Hayden Zillmer has his eyes set on the 2020 Olympics.
Eight years after graduating from Crosby-Ironton High School, the three-time Class 1A state wrestling champion is still on the mat with a goal of making Team USA for the XXXII Summer Games in Tokyo.
Recently, Zillmer finished 3-1 at 92 Kg (202 pounds) for the Team USA, which won the bronze medal in mid-March at the Freestyle World Cup in Yakutsk, Russia. He scored four takedowns in a 10-0 win over Japan's Atsushi Matsumoto that contributed to a 6-4 win over Japan in the bronze medal match.
The U.S. was 2-1 in pool play defeating Georgia 7-3 and Mongolia 8-2, while losing to Iran 5-5 on classification points.
Next on the calendar for the 26 year old is the U.S. Open April 26-27 in Las Vegas, Nev.
"This year is another World Team year so we are starting the process," Zillmer said. "The trials are in mid-May, but the qualifier for the trials is the US Open. I believe the top seven qualify for the trials. There are some automatic qualifiers such as a returning medalist and the NCAA champion.
"All that leads into the World Championships around the end of August so I will be training all summer for that. The World Championships lead toward the 2020 Olympic Year and the pre-qualifier for that (Olympics) will be the US Olympic Team Trials in December."
Zillmer trains with eight of his Minnesota Storm teammates at the University of Minnesota Regional Training Center.
"Minnnesota's got a terrific program and facility," he said. "It's like one of the biggest RTC (Regional Training Center) in the country and that benefits the college program as well since the Gophers get to practice with us at times."
Zillmer said that a typical week practice would be Monday through Saturday morning, often with Wednesday off as a recovery day. In addition to practice time on the mat, time is spent running, doing cardio exercises and the team typically spends time lifting after each practice.
"So we're on the mat four or five times a week," he said. "It's not like a college program, which is super structured."
After wrestling both freestyle and Greco-Roman for much of his life, Zillmer said his focus is freestyle.
"Once or twice a week I'll still wrestle Greco depending on the volume of practices," he said, "but it's pretty much freestyle now. If the opportunity presents itself, I'll wrestle both, but if they're going to overlap, my weight class for freestyle is smaller at 92 kilos and my Greco class is 97 kilos which is 213 pounds. They always seem to put Greco before Freestyle so it gets kind of hard to wrestle at 213 one day and then get down to 202 the next day."
Zillmer is approaching an age when some wrestlers choose to move on, but he doesn't see himself leaving the mat any time soon.
"Guys typically go until their body tells them it is time or maybe they want to move on," he said. "A lot of guys move on in their late 20s, but you see other guys peak up in their early to mid 30s. As long as the opportunity keeps presenting itself like it is, I'll keep competing.
"I enjoy the process. A lot of guys stop wrestling because they don't want to practice anymore, but I'm really up for that. I enjoy the training and all the practices. I love this. It's a rush that you can't describe."
Zillmer has come a long way from the scrawny kid that won three consecutive state titles his final three years at Crosby-Ironton. His freestyle weight of 202 pounds is 99 pounds heavier than when he won his first state title in 2009 as a sophomore at 103 pounds.
He won the 112 title in 2010 and finished 43-1 as a senior claiming the 130-pound championship in 2011. He holds the record for C-I's all time wins with a record of 163-10.
Zillmer didn't hit his growth spurt until reaching college at North Dakota State University.
"In college, I was 138 pounds after our first work out," he said. "A month or two in, I was at 160 pounds."
Zillmer graduated from NDSU in 2016 wrestling 184 pounds his senior year. He finished with a 106-30 career record. He was an NCAA All-American in 2015; two-time NCAA West Regional campion (2014-2015); and three-time NCAA Championships qualifier (2013-2015). While in college he also won the 2013 University National Greco championship in 2013 and the University National freestyle championship in 2015.
Since college, he was second in Greco at US World Team Trials and third in
freestyle in 2017. That same year, he was also second in Greco at US Open and third in Greco in US Olympic Team Trials. In 2018, he finished second in freestyle at the US Open.
Once done, Zillmer sees himself giving back to the sport as a coach. His degree is in education and he's finishing his masters in administration and sports leadership.
"It's kind of cool to be able to give back," Zillmer said. "I never had the opportunity for something like that. When I was a kid, we had to drive down to the cities for extra training and that was two plus hours travel time each way.
"I'm kind of living the dream. I'm getting paid to do something I love to do. It's hard to walk away from something that you're competitive at and you can see yourself being on the top. One of these days you hope everything is clicking for you that day and that is what I am hoping for. Everybody is competitive at this level and one takedown can win you an Olympic gold medal."