Zach Thomson ’15 turned in a record-breaking season on the wrestling mat in his freshman year at Gettysburg College. Most students would sit back and enjoy the summer months after a grueling year of academic study and varsity competition, but not Thomson. The wrestling standout packed his bags and spent the summer pursuing his career as a member of the U.S. Military.
Just one day before beginning his freshman season at Gettysburg, Thomson signed up with the Army Reserves. With his military duties looming on the horizon, Thomson left nothing on the table in his first year on the Bullets wrestling team. A former district champion and state qualifier at Mechanicsburg High School, he opened the 2011-12 campaign by winning his first 17 matches at 165 pounds and claiming individual titles at three different tournaments.
After suffering his first loss, Thomson would rack up 23 more victories in a row on his way to being named the Centennial Conference Wrestler of the Year. He finished runner-up at the conference tournament and qualified for the NCAA Division III Championships in La Crosse, Wis.
Thomson won his opening match at the national tournament by pin, but was upended in his second bout. He injured his shoulder in that second confrontation and was forced to withdraw from the event, ending his bid to become Gettysburg’s first freshman All-American since Bob Ortenzio ’79 in 1976. He finished the year 41-3, breaking Gettysburg’s single-season wins record previously held by Jake Dell ’98 and Matt Shank ’08.
“Zach got off to a great start and kept things going the whole season on the way to our single-season wins record and the Centennial Wrestler of the Year award,” said Gettysburg Head Coach Andy Vogel. “He set his goal before the season to become an All-American. It was a realistic goal that unfortunately was derailed by an injury at the end.”
On May 14, just two days after his last final, he shipped out to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., for 14 weeks of basic training and Advanced Individual Training (AIT). Thomson would have little contact with his family and friends, aside from the occasional letter and a Sunday phone call.
Wrestling is a physical and grueling sport and as one of the nation’s top grapplers, Thomson maintained a strong work ethic to keep fit and healthy. But even his wrestling training regimen couldn’t entirely prepare him for the rigors of basic training.
“I did not think it was going to be as hard as it was,” recalled Thomson. “Physically, I thought I was in shape. But when I got there, once they start making you do everything, it makes you take a step back and think I wasn’t really prepared for this. They throw a lot of things at you. It’s kind of like wrestling where they throw moves at you, but in basic training they throw skills at you.
“Wrestling taught me self-discipline,” he added. “Watching your weight, knowing what you can and cannot eat; doing what’s necessary to get your weight down. You could see some of the other guys that didn’t have that discipline struggled with the training.”
After nine weeks of basic training, Thomson began his job training, or AIT. Thomson’s role was as a combat engineer where he worked with explosives. One of his favorite memories was a mission where his unit had to use explosive charges to get to high-value targets. After setting the charge, Thomson and his team hid behind a Kevlar blanket for protection.
“You stand 10 feet away at a 45-degree angle and you can feel the shock wave go off when this thing goes off and you can feel the heat wrap around the blanket,” he recalled. “Whenever you drop it you can see the smoke swirling, you can feel the heat, and you can taste the explosives in the air.”
Thomson’s wrestling background also helped when it came time for his unit to train for combat. In a company combat tournament, Thomson took first place in his weight class, which featured competitors from 180 pounds and up. The Gettysburg grappler also led his platoon to the overall title in what Thomson described as “an all-out brawl.” Three competitors from the three platoons were sent into the fray. Thomson eliminated all of the competitors from second platoon and one from the third platoon.
The physical aspects aside, Thomson indicated the biggest obstacle in basic training was on the mental side, a trait he related to the wrestling mat.
“Mentally in wrestling you are put in some bad positions,” said Thomson. “You have to face getting hurt. It’s a physical contact sport. In the Army, in basic training, you also have to be looking at that. It takes a lot of mental toughness to do either.”
Less than six weeks after the end of his military training, Thomson and his Gettysburg teammates began preparing for another season on the mats. The 19-year old believes he has grown in a number of ways as a result of his military experience this summer and that will play a big role in his performance in the upcoming wrestling season.
“I can’t begin to tell you how much the Army has done for me personally,” said Thomson. “You feel like a stronger person and that you can overcome anything. I feel like that will help with wrestling. I had the confidence last year of being a good wrestler. With the training I did this summer and mental toughness they instill in you, it compares to nothing else.”
Vogel hopes Thomson’s time in the military and his personal growth will help the Bullets as a team. The squad is coming off a strong season in which it placed five grapplers at the conference meet and sent two to the national tournament.
“I expect him to take on more of a leadership role on the team this year,” said Vogel. “We’ve got a pretty good leadership core in place that’s he’s a part of. One thing can you see in any sport is that when someone achieves a certain level of excellence they can help bring their teammates along.”
“I’m really excited for our team this year,” said Thomson. “I feel like we have a lot of good talent coming in. We all have areas that need work and if everybody puts their mind to it and focuses on what they need to do, I feel like we could have a really good season.”
For Thomson, his individual goal on the mat remains the same - he wants to be the first national champion at Gettysburg since Craig Helmuth ’78 claimed the title at 126 pounds in 1975.
But Thomson’s ultimate goal lies beyond the wrestling mat. The sophomore, who is looking to major in history at Gettysburg, has his sights set on attaining his degree and then following his family’s path to a military career. His mother, father, two uncles, both grandfathers, and his great-grandfather all served in a branch of the military.
“I would like the military to be my career,” said Thomson. “Once I’m done with school, I’d like to switch to active duty. Right now, with the reserves, it works with school and everything.”
Thomson could potentially be pulled away from wrestling, and even school, should the military come calling. He missed Gettysburg’s season-opening tournament, an event he won as a first-year, due to weapons certification. It was a sacrifice he was willing to make for the betterment of his future career.
“I’m a soldier, first and foremost. I have to honor my military obligation before my wrestling.”
Read this story on GettysburgSports.com.
Contact: Corey Jewart, associate director of athletic communications, 717.337.6323Posted: Mon, 26 Nov 2012
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