IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa’s 125-pound wrestler Thomas Gilman is opinionated, brash and confident. He earns that right with an unblemished record and the No. 1 national ranking.
With the NCAA Tournament set for this week in St. Louis, the senior vies for his first NCAA title. Although the championship remains his goal for March of 2017, it’s just a steppingstone for his career aspiration beyond college wrestling.
“If I win out, this is the beginning of the beginning for me,” Gilman said Monday. “I’ve got a long career ahead of me. World championships, Olympic championships. Gold medals. This will be a good springboard. Just because I win the Big Tens and then I win the nationals doesn’t really mean that I’m a legend. I’ve got two coaches that are world gold medalists, an Olympic champion (Tom Brands) and an Olympic bronze medalist (Terry Brands). That’s something of a legend. A one-time national champ, pfft, it’s something to roll your eyes at. I’ve got work to do.”
The walls of Iowa’s wrestling room are filled with the names of All-Americans and some who earned world and Olympic glory. Gilman has a chance to compete for those accolades at another time. But what’s important now for him and the program is to win a national title, something last done by Tony Ramos in 2014. Gilman is the Hawkeyes’ best chance to do so this year.
With a 27-0 record, Gilman has scored extra points for Iowa in 23 matches. He’s pinned 10 opponents and ended another seven matches early by technical fall. He’s seeking to become Iowa’s 20th unbeaten national champion. It’s a chance to cement his legacy as an all-time great, at least for one season.
But Gilman won’t have any part of that discussion. With 21 multi-year national champions in Hawkeyes history, Gilman won’t consider himself one of their equals, even with an NCAA title.
“(Winning a national title) matters for sure,” Gilman said. “But it doesn’t matter in the sense that I’m going to win a national title and now I’m the greatest that ever was. My eyes are open. Just because I win a national title doesn’t mean I’m the man, I’m the big man on campus.”
Don’t mistake Gilman’s humility in Iowa’s history for lack of hubris on the mat, however. Intimidation is part of his goal. He rushes to his opponent to shake hands rather than wait in the middle of the mat. He gets into opponents’ heads before, during and sometimes after matches.
“He’s brash, he says what’s on his mind but he also keeps his head down and he’s not cocky even though he says what he wants,” coach Tom Brands said. “When you see him in public, he’s not walking around (strutting) in public. It’s more a competitive thing.”
Gilman (102-11 overall) doesn’t care who is on his side of the bracket or who seeks revenge. All he cares about it is victory. Then he moves on to his next opponent
“They’re going to come out and try to beat me,” he said. “Then when they realize they can’t beat me, they’re going to try to keep it close. So I’ve got to be ready every single time I’m out there. I don’t care if I’ve wrestled them before. I’ve got to step out there and put them down hard.”
Brands has his own Iowa legacy, from three national titles from 1990 through 1992 and 158 career victories. But when asked with whom he’d compare Gilman from the past, Brands was stumped.
“I think these guys that have big motors and have put together seasons where the track that Gilman’s on are all unique in that the fans gravitate toward them,” Brands said. “They have a quirkiness about them that’s attractive, high-level thinking. But you know with the way that he marches, and the personality traits that he has, I think it’s unique. I don’t know who I’d compare him to.”
If Gilman wins a national title this year, the comparisons with Iowa’s greats are on equal footing, at least for this season.