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Nittany Lion Wrestling Club has embraced newest members and reaped the benefits

NLWC Olympic Trial Gilman and Sanderson

Thomas Gilman was one of four Nittany Lion Wrestling Club members to earn a bid to Tokyo in the 2021 Olympic Trials.

It's taken time, but Thomas Gilman is finally learning to love the sport of wrestling again.

It's a sport that has been a part of Gilman's life for much of it, one that he competes at an exceptionally high level at — but it's also one that he was quickly becoming disillusioned with.

That is, until he packed his bags and headed from one hallowed wrestling program to another.

An Iowa native who went to high school in Omaha, Nebraska, and then journeyed back to Iowa for college, wrestling on big stages is nothing new for Gilman.

He's competed at Big Ten, NCAA and World championships — all with success — and can now add the Olympic Trials to that list after beating Cornell's Vito Arujau two matches to none in the finals of this year's Olympic Trials.

That means for the first time in his career, Gilman is an Olympian and will be the United States' representative at 57 kilograms in Tokyo when the games commence in July.

And he'll have done it all under the tutelage of Cael Sanderson, someone whom Iowans — both Hawkeyes and Cyclones — know well from Sanderson's days as a wrestler and coach at Iowa State and now as the coach at Penn State.

Sanderson also leads the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club, a regional training center based out of the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex in State College that features many prominent former Nittany Lions, but also some relative outsiders, like Gilman who joined last March.

"In my head, when I was coming to the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club, it was for a lot of reasons, but the main reason was to get better at wrestling," Gilman said. "I was at one place in my career and I needed to get to another place in my career if I wanted to accomplish my goals and that essentially was just getting better at sport wrestling and finding the love for the sport again."

David Taylor OTT Semifinals

Wrestlers compete at the 2021 USA Wrestling Olympic Team Trials, Fort Worth, Texas, April 2, 2021. (Photo by Tony Rotundo/WrestlersAreWarriors.com)

Gilman was a three-time All-American for the Hawkeyes and comes from a long line of successful 125-pounders to compete for Tom Brands in Iowa City.

After one of Brands' longtime assistants, Mark Perry, left Iowa and headed to Tempe to be a coach at Arizona State, Gilman was at a crossroads.

He had to think, something he said his grandfather warned against doing too much of for fear that overthinking would get him into trouble. Still, it was something Gilman knew he had to do.

Eventually, Gilman landed in State College, home to onetime former rival Penn State.

Gilman ingratiated himself and was embraced by his teammates and everyone else around the program quickly, and at a level even he found surprising.

"I was an outsider — I was a nomad looking for a home," Gilman said. "They've taken me in and done more for me than I could ever ask anybody to do for me. It's just been amazing, not only with the guys on the team or coaches, but there's the whole community."

Part of what they've done — Sanderson in particular — for Gilman is reinforced and emphasized the value of being present in all aspects of life.

As a result, you're now likely to hear the words "us" and "Penn State" in the same sentence coming from a Hawkeye legend in Gilman.

"It's what he talks about every day — just have fun. It's cliche, and it's why I think a lot of people don't like us here at Penn State," Gilman said. "It's because we're having fun, and we're just being present. It's hard to have fun when you're thinking about the future and you're having anxiety or thinking about the past and you're having depression. It's about just being present."

Penn State Big Ten Wrestling Championship (Varner&Sanderson)

Penn State’s assistant coach, Jake Varner, (left), and Penn State’s head coach, (right), Cael Sanderson watch Penn State’s Michael Beard wrestle Northwestern’s Lucas Davidson in the 197-pound at the Big Ten Wrestling Championship on Sunday, March 7, 2021 at the Bryce Jordan Center in University Park, Pa. Beard lost 6-4 by decision and placed sixth overall at 197 pounds.

Being present isn't the only lesson Gilman's learned from Sanderson.

The other important piece of knowledge Gilman gained in his time inside the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex is the necessity for humility, something he said has been central to his success and growth, especially amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"It's been huge. It's been the center of that development, because when you're trying to make yourself a new home and you're kind of the outsider and the nomad looking for a home, you have to be humble," Gilman said. "There's no choice, and you don't run the show so you don't really ask for much. You mind your P's and Q's, maybe a little bit more than you usually would, and so I've really had to humble myself since then."

This new approach from Gilman is working, though.

Since coming to Penn State, he feels revitalized and that his career is undergoing a rebirth.

"I was ready to retire to be quite frank. I was gonna go win the trials, win the Olympics, be done and never look at the sport again — it's kind of where my mind was at and that's not a good place to be when you're trying to compete. I'm kind of in the renaissance of my wrestling career right now," Gilman said. "I'm finding my love for the sport again.”

Gilman's far from the only relative newcomer to heed Sanderson’s advice and have it pay off.

In the last 18 months, the NLWC also added former Ohio State legend and 2016 Olympic gold medalist Kyle Snyder and most recently 2016 Olympic gold medalist Helen Maroulis.

Both Snyder and Maroulis joined Gilman on Team USA and punched their tickets to their second career Olympic games after winning their respective best-of-three series at this year's Olympic Trials too.

Snyder, hailing from Ohio State, was familiar with Penn State and all it had to offer.

That was less the case for Maroulis, who joined the NLWC in January.

"Being on the outside, I didn't know really that much about Penn State. I just knew that they were good at college wrestling... and probably the first day I was in the room I was like, 'I know this is the place for me,'" Maroulis said. "There's just something different, and everybody's just so amazing. So, the coaches are incredible, the staff, everyone's support there is just amazing."

NLWC Olympic Trials Helen Maroulis

Helen Maroulis was one of four Nittany Lion Wrestling Club members to earn a bid to Tokyo in the 2021 Olympic Trials.

The NLWC boasts a fairly robust women's program as well, which includes Jane Valencia, the first woman wrestler to ever qualify for the Olympic games from Mexico.

It's in their shared experiences and those of other women in the NLWC that Maroulis places particular stock in.

"It helps a lot to one, have other women there, because it's just a different feeling to have people pursuing the same goal as you. And two, I think it's just great to have a push," Maroulis said. "When I was living at home in Maryland, I just remember telling my mom it's kind of hard doing this on my own. So just to be at Penn State, having the girls and we're all helping each other, it's amazing."

Maroulis, the first American woman to ever win a gold medal for wrestling, is also a two-time world champion and one of the most decorated members of the NLWC.

Don't mistake success for complacency, though.

She seems to have found a balance between being confident in her Olympic status while still striving for more.

"You need to be self aware and realize what are the things that worked for me before that I do great, that I need to hold on to, whether that's a mindset or a way I'm training or approaching things, and then also realizing this a different time around," Maroulis said. "I think having a different range of girls on the team, some younger, some more experienced, we've just all pulled from each other, so that helps as well."

The Rockville, Maryland, native is set on improving her game and learning along the way and has made that part of her central focus since arriving in Central Pennsylvania.

"I've really only been working on new stuff since I moved here — like only new stuff — and just that environment in the room, too, everyone's so helpful," Maroulis said. "Whether it's the guys, the girls or coaches, we're all just there as teammates and we're helping each other."

Snyder is the longest tenured new addition, coming to State College in the fall of 2019 after winning a bronze medal at that year's World Championship.

NLWC Olympic Trial Snyder

Kyle Snyder was one of four Nittany Lion Wrestling Club members to earn a bid to Tokyo in the 2021 Olympic Trials.

He too attributed much of his recent success to his faith and the coaching staff at the NLWC.

"It's the best coaching staff in the country, and I'm very thankful for the way things worked out. For me to be able to train in that environment, they take care of everything for us so that we can take care of what we need to on the mat," Snyder said. "They're the hardest working coaching staff in the country, and I just really appreciate everything they've done."

Among the areas where Sanderson and his assistants excel is in providing perspective.

Gilman and Maroulis made that clear, and Snyder echoed the sentiment.

"They've done a really good job seeing the problems that have happened in the past, in regard to making sure that we're comfortable, we're happy, we're thankful and we feel like we're taken care of. Because then we're gonna compete the best way, the way we want to go out there and wrestle," Snyder said. "They keep everything light hearted, extremely smart technically. They don't just see a problem and then forget about it the next event — they're always addressing the problems, addressing things that happen and making sure that we're ready to go."

Penn State's and Sanderson's respective impacts on wrestlers don't just extend to those donning Nittany Lion singlets from November to March.

The NLWC is an equally important part of Penn State's success and Sanderson's legacy as a coach.

As Gilman, Maroulis and Snyder have made clear, it doesn't matter if you're an outsider or if blue and white ran in your blood during your college days.

Sanderson and his staff are willing to work with anyone, regardless of where they come from.

And now, it's paying dividends across the board, as the NLWC has four members — Gilman, Maroulis, Snyder and David Taylor — as Olympians.

Taylor is the only seasoned Penn State veteran among the bunch, but that doesn't seem to matter.

The newness to everything is part of what Snyder, Maroulis and Gilman like the best and value the most.

It's in that newness and unfamiliarity where community gets built and shared experiences occur among both NLWC members and the new members of Penn State's collegiate team.

It helps keep the programs successful, and even though there are plenty of tried and true Penn Staters in the room that have been integral to this point, the newcomers help to keep things enticing and fresh.

"It's good, because I was in a new environment and then you've got young guys in a new environment who were all learning things at the same time, so it's good to have a community of people like that," Snyder said. "We're all excited about fresh things."

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