Thomas Gilman may have been the man waiting in the best-of-three final at Final X in Lincoln, Nebraska, but he wasn't exactly the favorite to prevail in that series and be the U.S. representative at 57 KG at the Freestyle Wrestling World Championships this fall. Gilman's performance has been up-and-down over the last six months, while his challenger, Oklahoma State's young phenom Daton Fix, was coming off a dominant performance at the World Team Trials a few weeks ago. Favorite, schmavorite -- Thomas Gilman is headed back to the World Championships after beating Fix two matches to none on Saturday night.
Gilman, the defending silver medalist at the World Championships, earned a bye to the best-of-three finals at Final X, USA Wrestling's new innovation for determining the qualifiers at each weight for the World Championships. Previously, the spots were determined by a best-of-three series at the Team Trials event itself, taking place the same day as a tournament to determine one of the challengers for the best-of-three final. The other spot was filled by the U.S. Open champion or a medalist at the previous year's World Championships, if applicable. Final X's innovation is essentially breaking that best-of-three series away from the Team Trials and doing it as its own event. The best-of-three series for different men's and women's weights are divided among three Final X events: one in Lincoln, NE, one in State College, PA, and one in Bethlehem, PA.
Historically, the wrestler who gets a bye into the best-of-three finals has a tremendous record of winning the series and earning the World/Olympic team spot, in part because they're much fresher than their challenger, who (in the old format) had to win several matches earlier in the same day just to get to the best-of-three finals. Final X removes that advantage since both wrestlers enter the finals rested, prepared, and not having wrestled any other matches earlier in the day. In theory, this ought to make it easier for the presumptive challenger to win the best-of-three series. In practice, at least at this past weekend's Final X event, it made virtually no difference whatsoever -- almost all of the wrestlers who had earned a spot in the best-of-three finals without going through the Team Trials won their series; in fact, they all did so two matches to none. There were no decisive third matches to be had at the event. Partly that may be due to the excellence of some of those favorites -- Jordan Burroughs has had the 74 KG spot on lockdown for almost an entire decade at this point and Kyle Snyder is essentially untouchable at 97 KG. James Green has had a death grip on the 70 KG spot for the last few years as well.
But Thomas Gilman wasn't one of those prohibitive favorites. He had a meteoric rise last year, earning a spot at the World Team Trials at the last possible qualifying event, then blazing through the field there to make the best-of-three finals -- where he promptly beat former Iowa teammate Tony Ramso two matches to none to earn a spot at the World Championships. His hot streak continued there as he strung together win after win until losing in the finals. Since then, though, Gilman has had some struggles. He went just 2-2 at the Freestyle World Cup in Iowa City in April -- and one of those wins was a result of a forfeit. He had a better showing at the Pan American Championships last month, going 3-1 and placing third, but still not the result he was looking for. Gilman mentioned to Hawk Central that he had been battling a significant illness or injury earlier this spring. Still, those hiccups -- and Fix's own sizzling form (he won five straight matches at the Team Trials in May by a combined score of 47-8) -- were why several outside observers (and Ramos, Gilman's former teammate) picked Fix to prevail.
But Gilman didn't let that happen. He was well-prepared for Fix's tactics and able to effectively implement his own gameplan. Gilman credited Hawkeye Wrestling Club head coach Mark Perry for effectively scouting Fix and identifying what Gilman needed to do to beat him on Saturday night. And then he went out and did just that. In the first match Gilman recorded the opening takedown, but went down 3-2 after Fix was able to expose Gilman's back in a counter-scramble. Gilman responded by scoring the final four points of the match, using a passivity point, a push-out point, and a late takedown to lock up a 6-3 victory. The second match featured less scoring -- Gilman won 2-1 via a pair of push-outs -- but displayed the strength of Gilman's defense and his ability to precisely execute a strategy. Perry identified Fix's most dangerous attacks -- a slide-by, an inside trip, and a trap-arm gut -- and Gilman expertly avoided them while staying on the attack enough to get the necessary points. Gilman's other secret weapon for getting past Fix? Just some regular training sessions with that other 125 lb college phenom, Spencer Lee. Not a bad guy to scrap with, as Gilman explained to Hawk Central.
So now Gilman will head to his second-straight World Championships, this time in Budapest, Hungary on October 20-28, hoping to equal or better his silver medal-winning run from 2017. As he's learned over the course of the last year, it won't be easy -- the international competition is fierce and Gilman won't be able to surprise anyone after his dynamite run last year. Still, with a training partner as good as Spencer Lee and coach as good as Perry (not to mention those Brands fellas), Gilman will certainly have a real shot to deal damage to the 57 KG field in Budapest.
Gilman's triumph also continues Iowa's phenomenal success at the lightest weight class in freestyle wrestling: this is the fifth-straight year a former Iowa wrestler has represented the U.S. at that weight at either the Olympics or World Championships. In fact, since the freestyle wrestling world changed to the current weights (moving from 55 KG to 57 KG) and overhauled the rules for scoring in 2013, a former Iowa wrestler has won this spot every single year. Tony Ramos earned the spot in 2014 and 2015, Dan Dennis infamously beat out Ramos for the spot at the 2016 Olympics, and now Gilman has won the spot the last two years. Seriously, if you're a talented lightweight, why wouldn't you want to come to Iowa? There's a well-established track record now that if you do you'll contend for NCAA titles -- and win World/Olympic team spots and have a chance to contend for medals on the freestyle circuit.
Nor was Gilman the only Hawkeye Wrestling Club member to make the World team at Final X in Lincoln on Saturday. On the women's side of things, Alli Ragan, a six-time World team member and two-time silver medalist (in 2016 and 2017) earned at spot at 59 KG with another strong performance. She knocked out challenger Jenna Burkert two matches to none, winning 4-0 and 5-0, to make it back to the World stage. Hopefully she can improve upon last year's silver medal finish with some gold this year.
A hearty congratulations to Gilman and Ragan on their Final X triumphs and winning spots on the U.S. team headed to the World Championships -- again. Qualifying is never a sure thing, so just getting to Budapest is an accomplishment worth celebrating. We wish them the best of luck at the World Championships this fall, too.