Thomas Gilman may be one of the most misunderstood people in the sport of wrestling.
Most of you have seen the ultra-confident Gilman doing interviews, where he’s not afraid to speak his mind or call out an opponent.
He obviously comes across as brash and cocky at times, and some of that candor and his actions on the mat are a product of the environment he trains in. He’s at a place where the standards are sky-high and anything less than first typically is considered unacceptable.
He isn’t the first tough Iowa wrestler to talk that way, and won’t be the last. Gilman is definitely someone who doesn’t hold back in interviews and his honesty actually can be refreshing to hear at times.
I first met Thomas when he was in eighth grade when I was working for USA Wrestling. He was already excelling on the national level in freestyle wrestling and was about to join a program I was very familiar with at Nebraska powerhouse Skutt Catholic High School in Omaha.
Thomas was very polite, friendly and respectful that day, and he’s been that way with me ever since. He’s one of the best young men I’ve ever met. He lives a winning lifestyle on and off the mat. He’s a hard-working, coachable athlete who also excelled in the classroom and was a guy the coaches never had to worry about getting in trouble.
He’s an intelligent and personable young man who has his priorities straight. Gilman’s also a very driven person with an insatiable desire to excel.
When you talk to people around the Iowa program about Gilman the description is typically the same – “We love Thomas. He’s a great kid who deserves to be successful because of how he lives his life.”
I got to know Thomas even better when I wrote a book – “Driven to Excellence” – about the Skutt program in 2012. I wrote an entire chapter on Thomas, and it was interesting to hear some of his philosophies and his outlook on life.
He showed me a lot during his Iowa career. He won the Midlands as a redshirt freshman at 125 pounds, but eventually lost his starting spot to another stud freshman in teammate Cory Clark. Thomas obviously wasn’t happy about it, but he turned it into a positive by coming back even stronger.
Gilman followed by placing fourth, second and third in the NCAA tournament while Clark was fifth, second, second and first in his superb career after moving up to 133 as a sophomore. Both wrestlers obviously made each other better in their five collegiate seasons together.
The clear favorite to win the 2017 NCAAs, the top-seeded Gilman was upset by eventual champion Darian Cruz of Lehigh in the semis. Gilman ended his college career with a third-place finish this year after losing to Penn State’s Nico Megaludis in the 2016 finals.
Gilman showed me a lot by rebounding to win the final two matches of his college career the morning after falling in the semis. “The sun still came up today,” Gilman said in his final interview as a Hawkeye.
The good news for Gilman is he’s better at freestyle than folkstyle. He avenged both of those losses in an unreal and unlikely performance at June’s World Team Trials.
The eighth-seeded Gilman rolled past Cruz in his first match and dominated Megaludis in the semis. He also beat No. 1 seed Tyler Graff in the quarterfinals of the challenge tournament and then downed Nathan Tomasello in the finals.
He then swept another guy who likes to talk, two-time World Team member and former Iowa teammate Tony Ramos, in two straight matches to make his first Senior World Team.
Gilman’s victory should not be considered a huge surprise. He has made one Cadet World Team and two Junior World Teams for the U.S., and was a Junior World bronze medalist. He has a fair amount of international experience already and has spent extensive time training at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
Gilman had previously beaten Tomasello in freestyle and folkstyle, he’s lost close matches to Megaludis and he’s obviously trained extensively with Ramos.
Gilman’s magical day at the Trials included a total of five wins over four NCAA champions, plus he beat an NCAA runner-up in Graff. It was an amazing showing for the No. 8 seed at 125 pounds, but it wasn’t completely unexpected.
Gilman looked bigger and more physical than Ramos when they wrestled, and he is taller and has more leverage than most of the guys in his weight class. That could be a potential matchup problem for foreign foes at the Worlds.
Gilman is really good on his feet, offensively and defensively, and his skills will only improve as he gains more experience on the Senior level. He is effective shooting a single leg to either side, and if he stays on his attacks he can break matches open.
He had a goal to be an NCAA champion, but his ultimate goal has been to be a World and Olympic champion. He had that goal when he was still in high school.
Gilman never won an NCAA title, but he will represent the U.S. at the World Championships in August in Paris, France. I can promise you this: He won’t back down from anybody and I wouldn’t count him out as a medal threat.
The United States hasn’t won a World or Olympic medal at the lightest freestyle weight class since Henry Cejudo won Olympic gold in 2008.
Gilman is hoping to change that. And don’t be surprised if it happens this year.