Asked the biggest difference between Jimmy Gulibon now and the Jimmy Gulibon of last year, Cael Sanderson pauses, then he looks up to the top of the blue bleachers in the wrestling room where Gulibon, a 133-pound sophomore, is seated, laughing with a few teammates.
Gulibon carries an 8-0 record into the Southern Scuffle Jan. 1-2.
“Look at him right now,” Sanderson says. “He’s smiling. Last year we were trying to get him to smile more. Now he’s having fun, and I think he’s starting to figure it all out a little bit.”
Once a four-time Pennsylvania state champion for Derry Area, Gulibon struggled by his standards during his first year of collegiate action. He finished his redshirt freshman season with an 18-15 record, including a 5-8 mark during dual meets, and he lost 12 of his 14 matches against ranked opponents. He placed seventh at Big Tens, qualified for the national tournament, but lost two of his three bouts in Oklahoma City.
Looking back, Gulibon didn’t really find much to smile about. When describing some of his match experiences from the 2013-14 season, he uses words like “nervous” and “awkward.”
After just barely beating out teammate Jordan Conaway for the 133-pound starting spot early last season – he actually lost to Conaway, now the starter at 125, in overtime at the Binghamton Open last November – Gulibon was slow to find his groove.
Said Sanderson, “I think he just got off to a bad start last year and didn’t really recover mentally.”
As a result, he suffered more losses than, really, ever. During the first half of last season, he was defeated in five consecutive matches, including two pins.
For comparison’s sake, he lost just four throughout his entire high school career.
So, it certainly wasn’t the start that Gulibon envisioned. “I came here to get better and be a national champ,” he recently said.
Without the immediate success last year, his head coach began to notice a difference. It wasn’t that Gulibon seemed disinterested or discouraged, but, well, let’s just say he wasn’t smiling as often as Sanderson would have hoped.
“I think he’s pretty hard on himself,” Sanderson said. “That comes with the territory. He’s had a ton of success. He hasn’t lost many matches his whole life. Then he lost more matches probably in the first half of the season last year than he had in the previous 10 years. So that’s not easy for a kid, but he kept coming in [to practice], even after nationals. It wasn’t like he was going to go pout and feel sorry for himself. He was in here every day and throughout the summer. He was one of those guys you had to tell to go home.”
Determined to improve during his sophomore campaign, Gulibon hit the weight room hard in the off-season. Weightlifting, after all, is his favorite hobby.
“Throughout high school I loved lifting,” Gulibon said. “I’d always have my dad drive me to the gym. He’d push me through [the workouts], too.”