Fly, Fight and Win
Feb. 5, 2013
Story by Justine Buerkle
Tom Giaimo dreams of becoming an Air Force pilot like his older cousin. Toward the end of his high school education, he originally wanted to attend the Air Force Academy to reach that dream.
“It didn’t work out, and it happened to be the best unanswered prayer that ever happened for me, I think,” Giaimo said.
Giaimo is still pursuing that dream, but from a different direction. He ended up choosing the University of Minnesota, where he is now a junior on the wrestling team and a cadet in the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). He is studying computer science in the U’s College of Science and Engineering. In addition to certain academic and physical requirements, cadets are responsible for fundraising and planning events for their wing.
The Gophers’ head coach, J Robinson, is a big reason that Giaimo has been able to continue both wrestling and being in ROTC. Robinson participated in the Army ROTC at Oklahoma State and eventually served in Vietnam. He allows some flexibility in Giaimo’s schedule, including permitting him to make up parts of practice he must miss to attend a class required for ROTC.
“He knows exactly what I’m going through,” Giaimo said. “He understands the reason I’m doing it, and he respects that. I don’t know if that would happen anywhere else.”
That sense of respect does not prevent Robinson from ribbing Giaimo about his choice of military branch.
“He always says I’m a civilian wearing a uniform, or I’m in the ‘Chair Force,’” Giaimo said. “Our relationship—coach-to-athlete—has grown into more of a friendship. He’s able to get at me more with that kind of stuff. I know it’s all in fun.”
In the same way that Robinson has been flexible with Giaimo, his Air Force commander has also given him some leeway. Giaimo used to attend required 6 a.m. physical training sessions twice a week, but his commander usually lets him skip these now because he does intensive workouts for wrestling.
ROTC and wrestling have proven to intersect in other ways, too. Giaimo and his fellow cadets go on Air Force-related trips over the summer. One year, Giaimo got to ride in a fighter jet when he traveled to a base in Texas. Another year, he spent four weeks at boot camp in Alabama. Boot camp was one place where Giaimo felt the benefits of a background in wrestling.
“It’s an intense time, and you’ve got to compete and you’ve got to be able to take a beating sometimes, just not physical all the time,” he said.
“They go hand-in-hand in a lot of ways, because a lot of the challenges ROTC throws at me are mental challenges that require you to be very focused and dedicated to doing something right even if it’s really, really hard. That’s what wrestling is. It’s just a mental battle, more than physical sometimes. That focused intensity has really helped me with ROTC and with wrestling. You’re taught to try to be as perfect as you can in both aspects. It kind of blends together.”
Giaimo earned a scholarship through the ROTC, and it will extend through the next academic year, allowing him to complete his final year of wrestling eligibility. He will graduate in May 2014. If he is accepted as a pilot, he will have two additional years of training and owe 10 years of service. After that, he could serve four more years if he receives another assignment.
“J always says once you’ve wrestled, you can do a lot of other things,” Giaimo said. “It goes hand-in-hand with the military. Once you’ve been in the military, you can do a lot of things. I just feel blessed to have both of those things, because they’ve steered me to be the kind of person I want to be.”
Some people might see Giaimo’s busy schedule as a burden, but he actually enjoys having a lot to do, because it forces him not to procrastinate. He says all of the hard work is worth it because he gets to experience two of his passions, while at the same time getting and education.
“I don’t look at it as a burden any more than any other student here, really,” he said. “It’s just something I really want to do, and it’s worked out.”