IOWA CITY, Ia. — The sounds were all too familiar for Thomas Gilman. The former Iowa star has run out from the tunnel in Carver-Hawkeye Arena’s north corner many times before, but on Saturday, many of the 6,388 in attendance screamed a little louder to welcome him back.
“That was awesome,” Gilman said. “They welcomed me back with open arms. I’m tickled.”
Those diehard Hawkeye wrestling fans watched Gilman win 107 matches in an Iowa singlet from 2013-2017, wherein he earned All-American honors three times. But this weekend, they’re getting an opportunity to watch the Council Bluffs native compete against the world’s best.
On Saturday, Gilman wrestled just once as the United States’ starter at 57 kilograms (roughly 125.5 pounds) at the 2018 UWW Freestyle World Cup. After receiving a forfeit against India, Gilman dropped a rematch of last year’s world championship bout against Japan’s Yuki Takahashi.
The Americans ultimately went 2-0 Saturday and will face Georgia on Sunday morning for the right to advance to the gold-medal match on Sunday afternoon. In all, Team USA won 17 of 20 matches, blanking India, 10-0, before overcoming an early deficit to defeat Japan, 7-3.
Gilman’s matchup against Takahashi was one of the premiere bouts of the United States-Japan contest, as it was a rematch of the 2017 57-kilo world championship finals, which Takahashi won, 6-0, last August. It was an opportunity Gilman long had his eye on.
“Go out there and rip his head off — but with patience,” the 23-year-old Gilman said when asked his gameplan after receiving his forfeit early Saturday. “I have to go out there and take it to him. No gameplan. Just go out there and wrestle hard.”
Come Saturday afternoon, a palpable energy filled the Hawkeye-heavy crowd when Gilman took the mat. Iowa coach Tom Brands and Team USA coach Bill Zadick — a former Iowa wrestler himself — both sat in his corner.
Nearby, Cory Clark, another former Hawkeye, swayed with anticipation as the first period transpired. Mark Perry, coach of the Hawkeye Wrestling Club, hurled verbal encouragement and direction from behind the mat. He, too, believed Gilman could get Takahashi this time around.
The first period unfolded swimmingly. Gilman led 1-0 at the break thanks to a passivity point. He consistently pushed the pace and reached Takahashi’s legs a few times, though he couldn't finish his shots.
“I think he made a little bit of ground there,” Zadick said afterward. “We have to continue to improve our positioning and bring that same amount of intensity and fire.
“Obviously, Thomas wrestled really hard. It was a great match, but I think he has to be able to open it up a little bit sooner — don’t work on tiring the guy out, but focus on out-wrestling him.”
Gilman continued his pressure-filled pace into the second period but fell victim to Takahashi’s counter offense yet again. In one sequence, Gilman shot in on Takahashi’s right leg, but Takahashi defended well, broke Gilman’s grip, and spun around for a takedown and a 2-1 lead.
Later in the second period, Takahashi used quick hips and spun out of a Gilman shot attempt. Takahashi then used his hands to set up a re-shot, and ran through Gilman for another takedown, increasing his lead to 4-1.
“He attacks directly and is really aggressive,” Takahashi said through an interpreter after the match. “By studying his moves, we figured out how he would be attacking. He has a lot of stamina and power. In a way, we’re very similar, but we have two different styles of wrestling.
“This time, his weak points were much better, and he attacked my weak points. You can definitely see Gilman studied us this time.”
Despite losing, Gilman was encouraged by his performance. Last August, he struggled mightily getting to Takahashi’s legs at all, which is what made him so effective in his run to the finals. His neutral offense made for a seamless transition from folkstyle to freestyle wrestling.
On Saturday, Gilman nearly finished an early shot on the edge of the mat in the first period, but Takahashi countered with a whizzer just in time to avoid giving up two. Gilman tried maneuvering his way to points, but couldn’t finish the move.
“I’m not about moral victories, but sometimes, you have to find the positives,” Gilman said. “I felt like I was moving him more than the other time I wrestled him. I said I wanted to rip his head off. I wanted him to feel me. He didn’t like that in that first period.
“I went out there guns blazing and shooting all over the place. The three times I shot, I was in there to score. Moving in the right direction, for sure.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.