Former Iowa Hawkeye wrestler Thomas Gilman wins Senior men's freestyle world championship

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

Thomas Gilman is, officially, the best in the world.

Two months after winning bronze at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Gilman won gold at the 2021 Senior men's freestyle world championships in Oslo, Norway. He beat Iran's Alireza Sarlak, 5-3, in Monday's finals match at 57 kilograms (125 pounds).

"It was the expectation, really," Gilman told reporters there afterward. "It’s been four or five years in the making. Checked that one off the list.

"I’m here, I’m present, I’m enjoying it, and I’m going to let this sink in."

Gilman went 4-0 this weekend to win his first world title, his second world medal (he won silver in 2017), and the third world or Olympic medal of his Senior-level men's freestyle career. And this latest victory puts him in some pretty elite company. 

Iowa native and Hawkeye great Thomas Gilman won a freestyle world championship this week in Norway.

He is now the fifth former Hawkeye wrestler to win a Senior men's freestyle world championship, and the first since Bill Zadick won in 2006. The others: Chris Campbell (1981), Tom Brands (1993) and Terry Brands, who won twice in 1993 and 1995.

Gilman is also the fifth former Iowa wrestler to win both a world and Olympic medal, joining both Brands brothers, Campbell, and Lincoln McIlravy. And he is the sixth former Hawkeye to win multiple Senior-level world medals, along with Terry Brands, Campbell, McIlravy, Barry Davis and Joe Williams.

The Council Bluffs native — he is also the second native-born Iowa to win a world title, joining Dan Gable, who won in 1971 — might remember 2021 as the best year of his wrestling career. Consider what he's accomplished: 

In April, Gilman made the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team, going 4-0 at the Olympic Trials and outscoring his opponents 34-6. In August, he won Olympic bronze. He lost his first match to Russia's Zavur Uguev, 5-4, in the final seconds to win. Uguev ultimately won gold, and Gilman stormed through his next two opponents, 11-1 and 9-1, to win bronze.

"Every competition offers something, as far as adversity," Gilman said. "Sometimes the adversity is very small, sometimes it’s very big. This was no different. It was a quick turnaround."

Then came this weekend, where Gilman continued his torrid run by going 4-0 and outscoring his opponents 34-9. In all, he's gone 10-1 with a 92-22 scoring advantage at the Olympic Trials, Olympic Games and Senior world championships. Pretty good.

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In Norway, Gilman recorded a first-period pin in his opening-round match over Russia's Abubakr Mutaliev, then back-to-back technical falls, 11-1 over North Macedonia’s Vladimir Egorov in the quarterfinals, then 15-5 over Germany's Horst Lehr in the semifinals.

That pushed him into Sunday's final against Sarlak, one of six Iranian wrestlers to make the finals in Norway. Sarlak won his first match, 11-0, then showcased some mettle in his next two, rallying from down 6-1 to win 7-6 over Aryan Tsiutryn of Belarus in the quarters, then pinned Turkey's Suleyman Atli in the semifinals after trailing 4-1.

In the final, Gilman showcased the same stingy defense and fast-twitch offense that's guided him throughout his wrestling career. He led 1-0 midway through the first period on a shot-clock point, then methodically converted a single-leg for a takedown near the edge with 30 seconds left for a 3-0 lead at the midway point.

In the second period, Gilman struck again, converting another single-leg shot for a takedown, despite tremendous defensive efforts from Sarlak. That put Gilman up 5-0 with 77 seconds left in the match. Salark came hard at the end, scoring a takedown on a duck-under and another point for a step-out, but it was too late.

"He’s a tough, tough competitor," Gilman said. "You always know, when you wrestle an Iranian, they’re known for their toughness and their straight-forward hand-fighting, just like how I wrestle. In those first two minutes, we’re scrapping and he’s staying in there, so I’m like, let’s go.

"Iranians are really good there. They throw your head to the outside, bust your lock, and focus on those fundamental things. I chuckled to myself, because it felt familiar. I was looking for maybe four, but we got to the edge and he was strong there, so I dumped him and got the two. If I don’t get that takedown, maybe I lose. It was important."

Gilman, as usual, was stoic in the immediate aftermath: a simple head-nod, then he motioned to the sky. Only then did he allow himself a small celebration, holding both pointer-fingers up and flexing his arms before carrying the American flag around the center mat.

Thomas Gilman has always believed he was the best wrestler in the world, year after year, after every competition, big and small. On Monday, at long last, he proved it, emphatically. He is a world champion, now and forever.

"I’m just glad that we did it, finally," Gilman said. "We is for me, my wife, my dogs, my unborn child, my coaching staff, USA Wrestling, my training partners, my annoying camera man.

"I did nothing, really. I did 18-24 minutes of work out there. It’s all the people behind the scenes, the people you don’t see, the people that will never take the credit for anything — that’s we. I want to make sure I give credit to them."

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.