Feb. 10, 2016

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – It’s been said adversity reveals the true character of a person.

Personal adversity is a part of wrestling simply by the physical and individual nature of the sport. Add into that equation the requirement to wrestle against friends and teammates to secure the starting position at a weight class and it can become even more challenging.

That scenario was compounded for Patrick Gillen (Shelton, Conn.) when he battled his best friend Zach Nye (Enola, Pa.) for the starting spot at 197 pounds a few years ago. It had the potential to be worse when he lost that competition to Nye.

Not one to let circumstances get the best of him without a fight, Gillen responded in a way that caught the attention of his coaching staff. It also made him the obvious choice to hold down a position on the Leadership Council for the wrestling team in representation of servanthood.

“Pat has a servant’s heart,” Virginia head coach Steve Garland said. “When he lost his spot and his dream to his best friend, he showed up the next day and was setting up for the guys before the meet with Virginia Tech. He was not pouting. He was setting up everything to make sure his teammates were ready to compete. He wanted to make sure they had everything in place they needed so they can focus on the match. So many people aren’t able to do something like that and put others first after losing something that means so much to them.”

The process wasn’t any easy one for Gillen. He was down following the loss to his teammate. He kept pushing and working to take the position, but Nye wouldn’t let go of the spot he earned in that wrestle-off. It left Gillen in the position of having to make a decision – walk away or find a way to move forward.

“I could have quit, but I put all my eggs in Zach’s basket, so to speak,” Gillen said. “I wanted to do whatever I had in my power to make him a better wrestler. I spent every day pushing him as hard as I could. Instead of pouting, I decided to be the guy that pushed him to be better. The great programs have guys who stick it out and work in the wrestling room to make their teammates better, even if they aren’t wrestling in competition.”

The struggle to find his way wasn’t an easy one for Gillen, but his background and the values instilled in him by his parents helped guide the way.

“There were days where I felt like this was too hard and didn’t matter,” Gillen said. “The way my parents raised me and the work ethic they instilled in me kept that from happening. I loved to wrestle and there was no way I was going to take a back seat or quit. I found a way to contribute and have a place on the team until I was able to see my path.”

One of the paths Gillen walked was exactly in the manner Garland said, by serving those around him and giving of himself for the team. He traveled with the squad to help prepare Nye and the starters for meets. He worked to minimize the distractions the squad faced on the way to its goals in whatever manner possible.

“I was always putting my teammates and others before myself,” Gillen said. “I want the best experience for everyone and hope that I can help make their experience better through my efforts. I’m always looking for ways to do that through any way possible.”

But he did it while keeping his eye on the ultimate goal of returning to the mat while celebrating the successes of his teammates.

He continued to work with Stephen Doty, Nye and Ethan Hayes as they prepared for competition at the ACC Championships. He trained with Nye prior to the ACC Championships and shared in the joy as Nye advanced to the finals as a sophomore with a win over Maryland’s Christian Boley in sudden victory.

“I had thought I wouldn’t wrestle again, but I stayed faithful and was able to keep focus to put in the work and get my body in position with good muscle to move up to heavyweight and continue to wrestle.”

Gillen found his niche again and has experienced success that comes through his perseverance.

“Coming through this experience has been one of the things I’m most proud of in my life,” Gillen said. “It would have been so easy to quit because I didn’t get what I wanted. Being able to focus, be in there every day and making Zach better by genuinely investing in him and the Virginia wrestling program is one of the proudest achievements of my life. Pushing through that and structuring myself like that at 19 years old makes me happy that I came to Virginia, because I’m not sure what would have happened in another program.”

That character that developed through that experience and growing relationship with his teammates and coaching staff is what embodies the program to Gillen. It’s also why he’s so pleased to have the opportunity to continue to serve on the Leadership Council.

“One of my favorite things about the Virginia wrestling program is that we are building wrestlers, but also solid young men who will do good things and graduate from this program,” Gillen said. “Being on the leadership council gives me a chance to influence my teammates, coaches and the people around me in a positive manner. I’m in this role specifically because of that wrestle-off with Zach.”

Nye has nothing but admiration for Gillen, and it all ties back to that day and the strong response the heavyweight found within himself to push forward and grow.

“It can be easy to say ‘I’m done’ and go focus on something else when things don’t go your way,” Nye said of the heavyweight. “Pat became the guy that pushed me and made me work even harder. He’s always pushing me and if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be the wrestler I am today because he forced me to get better every single day.

“Being in that servant role can sometimes awaken things in you and make you stronger,” Nye continued. “He’s twice the wrestler, and twice the man, he was before that day. He found strengths within himself he might not have known he had, and that can be a benefit of that servant’s heart and role.”

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