-Americans, two others who reached the bloodround and many more multiple-time qualifiers. Everybody has lost at least once, and only eight will finish on the podium.
“It’s the toughest weight in the country, by far,” Oklahoma State coach John Smith told local media last month. “It’s the deepest I’ve ever seen any weight, ever, in my coaching career. It’s as deep as any weight I’ve ever seen.”
Enter Gomez, a Junior world-teamer this past summer who could bust the bracket. His high-amplitude scoring threats make him a darkhorse contender. He’s defeated two wrestlers seeded ahead of him. He wrestles Lehigh’s Brandon Paetzell in Thursday’s opening round.
But there was a time, not long ago, when Gomez almost wasn’t a Cyclone.
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Gomez won three state titles at Glenbard North High School in Illinois. Flowrestling ranked him as the No. 11 overall recruit in the 2017 class. He committed as a junior, the crown jewel of Kevin Jackson’s 2017 haul, tabbed as the country’s No. 5-ranked recruiting class. Gomez wanted to wrestle for a coach with international freestyle success. Jackson won Olympic gold in 1992.
In January 2017, Jackson announced his plans to step down after the NCAA Championships. The Cyclones were 1-9 then, and finished 1-12. They scored just three points at the national tournament. All three qualifiers were eliminated by Friday afternoon.
Gomez took to Twitter immediately after Jackson's announcement and wrote that he intended to ask for his release after signing with the program in November.
“I was 100 percent gone,” Gomez says now. “It was hard on me, but I was leaving. I was out of the equation.”
On Feb. 18, 2017, Gomez won his third state title, joining former Iowa star Tony Ramos and Jared Cortez as just the third wrestler in Glenbard North history to win three state titles. Four days later, Kevin Dresser was formally introduced as the eighth head coach of the Iowa State wrestling program. His first goal was to meet the team and with recruits. Gomez was at the top of the list.
In Gomez, Dresser saw the perfect wrestler to help rebuild a once-proud program, a talented, team-first competitor with post-graduate aspirations. Mark Hahn, Glenbard North’s longtime coach, tells a story from Gomez’s senior year. At The Clash, a national dual-style tournament, Gomez lost his first match, his only loss that season. Gomez’s reaction still sticks with Hahn.
“He walked off the mat, composed himself, and got back in his chair and started coaching and helping the rest of the team,” Hahn recalls. “That just showed that he wasn’t worried about himself. He was more worried about the team.”
So Dresser visited Gomez a few days after being hired in Ames and shared his vision — how he was bringing his "dream team" coaching staff of Derek St. John, Mike Zadick and Brent Metcalf with him; how he wanted to grow the Cyclone Regional Training Center to attract and produce elite freestyle talent; how he wanted to make Iowa State great again.
“He’s a great salesman,” Gomez says with a laugh. “Him coming to my house the week after my state tournament really showed that he wanted me in this program and he really wanted to change the culture.
“It was a pretty easy decision to stay.”
Gomez announced his recommitment to the Cyclones on Feb. 25, 2017. He spent his redshirt season working with Metcalf. One of Gomez’s earliest wrestling memories was of Metcalf pushing North Carolina State’s Darian Caldwell after losing in the NCAA finals. He loved Metcalf’s tenacity, and learned all he could from the four-time Senior-level world-teamer.
Over the summer, Gomez made the Junior freestyle world team, as if to foreshadow success this season. Of his 21 victories, nine have included bonus points — three pins, three technical falls, three major decisions. He nearly pinned DeSanto, made the finals of the Southern Scuffle and took third at the Big 12 Championships to qualify for this week.
“Gomez is a gamer,” Dresser says. “He’s got no fear at all. He throws it out there. He’s a team guy. He does what he’s got to do for the team.”
Along the way, he has helped push Iowa State back into national relevance. The Cyclones went 10-4 this year and have nine wrestlers competing at the NCAA Championships, the most since they qualified all 10 in 2010. Dresser is up for the NWCA’s National Coach of the Year.
Gomez isn’t shocked by any of this. His individual success is a byproduct of a yearslong commitment to the sport. Growing up, he wrestled for his father, Hector, who was taught the sport by his high school coach, Bob Hein — who graduated from Iowa State in 1961, when Harold Nichols was the head wrestling coach.
In that way, Gomez was almost groomed to be a Cyclone from the beginning. Hector always stressed the importance of doing extra reps, even when he didn’t feel like it. That lesson stuck with his oldest son.
So Gomez creates time in his schedule to run on his off days, where he thinks about how he could’ve secured the pin, how to better hit his holds, how he almost wasn’t a Cyclone, and how he believes the brightest days for the Iowa State wrestling program are closer than people think.
“I’m starting to see a trend of more and more guys coming in to get extra work in,” Gomez says. “We’ve got a quote down in the locker room. It says trust, consistency, and toughness — because a lot of college wrestling is just being tough.
“We had one national qualifier last year. Now we’ve got nine. All of us guys are believing in the culture he’s wanted to establish here. We believe in Kevin Dresser.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.
2019 NCAA Wrestling Championships
When: Thursday-Saturday, March 21-23
Where: PPG Paints Arena, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Watch: ESPN, ESPNU, ESPN3