Thomas Gilman (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Thomas Gilman's goal was launched when he was 6 years old.
He wanted to be an Olympic gold medalist.
Now two decades later, Gilman feels that goal is within reach.
A world silver medalist in 2017 before finishing fifth in 2018, Gilman is back wrestling well again after a tough end to the 2019 season.
He delivered a strong statement in winning last month's United World Wrestling rankings event in Rome, Italy. He defeated 2019 World Team member Daton Fix and 2018 world bronze medalist Joe Colon en route to capturing the title at 57 kilograms.
"In Rome, I felt really good mentally and physically," Gilman said. "I've been working closely with my coach, Mark Perry, and we were on the same page. We have developed a good chemistry. We really clicked in Rome and we are thinking the same things."
Thomas Gilman gets his hand raised after beating Joe Colon in Rome (Photo/Gabor Martin, United World Wrestling)
Gilman said he took a different approach to that event.
"I went out and didn't put much pressure on myself," he said. "I just went out and wrestled and let it fly. I wrestled in the moment. I wrestled smart and savvy, and didn't put myself in a position where I was compromised. I just have to wrestle one position at a time and I will be fine."
Gilman is spending this week at a National Team Camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Two years ago, he suffered a serious injury during another camp at the OTC.
"I had a complete tear of my hamstring in January 2018," he said. "It was a bad deal. I was wrestling live in Colorado Springs against a bigger guy -- I took a bad shot and I heard it pop. I had so much adrenaline in my body that I didn't know right away I was injured. But when I stood up, I felt it."
Gilman then had a difficult decision to make.
"I talked to the doctors and they wanted to do surgery," he said. "I decided not to have surgery. I took some time off and I came back in April for the World Cup. I had only trained a couple of weeks before that event. Looking back, I don't know if it was the best decision to wrestle in the World Cup. But I wanted to wrestle in front of my fans in my home arena in Iowa City."
Gilman's first match back was against Japan's Yuki Takahashi, the wrestler he had lost to in the finals of the 2017 World Championships.
Gilman lost two matches at the World Cup, including a 4-1 setback to Takahashi, but he came back a couple of months later to make his second straight U.S. world team.
Gilman reached the bronze-medal match at the 2018 World Championships before placing fifth.
"I made the world team, but I was still dealing with the injury," he said. "I thought I could still be successful, but my style changed and I didn't really shoot at all.
"I lost my swagger and mojo from being hurt. I did what I had to do in 2018, but my body wasn't healthy enough to do what I did the year before."
Thomas Gilman gets in on a shot against Daton Fix at Final X (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Gilman said the struggles of 2018 carried over into 2019. He lost a hard-fought battle to Fix and fell just short of making his third straight world team.
"I lost some of my edge and my mentality when I was injured, and it affected me and set me back," he said. "At the 2019 Final X, I got beat fair and square. I made a silly mistake that cost me. He capitalized on my stupidity and he beat me.
"Last year, it was a good learning experience for me. I need to be stronger mentally. And I need to do a better job finishing my shots."
Gilman has responded by starting strong during the 2020 Olympic year.
"I'm feeling great with where I'm at right now - I just need to keep working and progressing," he said. "In 2017, I had the 'nobody can beat me' mentality. I'm starting to find that again."
Gilman made the U.S. Cadet world team in 2011 before making back-to-back Junior world teams in 2013 and 2014. He won a Junior world bronze medal in 2014 before becoming a three-time All-American for the University of Iowa. He reached the NCAA finals as a junior in 2016.
During his Hawkeye career, Gilman also trained with two-time world team member Tony Ramos and with Olympian Daniel Dennis in the loaded wrestling room at Iowa.
Those battles against Ramos and Dennis set the stage for Gilman to excel in this four-year Olympic cycle.
Four years ago, Gilman watched closely as Dennis defeated Ramos in Carver-Hawkeye Arena to land a spot on the 2016 U.S. Olympic team.
"I worked out a lot in practice with Dennis, before and after he made the Olympic team," Gilman said. "I went toe-to-toe with Dennis and that really helped me. I learned so much. The next year I was second at the World Championships."
The U.S. still needs to qualify Gilman's weight class of 57 kilos for the 2020 Olympics. The U.S. will likely send Fix, as the returning world team member, to compete at March's Pan American Olympic Qualifier in Ottawa, Canada.
Gilman is ranked No. 2 behind Fix on the U.S. ladder at 57 kilograms.
"I am training and getting ready for the qualifier, if I'm called upon," he said. "I'm ready if they decide to give me the opportunity."
Once the weight class is qualified, the 25-year-old Gilman will turn his focus to April's Olympic Trials at Penn State.
In addition to Fix and Colon, the loaded 57-kilogram weight class also includes two-time NCAA champion Spencer Lee of Iowa and NCAA champion Seth Gross of Wisconsin.
"You always have to be ready," Gilman said, "for whoever steps out there against you."
The winner of the Trials would represent the United States at the Olympic Games in early August in Tokyo, Japan.
"For me, it's just a matter of putting all of the pieces together," Gilman said. "Ever since I knew what the Olympics were, that was my goal. It's not a dream anymore to wrestle in the Olympics - it's a realistic goal for me now. I've trained 20 years for this opportunity. Now is the time. I believe 100 percent that I can win an Olympic gold medal. I just need to go out there and do it."
Craig Sesker has written about wrestling for more than three decades. He's covered three Olympic Games and is a two-time national wrestling writer of the year.