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Thomas Gilman, a three-time All-American wrestler for Iowa, swept his best-of-three final against Daton Fix to qualify for the men's freestyle world team on Saturday in Lincoln. Cody Goodwin, cgoodwin2@dmreg.com

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LINCOLN, Neb. — The sweat was still trickling down Thomas Gilman’s face as he walked underneath the Bob Devaney Sports Center on Saturday night. It was hard to tell, though, because the former Iowa All-American was smiling wide, too.

A few moments earlier, Gilman had won the 57-kilogram (125 pounds) competition here at Final X. He swept Oklahoma State star Daton Fix, two matches to none by scores of 6-3 and 2-1, to earn a spot on the U.S. men’s freestyle world team for the second straight year.

“I just did what I had to do,” Gilman said. “That first match, I came out and did what I needed to do, and I won. The second match, I did the same thing, and I won.”

The matches weren’t the most aesthetically pleasing, but with a world-team berth on the line, winning is ultimately what matters. Gilman was hardly the only one to struggle offensively in his best-of-three finals series — of the 14 matches contested, nine posted 10 combined points or less between the two wrestlers.

But for Gilman, his results were a showcase of physical toughness and mental fortitude — and, perhaps to those outside the Hawkeye Wrestling Club, a surprise.

'Put two-and-two together'

Since his silver-medal run at the 2017 World Championships in Paris, the Council Bluffs native has struggled on the international scene. At the UWW World Cup in April, he went 2-2 — and one of his wins was a forfeit. At the Pan-American Championships in May, he went 3-1 and took third, dropping a tough 7-4 decision to Cuba’s Reineri Andreu Ortega in the semifinals.

“Never any doubt,” Gilman said. “I wasn’t peaked for the World Cup. Is that an excuse? No. I wasn’t peaked for Pan-Ams. Is that an excuse? No. I pushed myself back into competition after a life-changing event. It’s not an excuse, but I had to stick with the process.

“This season hasn’t gone the way I wanted it to go. My international career hasn’t gone the way I wanted it to. I want to be like (former Iowa coach Dan Gable) — that’s the standard: never losing. But sometimes, we have to be humbled.”

That life-changing event? Gilman refused to offer specific details, but allowed that he’s been, “Physically unhealthy — put two-and-two together.”

He continued: “A good friend of mine, Bobby Telford, says all pain is mental — 'You’re in pain because you let yourself be in pain.' That put me in my place. I was feeling sorry for myself when I wasn’t healthy.”

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Experts pick Fix

As his underwhelming performances piled up, many of the sport’s prognosticators felt that Fix, the Cowboys’ true-freshman lightweight, could knock off Gilman.

Five Flowrestling writers (out of eight) picked Fix to win the series, as did writers at The Open Mat and Intermat. Another former Iowa wrestler, Tony Ramos — who lost to both Fix and Gilman in the last two years — thought Fix might unseat his old teammate.

Gilman silenced them all with a clean sweep, wherein his tough positioning, strength and savvy technique combined to resemble something of a brick wall against Fix.

Fix fired off many shots, but was met with Gilman’s heavy hips and hand-fighting. Gilman had the only two takedowns in the series, scoring both in the first match. In the second, Fix nearly scored on a scramble when Gilman attempted a shot, but Fix failed to break Gilman’s grip or find an angle with which to score, and the sequence resulted in a stalemate.

At the world team trials challenge tournament last month, Fix piled up 47 points in five matches to advance to Final X. Against Gilman, he mustered just four points in two matches — one two-point exposure, one passivity point and another on a push-out.

“Everything Daton does, he does well,” Flowrestling’s Mark Bader said on the broadcast. “It’s just not quite as effective against Thomas Gilman.”

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'I'm still the guy to beat'

Afterward, Gilman walked underneath the Devaney Center and greeted the swath of media with a smile. Then he pointed to his temple and relayed some sage advice given to him by Iowa associate head coach Terry Brands as he navigated the last few months.

“It’s in here,” Gilman said, pointing to his head. “Terry Brands says, ‘Six inches controls six feet.’ I have to keep that in mind … we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. I know what to do out there. I just have to go do it.

“You always envision perfection, but it never turns out that way. You can’t get caught up in what you envision. You just have to go out there and deal with the punches.”

Gilman then picked up his wooden plaque and T-shirt and began walking toward a swarm of children waiting for him. He signed autographs — on shirts, on posters, on a massive picture of his likeness.

Despite all the struggles he's faced, Gilman was back in his element. He’s headed to Budapest, Hungary, in October to compete at the 2018 World Championships. But that’s five months away.

On Saturday, he allowed himself to revel in the moment.

“Everyone says I was down,” Gilman said. “You know, maybe I was.

“But I’m still the guy to beat.”

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

Hawkeye Lightweight Domination

Former Iowa wrestlers have controlled Team USA's lightest weight on the freestyle world team for the last five years. Here's who's been in those spots:

  • 2014:  Tony Ramos, 57 kilograms
  • 2015:  Tony Ramos, 57 kilograms
  • 2016 (Olympic Trials):  Dan Dennis, 57 kilograms
  • 2017:  Thomas Gilman, 57 kilograms
  • 2018:  Thomas Gilman, 57 kilograms
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