Hayden Zillmer defeated Deron Winn to advance to Final X (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)
Hayden Zillmer, a native of Crosby, Minn., qualified for Final X at 92 kilograms by winning the World Team Trials last month in Rochester, Minn. He will now face 2016 Olympic bronze medalist J'den Cox on June 23 in a best-of-three series at historic Grace Hall on the campus Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. The winner earns a spot on the U.S. World Team in freestyle and will compete at the World Championships in Budapest, Hungary in October.
Zillmer was an All-American at North Dakota State in 2015. Last year he earned a spot on the U.S. National Team in both freestyle and Greco-Roman.
InterMat recently caught up with him.
You won the World Team Trials in Rochester (Minn.) to make Final X. How much did it help having the event in your home state?
Zillmer: It was great. It helped not having to travel as much. I don't really like airplanes that much. Also, I've been wrestling in Rochester since I've been in like first grade.
In the finals you faced Deron Winn, a veteran who is now competing in both wrestling and MMA. He's short, compact and explosive. You had to come from behind in both matches to beat him. What was the key to beating him?
Zillmer: I've never really wrestled anybody quite like him. He's really explosive. He's short and stocky. I'm long and lanky. So we kind of matched up weird. I didn't really have a big game plan. I knew what I had to do to win. I felt like I didn't have to change much. I knew he was really explosive, so I had to be aware of those kinds of attacks.
You now face Olympic bronze medalist J'den Cox at Final X in Bethlehem, Pa. It's a rematch from the U.S. Open finals, which he won 2-0. When training for Final X, is a lot of focus put on preparing for Cox since you know that's who you're facing? Or is it more about focusing on what you do?
Zillmer: I think it's more about focusing on what I do. I think I'm better that way when I have that kind of mindset. The training has been focusing on things I do.
J'den Cox has won two world-level medals in two years. What makes Cox successful?
Zillmer: He's hard to score on. He's really good at what he does. He's tough. I just think I need to score earlier on him. He's probably going to be super sweaty late in the match. I know the things he likes to do. Personally, I need to capitalize on what I'm best at. I need to get after it right away.
The World Team Trials process changed this year with the creation of Final X. What are your thoughts on the new process?
Zillmer: I think it's kind of cool that it's a little bit more of an event, a showcase. I kind of wish there were only two Final X events, or even one Final X event with all the weights. I think it's really cool that they do it this way. It kind of hurt me a little bit, though. I wanted to wrestle in the Greco World Trials, but it was the day before Final X., so I'm not going to be wrestling Greco. But I think it's awesome. I think there are going to be a lot of fans there. I think it's cool that we kind of get to be individualized a little bit. It's not like a full weekend of wrestling and then you have to wrestle your finals match. You get to prepare for it. There's a little bit more hype going into it. The fans get to learn about it. It's kind of a new dimension.
Hayden Zillmer picked up a win against India at the World Cup (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
You were part of the USA World Cup team that won the title in Iowa City. You picked up a win against India. What was that experience like competing on that World Cup team?
Zillmer: That was sweet. It was great that I got a match. I didn't know that I was going to get a match going in. Once they told me that I was going to get a match I thought it was awesome. It was a cool process being a part of it. Team USA has a lot of great wrestlers. Being around those guys for the 10 days was cool and motivating. It keeps you a fresh.
What do you like about training with the Minnesota Storm?
Zillmer: I love it. It's great. I have a lot of really good training partners. I feel like we have a good group of big guys to train with. We just added Trevor Brandvold. He's a good coach and training partner. I think it's just going to keep getting better. I feel like I keep improving. Minnesota has a lot to offer me.
Hayden Zillmer was a Cadet Triple Crown winner at 84 pounds in 2007 (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)
It's been well documented that you have grown a lot from the time you were a Cadet-age wrestler to now competing on the senior level. You won your first Fargo title at 84 pounds and now you're competing at 202 pounds. It's not typical for wrestlers to grow that much. What has that body growth done for your development as a wrestler?
Zillmer: I felt like when I was growing up I was never developed yet. I couldn't catch up to my body. I kind of feel like I'm starting to catch up to my body a little bit. I think wrestling as a little guy helped me a lot. Just the way a little guy attacks. There's a lot more speed involved and athleticism. I think it really helps. I kind of still had that same attack style. I'm just attacking bigger guys. It was a crazy process. My dad is really big, so I knew it was going to happen. I just didn't realize it was going to be that big of a change.
Hayden Zillmer became an All-American in 2015 (Photo/Mark Beshey, The Guillotine)
You're a Minnesota native who left the state to compete at North Dakota State. You had a successful college wrestling career, becoming an All-American in 2015. How did you end up at NDSU?
Zillmer: I got recruited by Minnesota too. But I was recruited by Roger Kish to North Dakota State. He wrestled at Minnesota. I'm from a small town and when I went up to Fargo I kind of liked the town. It kind of has a small-town feel. I like the people there. I could kind of sense that. I knew I was going to get a little bit bigger. A lot of the other schools were recruiting me to wrestle at 125 pounds or 133 pounds. North Dakota State recruited me for 141 pounds. At the time I thought that's what I was gong to wrestle. By the time school started I wrestled 149 pounds and then I kept getting bigger. That process was kind of difficult. My whole life I grew up wanting to wrestle for the Gophers. I think Kish did a really good job of staying on me and showed that they really wanted me.
You were on the U.S. National Team for both freestyle and Greco-Roman last year. This year you have chosen to focus on freestyle. What went into the decision to focus on freestyle?
Zillmer: I train both. Throughout the year I was training both styles. Leading up to the U.S. Open I focused on freestyle. I decided that I was going to wrestle 92 kilograms, 202 pounds. I figured with Greco being first, I didn't want to be 213 pounds and have to cut to 202 pounds. So that's why I decided to wrestle freestyle. I would have really enjoyed wrestling both. But it's tough with the World Team Trials for Greco the day before. I want to give myself the best opportunity to win.
Will you compete in Greco-Roman in the coming years?
Zillmer: Yeah, for sure. I like wrestling Greco. But being a part of the best team in the world is a big deal to me too.
You're competing at 92 kilograms, which is a non-Olympic weight class for freestyle. So to make a run at the Olympic team you'll have to move to a different weight class. Have you made a decision on what weight class you will go in 2020?
Zillmer: I'll be up at 97 kilograms. 86 kilograms would be too much for me.
You grew up in Northern Minnesota, which is not necessarily a wrestling hotbed. How did you get the coaching and training partners needed to succeed?
Zillmer: My high school coach would bring in partners for me. My mom and I would hop in the vehicle and drive to the Twin Cities two or three times a week to go to practices. Gordy Morgan would run freestyle practices on Monday nights and Dan Chandler would run Greco practices on Wednesday nights. It was a lot of traveling. My mom and dad wore out three vehicles just on traveling for wrestling. We just didn't have the training partners, so we had to do something. Driving was the only option. We made it work. My parents sacrificed a lot. My coaches sacrificed a lot. It's kind of a crazy process. When I look back, it was tough. We would get home at 10:30 or 11 at night and had to be up for school early in the morning. It was stressful, but I knew it was all worth it in the end. There was a lot of out-of-state stuff too. I knew that's what I had to do.
This story also appears in the June 15 issue of The Guillotine. The Guillotine has been covering wrestling in Minnesota since 1971. Its mission is to report and promote wrestling at all levels -- from youth and high school wrestling to college and international level wrestling. Subscribe to The Guillotine.