By Betsy Veysman
It was a pretty good weekend to be named Mark Gillen.
On March 31 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Mark Gillen Sr. achieved a goal he set over 20 years ago when he won the Veterans Folkstyle National championship at 152 pounds. On the same day, his son Mark Jr. punched his ticket to the 2012 Olympic Trials at 60 kg in Greco Roman with a second place finish at the Last Chance Qualifier.
For many, Mark Jr.’s runner up finish came out of nowhere, as other than an open tournament in Canastota earlier in March, he hadn’t competed since taking third at the New York State championships in 2009 as a senior for Johnstown High School.
Those who know the Gillens, however, weren’t overly surprised. They may simply suggest that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Rewind back to 1989, when after three full years without any wrestling following a car accident, Mark Sr. decided he wanted to test himself on the mat again. He worked on an exercise bicycle for a month and then drove to Topeka, Kansas with his wife for the USA Wrestling Greco Senior Nationals.
Gillen Sr., who had been training for the 1988 Olympics before his accident, beat the alternate for that Olympic team in overtime in the quarterfinals and then, in great pain, left the tournament with no losses and a sixth place medal.
“I really wanted to do it one more time,” he said. “I didn’t wrestle before going, I just biked because my back was really bad. People called me the ‘phantom wrestler’ because I snuck up out of nowhere. It was a lot like what my son just did.”
Over the following six years, Mark Sr. underwent four back surgeries. The discomfort was significant, but he longed for another chance on the mat.
“I said that if my back healed and I could get back into shape, I would do it again,” he said. “I wanted a Hail Mary, a last hurrah. I decided that when I turned 50 I would wrestle at the Veteran Nationals with a goal of winning in all three styles.” (The championship he won on March 31 was the first part, in folkstyle).
To reach that objective, he knew he needed a training partner. He didn’t have to look too far to find a good candidate – Mark Jr.
So, the pair began to work out, with an eye toward getting Mark Sr. on top of the Veterans Nationals podium three times. But there was another, albeit longer term, goal in mind. Mark Jr. had dreams of making an Olympic Team in Greco, as his father had dreamed years ago. Believing that the window of opportunity to make a run at the 2012 squad had closed, the Gillens saw the training as the first step in Mark Jr.’s preparation for the 2016 Olympic Trials.
But then something unexpected happened. When Mark Sr. was in the process of signing up for the Veterans Nationals, he saw the Last Chance Qualifier listed on the website. He realized that his son could attempt an Olympic berth four years earlier than anticipated.
“We thought we were training anyway, so why not do it?” Mark Sr. said. “We wanted to see where he would fall against the best competition.”
So, Mark Jr. registered, at first preparing to wrestle both Freestyle and Greco.
“Mark and I have always been the same. We both would rather do Freestyle, but we’re just better at Greco,” the father said. “I always wished I was at the same level in free as I was in Greco.”
A few weeks before their big events in Iowa, father and son competed in an open tournament at the Mohawk Valley Festival in Canastota in both styles. Mark Jr. took first in a small class in Freestyle while Mark Sr. was sixth against a much younger group of challengers.
“I don’t think I had wrestled Freestyle since before anyone else I wrestled in the tournament was even born,” Mark Sr. said. “It was fun though. The next day was Greco and my son went up to 152 pounds and beat everyone, including most of the guys who had beaten me the day before in Freestyle. It was great to be avenged by my son.”
Even with that successful foray into Freestyle, there was a change of heart as the Last Chance Qualifier approached.
“[Longtime coach and friend] Joe DeMeo suggested that Mark just wrestle Greco,” Mark Sr. said. “He thought Mark could be a real contender for a spot in the Olympic Trials if he stuck to Greco. Mark listened and really believed he could do it.”
That belief showed as he began the Last Chance Qualifier event with a pin in 1:30 against Eric Miller of Southern MN Wrestling Club. He next earned a three period decision over Julian Gunnels of Warrior Wrestling Club before upsetting eighth-ranked Jimmy Chase of the NYAC to guarantee a bid to the Olympic Trials. [Chase was granted a wildcard].
“I think it was a good thing that I had no idea who [Chase] was before the match,” Gillen Jr. said. “I just went in and wrestled my match and it seemed to work out well. I was able to score off my headlock and I felt like I controlled the match for the most part.”
“My expectations were that he would be competitive but if I’m being honest, I didn’t think he would make the finals,” Mark Sr. added. “The win over [Jimmy] Chase was great. Chase was saying afterwards that he couldn’t believe he got beat by that ‘no-name.’”
In the finals, Gillen Jr. lost in two periods to Chad Vandiver of Sunkist Kids.
“I think after I qualified, it hit me where I was and I got extremely nervous,” Gillen Jr. added. “I got caught up in the moment. But in a way it’s better that I lost in the finals. It gave me the motivation to come out and train and push on. It was definitely a wake up call that there was a lot to do before the Olympic Trials.”
It also was hard for Mark Jr. to be too disappointed in his finals loss after realizing what his family had achieved.
“Probably the best part of the weekend was watching my dad win,” he said. “We were both training together and I watched him win his final right before I wrestled. There wasn’t enough time in between his match and mine, so he coached me still wearing his singlet. It was really cool to both reach our goals.”
It wasn’t the first time Mark Jr. had beaten the odds with little preparation.
The younger Gillen had what his father called a “spotty” career for Johnstown High. He medaled at states as a junior and senior, but in an earlier campaign missed weight by a tenth of a pound and watched grapplers he had beaten place at the state tournament.
In his final season, he tore his meniscus in his fourth match. He didn’t compete again, even at practice, until the Eastern States, where he aggravated the injury.
“At that point I didn’t think he’d be back,” said Mark Sr., who was the Johnstown head coach at the time. “He couldn’t run to get his weight down, so he went up a weight for sectionals. He went to states still without practicing and lost one match, to the eventual champion, on a technical violation call. It was incredible.”
Many would describe his Olympic Trials berth the same way. Since qualifying, he has been preparing at the USOEC in Michigan. He knows he’s a bit of a dark horse, but is excitedly awaiting next weekend’s event in Iowa City.
“I would like to at least win a couple of matches and get my name out there a little bit more,” he said. “I believe it myself and winning it would be nice. We’ll see what happens.”
Mark Jr.’s move to Michigan has temporarily left his father without a workout partner. But Mark Sr. marches on, getting ready for the final two parts of the Veterans Triple Crown. The Freestyle and Greco competitions are in early May in Arizona.
After that, Mark Sr. will look for a new target.
“After I finish the wrestling in May, I want to do the Ironman in Lake Placid,” he said. “I know that if I don’t keep a goal in front of me, I’ll be a couch potato. It’s difficult to get into the Ironman, but I said I’m going to do it and I believe I will.”
Based on past experience, it’s hard to question him. But in addition to working towards the many miles of swimming, biking and running involved in the Ironman, Mark Sr. will undoubtedly be assisting his son in his journey toward the Olympic goal that he also longed for before injuries derailed his chances.
“It’s been a great ride and it will continue to be,” Mark Sr. said. “I’ve been living my own dream and now I’m watching my son live his.”