Big Ten

Austin Gomez Returns For One More Run At NCAA Title

Austin Gomez Returns For One More Run At NCAA Title

Austin Gomez thought he was finished with college wrestling on two occasions, but the All-American is back and set to make his Michigan debut Thursday.

Jan 4, 2024 by Mark Spezia
Austin Gomez Returns For One More Run At NCAA Title

Twice, Austin Gomez has stepped away, but has been unable to stay away from college wrestling.

The allure of pursuing a national championship and team glory while representing a collegiate program coupled with a strong sense of unfinished businesses has brought him back. 

Initially, Gomez thought his competitive wrestling career was over back in December of 2020 during his fourth season at Iowa State when the effects of several injuries, including concussions, led to him announcing he was medically retiring.

After redshirting in 2017-18, Gomez reached the round of 12 at the 2019 NCAA Championships, but had not wrestled since. 

"I had to sit down with myself, our athletic trainer, doctors, coaches, and my family to make this decision,” he posted on social media at the time. “Although I feel like I have so much more fight left in me, my health has to come first when dealing with this injury. I thought I’d wrestle until my body told me I couldn’t do it anymore, but God has a different plan for me than I did for myself."

However, after consulting with doctors the following spring, Gomez was cleared to compete again. He promptly entered the transfer portal and, roughly a month later, announced he was heading to Wisconsin. 

Feeling that attempting to maintain his weight to compete at 133 pounds played a role in his injury woes, Gomez moved up to 149 and enjoyed his most successful season to date in 2021-22, capturing a Big Ten title and placing fourth at the NCAA Championships. He was named Co-Outstanding Wrestler of the Big Ten Championships, along with Michigan's Myles Amine. 

Gomez was hurting again toward the end of the last season, injury defaulting out of the Big Ten Championships in his second match, but he still reached the round of 16 at the NCAA Championships. 

One season of eligibility remained for Gomez, but he needed a medical hardship waiver from the NCAA to take advantage of it. 

Instead, Gomez announced in May that he was moving on. 

"After having some time to reflect on this past season, I have decided to not apply for my medical hardship year and not take my final year of eligibility," he wrote on Instagram. "I believe this is the best decision for myself and my wrestling career."

Shifting his focus to competing for Mexico in the 2023 World Championships and 2024 Olympics, Gomez joined the elite Cliff Keen Wrestling Club, which is based at the University of Michigan and includes several World and Olympic medalists.

Following his first World Championships appearance in September and with the college season fast approaching, Gomez began to have second thoughts about his decision and shared those thoughts with his parents.

Hector, Gomez's father, was his first coach.

"I had to consider if I wanted to take classes and become a student again, but after getting back from the World Championships, I looked at Michigan's lineup and starting thinking I could fill a position (149 pounds) and be part of an incredible team," he said. "I've always been able to really talk with my parents about these kinds of decisions and they were really supportive."

With that support, Gomez applied for the waiver he needed and entered the transfer portal in October with his sights set only on Michigan.

After all, not only did the Wolverines have a lineup void at 149, but Gomez had already become familiar with many members of the team after joining Cliff Keen. Michigan coach Sean Bormet and assistant Kevin Jackson also helped coach him at the World Championships.

Gomez's connection to the pair actually goes back years, and, in Bormet's case, decades.

He has been friends with Gomez's father since their high school wrestling days in Illinois. Bormet also founded Overtime School of Wrestling in Naperville, Illinois in 2001 and Gomez, who grew up in nearby Carol Stream, wrestled there as a youth.

Jackson’s relationship with Gomez dates back at least nine years when he began recruiting the four-time Fargo champion in earnest during his time as Iowa State’s head coach. Gomez committed to the Cyclones in September of 2015, soon after beginning his junior year at Glenbard North High School. 

"I put in a do-not-contact stipulation after I entered the portal and began talking only with Michigan's staff and their reaction was all love," Gomez said. "I have great relationships with coach Jackson and coach Bormet and the other coaches (David Bolyard and Josh Churella) are both outstanding individuals. They have all created such a great environment to wrestle in."

Gomez officially joined the Wolverines on Dec. 14, three days after his request for a medical hardship waiver was granted by the NCAA.

"In the end, it was just about me not wanting to have any regrets about competing one more season in college and taking another run at a national championship," he said. "I was presented with a great opportunity, so why not take it? I have beaten a lot of top college guys and strongly feel this could be my year when it comes to winning a national title. It's also awesome being part of a team that's been so accepting of me and is capable of winning it all."

Gomez, who gives the Wolverines All-Americans at seven of 10 weight classes, debuted at #7 in the latest 149-pound rankings and third in the Big Ten behind top-ranked Ridge Lovett (Nebraska) and #5 Dylan D'Emilio (Ohio State). 

He has not wrestled D'Emilio, but is 2-0 against Lovett, the 2022 NCAA runner-up and three-time national qualifier, including pinning him in 20 seconds during the 2022 Big Ten Tournament. Michigan visits Ohio State on Jan. 26 and Nebraska on Feb. 9. 

Gomez has also split with #6 Chance Lamer (Cal Poly) and dropped decisions to #3 Kyle Parco (Arizona State) and #24 Graham Rooks (Indiana). 

Since joining the Wolverines, Gomez has been concentrating on adjusting to folkstyle wrestling again. He is coming off winning the 70-kilogram freestyle title at a Grand Prix event in Mexico City about a month ago. 

"I've been focusing on clean finishes because, of course, guys can roll around more than in freestyle and I'll need to generate offense and get to my attacks efficiently," Gomez said. "With the new three-point takedown rule and my (offensive) style, I can blow matches wide open. I've also been spending a lot of time practicing being as effective as possible on top and bottom, getting used to that folkstyle grind again."

With regard to academics, Gomez is enrolled in a non-degree social work program. He already has a Bachelor's degree in business marketing from Iowa State and a Master's in sports leadership from Wisconsin. 

Gomez brings a 59-17 career record into this season which includes plenty of eye-opening victories. 

He is 13-8 against fellow All-Americans, the most significant win being a 9-3 decision over four-time NCAA champion Yianni Diakomihalis early last season which snapped his winning streak at 76 matches and was one of  the Cornell star's only two college losses.

Gomez also pinned two-time NCAA champion and three-time All-American Roman Bravo-Young (Penn State) and has knocked off three-time All-Americans Sammy Sasso (Ohio State) and Tariq Wilson (North Carolina State).

Gomez is expected to make his Michigan debut Thursday when the Wolverines resume their season with a dual at South Dakota State followed by what should be his first significant test against #10 Ethen Miller (Maryland).

In addition to D'Emilio, an All-American last season, Lovett and Rooks, Gomez should also face #13 Corbyn Munson (Central Michigan) and #17 Caleb Rathjen (Iowa) in duals prior to the Big Ten Championships.

True freshman Dylan Gilcher has been holding down the 149-pound spot in Michigan's lineup since the season began, going 4-6. The Wolverines could opt to redshirt him.

"I love the competition I'll be facing in the Big Ten and I'm excited about proving I am really the one to beat this season in my weight class for the national championship," Gomez said. "I'll be focusing on training well, training smart and showing steady improvement match by match."

Another hurdle to Gomez's return was Michigan's coaching staff being good with his continued pursuit of an Olympic berth.

He will miss the Jan. 19 dual against Penn State to compete in a tournament in Mexico and is scheduled to wrestle in the Pan American Olympic Games Qualifier in Acapulco, Mexico, Feb. 28-March 1 in hopes of least reaching the semifinals to qualify the 65 kg weight for Mexico for the Olympics. Making the final will assure Gomez of competing in Paris.

"I discussed freestyle dates I will have to hit with the Michigan coaches and they were OK with everything," he said. "The goal is to come back from Pan Ams qualified for the Olympics and then focus on the Big Ten Championships (March 9)."

Michigan was among the programs Gomez was considering while a prized high school recruit before Jackson lured him to Iowa State. Ironically, he is now wrestling for both Jackson and Bormet, who was part of the effort to recruit Gomez to Michigan while an assistant.

"I know what I'm capable of, a national title, and don't want anything else," Gomez said. "That's my mindset. That would certainly be a full-circle moment for me with Michigan having recruited me early on and coach Jackson now there. I'll feel like I'd be winning a national championship under the coach I was supposed win one for in the first place. I'm just feeling grateful to be in this situation."