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Many trained five years for one shot at a national title.
Some may have intensified their approach for this season, this postseason or even this last week.
For Thomas Gilman, he has devoted himself to this moment since he first stepped on the mat and well before he donned Iowa’s signature black-and-gold singlet.
“I’ve been training my whole life for this,” Gilman said. “I’ve been getting ready since I was 5 years old. I’ve been preparing myself. Everyone around me has been preparing me, so I just have to go out there and do what I do best and that’s where my confidence comes from.”
Gilman is unbeaten and the top-seeded 125-pounder at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, beginning Thursday at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Mo. The two-time All-American and returning national finalist leads the way for the Hawkeyes, who haven’t had an individual NCAA titlist since 2014.
As others place emphasis on his last collegiate bracket, Gilman is approaching it like any other five-match stretch in his career that has produced a 102-11 mark at Iowa. The Big Ten Conference champion and three-time Midlands champion considers these as important as any other with the program.
“Every match is important,” Gilman said. “When you bring that importance to every single match then you’re in a position I am right now.
“It will solidify the things that I’m about and what this program is about. I plan on winning a national title. I plan on sticking around here, winning World and Olympic gold medals, so I think my influence will be more than just winning a national title this year.”
Gilman exhibits a relentless offensive attack that many want to still label the “Iowa style.” He is 27-0 this season, including 23 bonus-point victories. He has six major decisions and team-highs with 10 pins and seven technical falls.
“He is a steady customer,” Iowa Coach Tom Brands said. “He’s a dominant customer. He has a target on his back. He loves the challenges that are thrown in front of him every day, every week.
“He marches to the beat of a drummer that great competitors can relate to but not everybody understands.”
The results speak for themselves and his bravado has endeared him to Hawkeyes supporters. In addition to his domination on the mat, Gilman has become a polarizing figure for his talk and psychological warfare, commenting on opponents’ tactics, wrestling anyone, including but not limited to King Kong, and a physical style that led to silly “face mushing” criticism.
Brands said he likes wrestlers who can talk the talk and back it up by walking the walk. Brands said the fans love the unabashed personality as well. Brands said he differed from Gilman, saying less and reeling in the emotions after competition.
“He reminds me of someone who really puts it out there,” Brands said. “When I say puts it out there, he’s not afraid to have that target on his back.
“I didn’t want to give an edge away. I don’t think he’s too concerned with giving an edge away. He doesn’t care who thinks diddlysquat of what he says or what he does or how he acts.”
Gilman responded to Brands’ comment about being more open in interviews. He was unsure of how he developed it, noting he just answers the questions he’s asked. Gilman showed some wry wit.
“I was pretty shy coming in,” Gilman said. “I’ve gotten more confident, I guess, as I’ve gone. My people skills have gotten better, too. I think it’s a combination of all those things. I don’t know how good Tom’s people skills are.”
Gilman opens with Central Michigan’s Brent Fleetwood (22-10). He has been head-and-shoulders above most competitors this season, winning a one-point match against Penn State’s second-seeded Nick Suriano and a two-point match against American University’s No. 11 David Terao. Gilman’s high pace also thwarted an upset attempt by Minnesota’s No. 6 Ethan Lizak, taking the lead after an eight-point deficit and getting a pin.
He is prepared for opponents to try keeping it close and win with one move at the end. Another tactic could be to start strong and hold on for the victory.
“A couple of those instances have happened to me this year,” Gilman said. “Lizak is one of them that came out and really, really worked hard to build up those points that first period. He kind of faded (and) realized he couldn’t do it. The majority of other guys try to hold it close and then at the end try to get it. Terao at the Midlands is a good example.”
His maturity on the mat has grown over the years. He hasn’t been flustered by attempts to slow matches down or rough antics like punching him, riling him up to try to get him ejected.
“I just have to be calm, composed and just get after it,” Gilman said. “I think it would be silly if I didn’t grow in those aspects or if I didn’t improve there.”
He wants the path to it to be as impressive as the final accomplishment. Gilman won’t be satisfied with gold, unless it comes with a commanding performance.
“I’m going to go out there and win a national title and I want to do it in a dominant fashion,” Gilman said. “I don’t want any ifs, ands or buts about it.”
Gilman is the only of nine Hawkeye qualifiers to earn a top seed. Redshirt freshman Michael Kemerer (157) is seeded second. Two-time Big Ten champion and returning All-American Sam Brooks is third at 184.
Cory Clark (133) and Brandon Sorensen (149), who both matched Gilman with national runner-up finishes last year, are fourth and fifth, respectively.
Fourth-ranked Iowa will face a tough task to overcome defending national champion Penn State, current Big Ten champ Ohio State and Oklahoma State, which qualified all 10 wrestlers from the Big 12 Conference.
Brands said the Hawkeyes will have to wrestle very well throughout the field. He said he has not looked at the full brackets, leaving that to the rest of the staff. The Hawkeyes have to be ready to go each session.
“I’m aware of our first-round opponents,” Brands said. “I don’t look too far ahead and our guys should not be looking too far ahead. The way that they’re wired and the way their best wrestling has been in the past it’s about getting ready to go each and every match. So, to look ahead is silly business. Take care of your match and then get ready for the next one as it’s coming up.”
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