Thomas Gilman grew up in Iowa, right near the Nebraska border in Council Bluffs. He commuted to Omaha Skutt Catholic in high school and won four Nebraska state wrestling titles, then became a three-time All-American for the Hawkeyes.
All of it came to a head last year inside Nebraska’s Bob Devaney Sports Center. Gilman stormed through the field to make the 2017 Senior men’s freestyle world team at 57 kilograms (125 pounds), knocking off former Iowa teammate Tony Ramos in the best-of-three finals.
And here, in this particular retelling, Gilman smiles — not about beating Ramos, but because he remembers the 4,622 in attendance, and how they cheered for him.
“Lincoln was really good to me last year,” Gilman said. “It’s nice to be close to home. I had as many fans, if not more, than (former Nebraska wrestler and five-time world and Olympic champion Jordan Burroughs) did last year. That was pretty neat.
“When I won, it was really loud. When Burroughs won, it was loud, too. I’m not saying this, but people told me it was louder when I won than when Burroughs won.”
Gilman (and Burroughs, for that matter) will make his return trip to the Devaney Center this Saturday. He is one of the participants in USA Wrestling’s Final X, the third and final portion of the 2018 freestyle world team trials process. He will wrestle Daton Fix in a best-of-three series for the right to represent the United States at 57 kg at the world championships in October.
'The mission is the same'
A year ago, Gilman ultimately parlayed his first Senior world-team berth into a silver medal at the world championships in Paris. After picking off four NCAA champs to even make the team, he outscored four international foes 25-7 and reached the finals, where he ultimately lost to Japan’s Yuki Takahashi.
It was an impressive run, but not entirely shocking. Gilman, just a few months removed from the end of his Iowa career, was the latest recent college grad to qualify for a Senior world team and make some noise internationally. He was the young up-and-comer who unseated a seasoned veteran.
A year later, though, the dynamic has changed. In a quiet moment last month, Gilman grappled with the idea that he’s now the old guy, at least comparatively. He’s only now entering the 12th month of his Senior-level career. He just turned 24.
Fix, a true freshman at Oklahoma state this past season, recently turned 20.
“It’s a little different position from last year, but the mission is the same,” Gilman said. “I’m obviously older than him, but if you lay everything out, it’s pretty even as far as experience. He is young, but he has a lot of experience with the age-level stuff and now on the Senior level.”
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USA Wrestling's youth movement
Fix is just one of the latest examples of young wrestlers proving they can compete on the Senior level while still in college.
Ohio State’s Kyle Snyder won three world and Olympic titles while still competing collegiately. Logan Stieber, another Buckeye, made the finals of the 2012 Olympic Trials, just a few months after his redshirt freshman season. Zain Retherford also made the Senior world team last year after his junior season at Penn State.
This year, Fix is one of three current college wrestlers that are competing in Final X. in State College, Pennsylvania, next weekend, Arizona State’s Zahid Valencia, a redshirt sophomore this past season, will wrestle Kyle Dake at 79 kilograms (174 pounds) and Nick Reenan, who redshirted at N.C. State in 2017-18, will wrestle David Taylor at 86 kilograms (189 pounds).
Other young wrestlers are expected to make their move on the Senior level soon, guys like future Minnesota heavyweight Gable Steveson; current Nittany Lion Mark Hall; and, yes, Iowa’s Spencer Lee and Jacob Warner.
“I’ve thought about that a little bit,” Gilman said. “It’s kind of shocking to me, maybe a little bit. When I was coming up, at those guys’ age, there weren’t really a lot of guys that were at that caliber that early. You had Stieber, but he was very outside the box.
“If you look back 10, 20, even 30 years, there are some guys like that, but they’re few and far between.”
To further drive the point home, consider: The average age of the 2008 men’s freestyle Olympic Trials finalists was 28.6. This year, the average age of the men’s freestyle Final X wrestlers is 24.3.
“They’re both young,” Mark Perry, the Hawkeye Wrestling Club coach, said recently on the Warrior Mindset Podcast. “Everybody wants to talk about this kid being young and Gilman being the returning world silver medalist. Gilman’s been on the national scene for 12 months.
“Their age difference might be different, but in terms of growth, Gilman is just getting started.”
'Whether he's 19 or 40, it doesn't matter'
And so, too, is Fix. His credentials speak for themselves. He was a four-time Oklahoma state champion for Charles Page High School and the No. 2 overall 2017 recruit behind only Spencer Lee. He won a Cadet world bronze in 2015, a Junior world bronze in 2016, and a Junior world title in 2017. He actually beat Ramos to earn his Final X berth against Gilman.
“He’s the best thing since sliced bread, I guess,” Gilman said.
Said Fix, after beating Ramos at the World Team Trials challenge tournament last month: “I was excited to get back out here and show that I’m still here, and that I’m a force on the Senior level.
“I feel like if I get into a wrestling match with anybody in the world, there’s a pretty good chance I’m going to win.”
Those are strong words, but so far, Fix has lived up to the hype. Gilman knows a thing or two about backing up the talk as well, verbally feuding with Ramos a year ago before ultimately picking him off in the trials finals.
Gilman will get his crack at the youngster on Saturday inside the Devaney Center, where he can claim a second world team berth, the first step toward a world title he so desperately covets.
He expects to win, of course — and he expects the crowd to act accordingly.
“There’s no pressure,” Gilman said. “I think it’s more motivation than pressure — motivation to stay sharp, stay on my toes, to keep learning and keep getting better. I have to keep my edge, not only in my pace and pressure and meanness, but also in my technique and savviness as well.
“I just have to realize what I’m up against. I’m not overlooking anybody, because if they’re here, they’re here to take me out. Whether he’s 19 or 40, it doesn’t matter. He’s trying to take what I want, and at this point in my life, it’s my livelihood, so I need to go out there and take him out.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.
Final X Lincoln
When: Saturday, 6 p.m.
Where: Bob Devaney Sports Center, in Lincoln, Nebraska
- Bout One - Men's freestyle 70 kg: James Green (Titan Mercury WC/Nebraska WTC) vs. Jason Chamberlain (Titan Mercury WC/Valley RTC)
- Bout Two - Women's freestyle 59 kg: Alli Ragan (Sunkist Kids/Hawkeye WC/OTC) vs. Jenna Burkert (U.S. Army WCAP)
- Bout Three - Men's freestyle 97 kg: Kyle Snyder (Titan Mercury WC/Ohio RTC) vs. Kyven Gadson (Sunkist Kids/Cyclone RTC)
- Bout Four - Women's freestyle 55 kg: Becka Leathers (Titan Mercury WC) vs. Jacarra Winchester (Titan Mercury WC/OTC)
- Bout Five - Men's freestyle 57 kg: Thomas Gilman (Titan Mercury WC/Hawkeye WC) vs. Daton Fix (Titan Mercury WC/Cowboy WC)
- Bout Six - Women's freestyle 68 kg: Tamyra Stock (Titan Mercury WC/OTC) vs. Randyll Beltz (U.S. Army WCAP)
- Bout Seven - Men's freestyle 74 kg: Jordan Burroughs (Sunkist Kids/Nebraska WTC) vs. Isaiah Martinez (Titan Mercury WC/Illini RTC)