While still a student at North Dakota State, Hayden Zillmer (Minnesota Storm) entered into the 2016 US Olympic Trials and without a huge amount of preparation by any stretch, managed to take third place, thus earning a spot on the National Team at 85 kilograms. It was an impact performance, to be sure. Tall and strong, Zillmer also showed off an engine that could seemingly run for days. Maybe there was some rawness in need of refinement, but collegians are often a work-in-progress, anyway.
When the fall of 2016 rolled in, Zillmer, 24, returned to action a full weight class up at 98 kilograms and instantly asserted himself as a worthy contender for one of the United States’ most prized prospects, 2016 Junior World bronze medalist G’Angelo Hancock (Sunkist). Hancock, the young, talented dynamo who by that time was already turning into a headline-grabbing star, had also begun his own journey as a full-time Senior, so it was natural that the pair would wind up bumping into each other. And that they did, to the tune of four finals and five matches — all won by Hancock, most recently at the 2017 World Team Trials in Las Vegas.
But what gets lost here is that aside from sporadic appearances at several big events through the years, Zillmer is still new to the sometimes-choppy waters Greco offers as a principal vocation. Despite this fact, he has established himself as one of the premier names in the country, his comfort and confidence rising each time out. Earlier this year, Zillmer earned his first overseas medal at the Herman Kare International in Finland and then just over a week ago, picked up a bronze at Serbia’s Ljubomir Ivanovic-Gedza Memorial in dramatic fashion. Down 2-0 with under :30 remaining, Zillmer ducked under the grasp of Stjepan Lavoric (CRO), wrapped around for a bodylock, and twisted his foe down for a stunning fall. As you will read, there is a story behind how that occurred.
In addition to being an important part of the future for Greco-Roman wrestling in the US, Zillmer has also made some news in freestyle. He and Minnesota Storm teammate Joe Rau (85 kg) qualified for the freestyle World Team Trials and once there, Zillmer had himself another remarkable day and also, made another National Team, becoming the first US wrestler since Sam Hazewinkel in 2014 to accomplish the feat.
There’s just a lot going on with this athlete. He is reputed to be an absolute workhorse, almost quite literally. Already, there are tales being passed around about Zillmer’s fanatical work ethic and his devotion to overall improvement. You won’t hear those from him, though he knows the talk is out there. Instead, Zillmer is humble and gracious, as on-the-level as you might imagine. He could be anybody. But he isn’t. He’s not just anybody. Zillmer is a beast whenever he steps foot on a mat and in his still-young career, has more than made his presence felt.
Hayden Zillmer — 98 kg, Minnesota Storm
5PM: How does your folkstyle background help you in your Greco-Roman career?
Hayden Zillmer: I feel like folkstyle is more of a grind, going through the season and stuff like that. Especially if they change the rule to a two-hour weigh-in, I feel like that is going to help, little things like that. I’ve always been good at hand-fighting, so I’ve felt like that translates over to Greco. That has always been my thing, my coach told me I could always out-hand-fight people but I’ve also got to focus on scoring. Maybe the discipline side of things from folkstyle also translates over to Greco.
5PM: Okay, let’s flip it: how has folkstyle hurt you in Greco?
HZ: Bad habits. Not bad habits in folkstyle, but bad habits from folkstyle and then wrestling Greco. You know, stuff like keeping my head down, it’s just natural. Somebody shoots in on you, you’re going to downblock with your head. In Greco, you get in trouble for that, and no one is going to shoot on your legs, it’s just that I’ve been training folkstyle for how many years and then you switch over to Greco and it’s a little bit different. Then you get in trouble for things that are a positive for folkstyle or freestyle.
When I first started I was reaching, that was kind of a big thing, not moving with my body and keeping my hips out. But I have only been training Greco full-time since January. It’s just a learning process. You have to learn those habits and it’s going to come, you know?
5PM: What was behind your decision to move up from 85 to 98 kilos? Despite not being a full-timer, you competed strongly at 85, made the National Team. Was this just an “it’s not worth it for me to cut anymore” situation, or did 85 simply become too tough to make?
HZ: Yeah, so I wrestled 184 my senior year of college and I was making that weight for how many months, and it was the worst thing ever. But when the (Olympic) Trials came around, it was 187 in pounds, it was like an allowance. Plus, it was a night-before weigh-in, that’s easy. I mean, it was tough, I still had to lose a lot of weight, but it wasn’t too bad. But then it just became too hard for me. I’m tall, skinny, it was just tough for me to make weight so I thought, You know what? I’m big enough for 98, I might as well move up now. If I’m a little bit small for the weight class, I am. When I decide to move, I’ll get bigger. Which I did. It worked out good. I had that plan for a long time. People kept telling me, You should move up. It was just a struggle for me, so I made the move.
5PM: How important was it for you to establish yourself right away at 98? You’ve made every single domestic final of course, but did you expect more of an adjustment period at the higher weight?
HZ: No, not really. I was going to do fine no matter what, I felt like, that is why I moved up. I was already training with bigger guys, so it wasn’t too big of an adjustment, just, Hey, you’ve got to go out and wrestle like you did before. It wasn’t too big of an adjustment, no.
5PM: You looked the part right away. You say you were somewhat skinny, but you looked fine in New York, it’s not like you didn’t have enough meat on your bones or something like that.
Hayden Zillmer: Yeah, by that point I was still up at North Dakota State, I wasn’t in Minneapolis yet training. I was still going to school and student-teaching. I just needed to get a little bit bigger.
5PM: Obviously, this year was all about you and Hancock at every US event. Four finals. You’re not chasing him, you’re chasing teams and World medals, but what is it about Hancock that has made him a difficult puzzle to solve thus far?
HZ: I don’t know. I just maybe need more time wrestling Greco. It’s just little things I need to focus on. He’s getting me better, I just need to focus on training and hopefully good things are going to come. I have to focus on some little things, like the habits I was telling you about that I developed in folkstyle. I have to clean those up a little bit and those are the things I need to focus on because they can cost you matches, especially with the rules right now. I don’t know what’s going to happen with passivity and things like that. If I drop my head, the refs are going to get on me, I am going to give up points, and lose matches that I could potentially win.
5PM: Let’s go over the bronze in Serbia. Before that event last week you said “You have to stay patient, I feel like, and good things are going to happen.” You were patient in your bronze match and then bodylocked the Croatian to his back in the last seconds to score your second overseas medal of the year. What did you take with you from your time training overseas leading up to last week that made a difference?
HZ: When I first started the training camp, I was training freestyle in the two, three weeks leading up to that. I did a little bit of Greco, but for sure two weeks of it I was wrestling freestyle and not any Greco. So when I came back I was, like I said, I was reaching, I had my head down and my hips out. And it got me in trouble against these guys. They were kind of pushing me around and getting position on me. I’m not saying they were scoring, but they were getting me out of position, I had a hard time. I felt like I had to change that. When I started changing that, I learned a little bit and I got better from that. I was learning from my mistakes. I developed a few more attacks.
Then Barrett (Stanghill) and I were talking. We were having a hard time scoring on these Hungarian guys and we started talking about getting creative and trying to get angles on these guys. How if we get that angle, we need to make sure we attack and if so, they’re going to move, and we have to have another attack, because I feel like you need to put two or three together to score on these guys. That’s what I did in the third-place match, the kind of things we were working on before practice, after practice, or even in our room. Like, Hey, what if we start doing this? Because we were talking, What if you get in this position, what do you do? He was asking me what I would do and just stuff like that. It was a position we were messing around with to score points while we were in Hungary, to get them out of position and score.
5PM: That’s important because I have heard Coach Lindland and others mention how the US guys are typically pummel-happy and maybe some more creativity is needed offensively, an increased ability to improvise, and it sounds like that is something you’re discovering more and more for yourself.
Hayden Zillmer: For sure, and that’s another thing with folkstyle, leg attacks. I’d go for a leg attack and then I’d go to the body a lot if I missed the leg attack, I would go for the body. That is where Greco kind of came in, too. When you take the legs away, you don’t have the leg attacks anymore (laughs). But I shouldn’t completely change my style, I feel like. Just keep my hips in, pummel, and I need to score, so body attacks. I hit a duck under on that guy. If I attempt an arm drag and I miss, then I need to look for another attack and score. That’s what I used to do in folkstyle, you just need to take away the legs and it’s a lot more difficult when you can’t attack legs.
But yeah, creativity is huge. We were talking about that every practice like, Hey, we’re going in there and we’re just going to put three or four things together to score. We’ve got to score on this one, we’re going to break them (laughs).
5PM: Did it feel especially satisfying getting a medal after having been sort of immersed in freestyle just a few weeks prior?
HZ: Yeah, it was good, it was really good, it was exciting. I mean of course, I would have liked to have won it, but it is a learning thing, just to get better and learn, and I know I’m smarter for having wrestled in that tournament.
5PM: A lot had been made of both you and Joe Rau hopping into freestyle because it seemingly came out of nowhere. It was coming out like “Ah, this is just a fun little detour”, but then you went ahead and made that National Team. What does this mean for you going forward, are you going to go over to any potential freestyle tours? Or was this just a one-off, something you wanted to get out of the way just to do it?
HZ: Oh no, I’d love to go on a freestyle tour. That would be fun. It’d be sweet to go on a freestyle tour and then go from a freestyle tour to a Greco tournament. No, I’d love to go on a freestyle tour, it would be awesome. There’s no talk yet or anything like that, I’ve been out of the country for Greco, so we’ll see. I know a lot of the guys are going over to Spain and Romania. I know they are going over there. I wasn’t asked to go, probably due to being gone on that other tour, but it would be sweet to go on a freestyle tour. I’d enjoy it.
5PM: You are known as an extraordinarily hard worker. Everyone says this and it’s obvious, you have one of those never-stop motors some other Storm guys are known for. Do you have to ever balance your output during practice and reign it in a little bit?
HZ: Sometimes I do. Sometimes I just go so much where I am just like, done (laughs). At the end of the week or something, I’m shot. So then I have to pull back a little bit.
5PM: Is the ability to work hard a talent? Like the saying goes, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” But at the same time, some guys just have a knack for being able to push, push, push. That seems like it has to be a talent in and of itself, no?
Hayden Zillmer: Yes, I think so, for sure. I feel like it is mental when it comes to that, being able to push beyond and then to get back up and do it again. Especially when you have to do it a couple times a day or all week. Or, the four or five-week training cycle you’re in, being able to push like that. A lot of guys break and then it’s not just that, I think. My opinion is that you’re only working out so many hours a day. If you work out for five hours a day, what are you doing the rest of those 19 hours? That’s a big thing in my eyes.
5PM: When you look at the top guys internationally, be them whomever, Aleksanyan, Melnikov, Baldauf, Timchenko, Ildem, what is it you look for? Do you pay special attention to the big names at your weight, watch their matches, that sort of thing?
HZ: No, no, I do. Not necessarily just their matches, but other guys who are the best in the world, I watch their matches, too. I guess that is how you develop attacks and stuff like that. And obviously, you want to know about them because your plan is to beat them someday.
5PM: What attracted you personally to Greco coming up? Was this a natural inclination, were you the type of kid who jumped in both styles on the weekends?
HZ: Oh yeah, that is it, it is like I’ve been telling everybody, Joe (Rau) and I have both been saying, Well, hey, we wrestled all THREE styles growing up, so why not wrestle all the styles right now? Yes, I wrestled both styles growing up — Greco was on Friday nights, freestyle was on Saturdays — and we wrestled both styles. Then for practices, Coach (Dan) Chandler would have practices on Wednesday nights down in the city and I’m from two, two and a half hours north of there. We’d go Monday nights down there for freestyle and then on Wednesday nights we would go Greco. For Tuesdays and Thursdays we’d figure out something. Tuesdays we would stay around up north and try to find a partner and then on the other days we’d go back down to the metro, find partners and get a workout in. Which is easy, to find partners down there. And then we would wrestle Greco on Friday and freestyle on Saturday.
5PM: Off the mat you might be a laid back individual, but when it comes to training and competing you are certainly not that. Do you have a gear you switch into prior to an event or even practice? Do you need to be in like, a certain “place” mentally?
HZ: You know what? When I do get in a certain place, or I think that I need to, I feel like I don’t compete as well. When we go to practice, it’s fun, it’s good, you’re excited. You don’t have a lot of nerves or anything before practice, you never do. But then why all of the sudden do you before a competition? I feel like as long as I am having fun, I’m enjoying the training, and everything leading up to the tournament, that’s when I wrestle my best, just being laid back and letting it fly. It’s hard to do — when you’re like, I’ve got to do really well, I’ve got to do really well. But when you’re like, I’m here to have fun and do what I’ve got to do, that’s how I wrestle the best, if I’m relaxed, having fun, and I know I am going to work hard when I’m out there. That is how I am, that is how my mindset is when I am out there wrestling. I am going to work hard and wrestle as hard as I can. I know if I don’t do well I am kind of going to get upset with myself, but if you’re not having fun, why do it?
5PM:There seems to be a certain type of dichotomy that exists in wrestling, it’s almost a stigma, where many times wrestlers are looked at as though they should always be psyched a certain way to compete from an early age, yet when many athletes reach an elite level, they seem to at least want to embrace an approach similar to yours.
HZ: I think everybody has a different approach, for sure. I feel like everybody’s different. From a coaching standpoint, I think good coaches know what other guys need, how they are going to react to things, and what is going to drive them higher up on the ladder. For me, I have to relax, I’ve got to be having fun, I’ve got to be ready to go. Still working super-hard, but to just be able to laugh at something. That’s when I wrestle the best.
5PM: Aside from where you’re from originally, what else makes the Storm such a good fit for you?
Hayden Zillmer: I’m from Minnesota, like you said, and that is a big thing. I feel like I relate really well to Coach Chandler, too. His coaching style really fits me, it’s perfect. Now freestyle is in there, and that’s great. I feel like I’ve learned a lot since I have been there and I have been wrestling freestyle not very long. The location is really nice. The training partners, I’ve got Joe Rau, I’ve got Barrett, and some other bigger partners I can train with. It fits me really well. It’s like home.