Understanding Thomas Gilman, Iowa's complex wrestling 'robot'
Thomas Gilman has a perception problem.
“I’m not a people person,” he says bluntly after a weekday workout in the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex. “I’ve always been kind of an outcast, but it’s because I’ve made myself that way. I just don’t want to be caught up in bogus stuff.
“So many people my age worry about silly things and do silly things. I just think differently.”
OK, so maybe Iowa’s 125-pound whirlwind doesn’t waste his energy worrying what NCAA wrestling fans think of him. But the handful of people who consider themselves close to the hyper-disciplined senior have to, because they hear it often.
Jerk. Villain. Robot.
“People that don’t like Thomas Gilman and are consumed with trying to bring him down just don’t understand his mentality,” Iowa associate head coach Terry Brands said. “They’re not elite-level thinkers. They’re not consumed by being the very, very, very best they can be in their particular discipline. It’s a choice that they’ve made.
“Why are you going to belittle a guy who has been relatively successful and is growing by the day?”
Gilman is 24-0 this season and has been ranked No. 1 since November. His on-mat ability and antics garner more attention than the man he has become. He's an unpretentious perfectionist who leads fourth-ranked Iowa by example and exhaustive focus.
The 22-year-old understands why he cuts a complicated figure, though. More people saw his illegal slam of Missouri’s Alan Waters in the 2015 NWCA National Duals finals than have ever heard of him shoveling snow before sunrise for elderly neighbors around his high school home in Carter Lake, Ia., near Omaha.
Perception can be tougher to shake than one of Gilman’s single-leg attacks. In reality, this season’s most-hated Hawkeye has worked tirelessly to achieve his goals and find his identity, and it will all come to a head in March’s Big Ten and NCAA Championships.
“It’s funny Thomas and I ended up together, because I was done with the whole wrestling thing, because it’s very stressful,” said Melissa Evans, Gilman’s girlfriend and younger sister of former Iowa wrestler Mike Evans. “His wrestling self is direct and very intense. But as he’s progressed over the last few years, he’s learned how to compartmentalize his wrestling life, his normal life and school life.
“That’s really what's benefited his wrestling career. It’s made him even better.”
The tendencies that make individuals great, especially wrestlers, can grate on others. Gilman learned that the hard way.
Forcing his younger brother Joseph into childhood fights and competitions. Drilling and repeating wrestling techniques by himself behind the bleachers at tournaments. Critically assessing food and drink choices for optimal performance.
None of it endeared the scrawny kid from Council Bluffs to new high school classmates at Skutt Catholic in Omaha.
“My teammates would make comments to me about my habits or make fun of me,” Gilman recalls. “But it was like, ‘I’m going to do great things. You suck. Maybe you should do what I’m doing instead of sitting over there eating ice cream.’”
He didn’t fit in socially at Skutt, even as a young, elite wrestler. But his parents taught him about respecting everyone while not backing down from anyone.
“I’ve never in my life had or coached an athlete that can put the blinders on and focus on a task like Thomas Gilman,” said Brad Hildebrandt, Gilman’s coach for four state titles at Skutt.
“I’ve never coached a kid who is that good, that tough, and can also zone in on a task without distraction. It’s just amazing. Amazing.”
Gilman’s parents split when he and his two siblings were young, but traits from both parents rubbed off. Cheri is a straight-talking nurse and Pat's a gritty linesman and laborer.
“I never wanted my boys to wrestle, ever,” Cheri Gilman said. “I just didn’t want all the cutting weight and all that nonsense. I didn’t think it was healthy. But I didn’t want to deny him when he said he wanted to try it.
“The second he put the shoes on and stepped on the mat, it’s been history.”
He developed the discipline necessary to commute to Skutt each day, devote endless hours to drills and watch freestyle videos of Russian internationals with Hildebrandt for tips. That unrelenting mindset made Gilman a perfect fit for Iowa, even before his recruitment took off.
“I see a guy that approaches the sport very seriously in a unique way,” Terry Brands said. “Everybody says that we’re robots here, but that’s not true. Iowa style is your style. Thomas Gilman’s style is Iowa’s style."
Nebraska and Oklahoma State wanted the wily prep. But Cheri’s concerns about long-time rival Cory Clark committing early at her son's weight class were brushed aside by memories of Thomas wearing a Hawkeye singlet in elementary school and visits to Iowa City.
By the time Iowa head coach Tom Brands drove to Carter Lake in 2011 to take Gilman's verbal commitment in person, the mission to the top was underway. Cheri knew an inseparable bond had been built, even if Brands tracked dog poop from the front yard into the living room when he ran excitedly out of his truck.
"Tom called me when he realized it and offered to drive back and clean it up," Cheri recalls with a laugh.
The Gospel of Brands
Last year’s NCAA runner-up wants to be clear: Following in the footsteps of Tom and Terry is a choice.
“I listen to what Tom and Terry say, then I do what they do,” Gilman said. “That might sound weird and like I’m brainwashed. Like I’m trying to be a robot. But that’s my choice. That’s not their doing.
“They’re not making minions. I look up to them so highly that I want to be just like them. It’s not by accident. And in order to be where I want be, I have to live my life more like them.”
The world champion twins have a history of luring top-tier lightweights to Carver-Hawkeye Arena, but few fit their mold as well as Gilman.
“There’s not one guy in our program that wouldn’t like to be like him,” Terry Brands said. “But when they really, truly understand how much energy that takes and what you’re going to have to do, then it’s like, ‘Well, I don’t know if I really want to do that and be that way.’
“That’s why we don’t have 40 Thomas Gilmans running around here.”
Gilman takes what the brothers say as gospel.
Like the time Terry mentioned after a workout that it was important a wrestler “stay hungry like a wolf.”
“I wrote it down because whatever Terry Brands tells you, you should probably write down,” Gilman said. “And I thought about it and wolves are interesting because they’re always on the move and they’re always hunting for their food and they’re always hungry and always mean and ornery and fighting, and that’s kind of how I am.
“I figured, if I can be a little bit hungry in my own life, I’ll be better off. Any time I started feeling sorry for myself, I think about those wolves.”
That mentality has allowed the 2014 Junior World bronze medalist to stand out among a stellar Hawkeye senior class.
“You find a leader like this when you need it,” Terry Brands said. “I think that’s maybe something that was missing from the program, where you have that kind of leader that is very, very, and -- I stress 'very' -- unselfish. We’ve had some good leaders. We’ve had some great leaders.
“But some of the great ones we’ve had maybe wouldn’t give you the shirt off his back or his wrestling shoes. Gilman would.”
And when the Brands brothers told Gilman to stop spending time listening to critics on social media? A short sabbatical turned into nonexistence on Twitter and Facebook. When so many contemporaries and classmates are trying to boost wrestling rivalries online, Gilman drives to pick up the Wall Street Journal and has had a New York Times subscription delivered to Evans’ apartment.
“I deleted social media and never looked back,” Gilman said. “There are so many distractions in this world, without the Internet, without social media, you don’t need it. I’m not a caveman, but I don’t network that way.”
He's a near-facsimile of his coaches when they wrestled. Gilman can shoot, scramble, turn, react, hustle, talk and even run across the mat like a Brands. He even storms into huddles for pre-dual handshakes as if Tom or Terry programmed him for disruption.
Gilman is aiming for the freestyle success the Sheldon natives had, albeit with a later NCAA arc. But after serving as a practice partner for Rio 2016 and training with Daniel Dennis and Tony Ramos ahead of the Olympic Trials, it’s clear folkstyle is Gilman’s foot in the door for post-grad endeavors.
Gilman has risen from redshirt freshman reserve to national title favorite, so why would he stop listening to Iowa’s coaches now?
“I see so much of Terry and Tom in Thomas, you’d think he came out of their gene pool instead of ours,” Cheri Gilman said. “He’s almost a Brands. He just fits at Iowa. It’s like an appendage.”
Wrestling with the true Thomas
Take your pick of post-match interactions this season to see how fiery Gilman gets on the mat.
Iowa State’s Markus Simmons stalled to avoid an emphatic technical fall. American’s Josh Terao attempted cross-face moves at the Midlands. Ohio State’s Jose Rodriguez was ripped for trying some pregame “psychological warfare” in Carver. All were told off by Gilman before walking off the mat.
“He was always a quiet kid, even when he started wrestling,” Cheri Gilman said. “So how vocal he is, how boisterous he is, how in people’s faces he is ... it shocks me. I always told him to keep it on the mat and he’s never gotten in any trouble off it.
“But when he started getting vocal out there, I was like, 'I don’t know who that is and I don’t know where that comes from.'
"Well, I guess I do. Because I'm vocal."
Iowa fans bask in Gilman’s brashness. Opponents took those verbal lashings as the bad guy in the black singlet looking down on them.
“You don’t get better because you emphasized the walloping of an opponent with a parting gesture more befitting a jailhouse than a wrestling mat,” InterMat senior writer T.R. Foley posted in a short column last year about Gilman’s propensity for pushing off opponents at the end of matches.
“Dollars to donuts, Thomas Gilman wins more matches if he tones down the bad boy rhetoric, and ceases to use intimidation as main wrestling skills.”
Oklahoma State’s Anthony Collica wrestles three weight classes above Gilman, but responded to banter after Iowa lost the Jan. 15 dual.
“I try not to listen to that kid,” Collica said at the press conference in Stillwater, Okla. “He’s not the brightest.”
Gilman laughed off those comments several weeks later.
It’s Iowa’s only top-ranked wrestler feeling confident and comfortable in any wrestling situation and coming into his own. That accomplishment has required several years of complete dedication to the sport, but it’s rubbing off on the rest of his life, too.
“Off the mat, he’s kind, generous and a gentle guy,” Evans said. “I remember when I first met him he was very immature and then he went through a tough phase where he couldn’t get his life and wrestling separated.
“Wrestling is ingrained with everything. But it’s nice now that he can come home and decompress and not have to worry about every single thing that happened in practice or a match. That makes it easier on me and it makes our relationship thrive.”
Gilman’s once-distant relationship with his brother Joseph is improving as the pair understand each other’s interests and shared stubbornness. He’s supportive of his younger sister and two step-siblings.
“Nobody ever gets to see that side of Thomas and it bugs me,” Gilman’s stepfather Frank Corcoran said.
“He never wants a thank-you for anything he does and he’s always been squared away.”
The rest of Gilman’s interests are simple.
An avid reader and war history buff, he’s recently dove into Korean War topics through a box his late grandfather left him.
“Gilman’s always talking about war or something scary,” roommate and star 184-pound senior Sam Brooks said ahead of Iowa’s Senior Day.
When he’s not training or attending the two classes on his schedule, he looks after the German Shepherd he and Evans share named Kaiser. (The dog whose mess Brands stepped in was similarly-named: Czar).
He stays surrounded by a tight group of family and friends, who see a sensible homebody more than a short-tempered All-American.
“He knows what he wants and he finally knows how to get it,” Cheri Gilman said. “Life has all started to click for him.”
It’s all part of a maturing process that has made him into the most reliable of wrestlers, with nine pins, seven technical falls and nine victories over top 20 opponents this season.
“Some people think he must be this crazy guy because that’s what they see on the mat,” Evans said. “But he quietly wakes up, pours his coffee, puts on his glasses and sits down to read the newspaper.
“He really is like an old man.”
Like a good Hawkeye wrestling disciple, Gilman won’t look down the road yet, but a Hawkeye Wrestling Club spot seems predestined. A freestyle run could follow, likely taking the winding path of progress like his college career has. And he'll probably be a polarizing figure there as well.
“From a competitor’s standpoint, they don’t understand him and he doesn’t want them to understand him,” Terry Brands said. “He could care less if they understand him. And I’m right there with him.”
A Big Ten or National Championship could change how Gilman is perceived in the wrestling world. But he’s finally strong and settled enough to keep it in perspective.
“If I didn’t have wrestling, I’d be in rehab or something,” Gilman said. “This is my rehab. There’s so much bull that builds up throughout the day, that I’m glad I get to come wrestle and take it out on some poor soul.”