November 25, 2020

Displaying his Prowess in Greco-Roman Style, PU Wrestler Merkin Takes 3rd at Senior Nationals

LENDING A HAND: Princeton University wrestler Lenny Merkin greets Sebby the Sloth, a mascot that he created, in the Utah Salt Flats. Bringing Sebby along for the ride, senior Merkin placed third at the U.S. Senior Nationals in the 67 kilogram (148-pounds) Greco-Roman competition in October. Earlier this month, he made the semifinals in the 67 kg Greco-Roman class at the UWW(United World Wrestling) U23 and Junior Nationals. (Photo provided by Lenny Merkin)

By Justin Feil

When Lenny Merkin headed to Coralville, Iowa, for the wrestling U.S. Senior Nationals last month, he took with him Sebby the Sloth, a mascot that the Princeton University senior created.

“It’s this stuffed animal I carry around to training and tournaments and it ended up taking off internationally,” said Merkin, who maintains Instagram and Twitter accounts for Sebby.

“It blew up and now it’s turning into a side project where I’m trying to use it to grow wrestling and spread the word. I’ve been able to lean on that since I do most of my travels solo. I’ve been able to have this stuffed animal to lean on if I don’t have anyone else.”

Merkin is the rare Princeton wrestler who favors the Greco-Roman style over the college format of folkstyle. In Greco-Roman, one can only do takedowns by attacking an opponent’s upper body with leg attacks being prohibited. In both folkstyle and freestyle, a wrestler can do takedowns by either shooting or throwing.

“Since I got into Princeton, I told the coaches that my goal is to be an asset to the team, but when I have the chance to compete in Greco-Roman, I want to do so and I want to be able to have an opportunity to have an Olympic team, something you can’t do with folkstyle unfortunately,” said Merkin, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., who was a four-time New York prep states champion at Poly Prep.

“I think competing at a higher stage like that is incredible and it’s been a dream of mine for a long time.”

Merkin is focused on reaching the highest level in wrestling. He also plans to explore using Sebby’s popularity to promote his passion for wrestling to the next generation following his graduation.

“I’m always on the lookout for some entrepreneurial thing,” said Merkin. “I’m planning to continue working on this Sebby the Sloth project as much as I can. Overall, it’s to get kids involved in athletics and sports. It’s getting kids healthy, that’s the overall theme and being a mentor that a human can’t be. It’s like a different relationship I’m trying to build with the kids.”

A civil engineering major, Merkin has a minor and an eye for entrepreneurial ventures. In high school, he and a friend created Smoothie Boys, a healthy alternative to the sugary drinks at his school.

“We decided to make a change and people loved it and it was good,” said Merkin. “It was short but sweet. It was probably three months and we fundraised quite a bit for a senior event that would have otherwise been more expensive for everybody.”

Sebby has more long-term potential in Merkin’s mind, and he continues to bring the mascot and promote him at events. Sebby was on hand to support Merkin as he placed third at 148 pounds at Senior Nationals. Princeton assistant coach Nate Jackson was second in the 190-pound freestyle bracket, and Princeton’s Matthew Kolodzik was sixth in the 143-pound freestyle.

“I had to get out on the mat,” said Merkin. “It’s been close to six months since I’ve been able to compete. I’ve been training since then. I just wanted to compete to see if the stuff I’ve been working on would work in competition, and sure enough some of it worked and some of it didn’t. Because of COVID, there were complications with my training, but it’s nice to see where I’m at with Olympic Trials and some other events coming up.”

Merkin shut out a pair of opponents before falling to second-seeded Calvin Germinario in the semifinals. Merkin was seeded third.

“Lenny’s passion is Greco-Roman, which is what he did well in this tournament at,” said Princeton head coach Chris Ayres of Merkin who also made the semifinals in the 67 kg Greco-Roman class at the UWW  (United World Wrestling) U23 and Junior Nationals earlier this month.

“It’s all upper body. That’s really his focus. He wants to make an Olympic team in Greco.”

Merkin’s career at Princeton has seen its ups and downs. He’s had to wrestle up at a higher weight since he and Kolodzik, a four-time All-American, are the same weight.

“Lenny has been amazing,” said Ayres. “He’s moved to weights that strengthen our team a lot. For him, he’s incredibly good so he’s able to do that and go up and compete at a high level. He’s been great for the program, getting to the weights where we need him, and also him doing well for himself and chasing this Olympic dream. He did make a U-23 team, but unfortunately it was canceled. We hope he can make an Olympic or a World team.”

The cancellation of the Ivy season this winter isn’t putting a damper on Merkin’s focus. He is keeping his attention on qualifying and wrestling in the Olympic Trials in April 2021.

“I think it was good for the sport and good for our development overall to get a chance to go and try moves and not have too much at stake,” said Merkin.

“I didn’t really see it as a senior national tournament, it was kind of a test run. I didn’t put too much weight on it. It hurt to not win it. It’s better to lose now than when it matters a lot more.”

Merkin had not competed since taking Sebby on a trip to Denmark in mid-January for the Thor Masters Greco-Roman Tournament. Already on a redshirt year during what was supposed to be an Olympic year, Merkin continued to train through the pandemic’s cancellation of events. He has pushed himself to continue to develop even when he couldn’t meet with the Princeton team that helped him over the last three years.

“The wrestling side of it, the program and training has helped get me in shape,” said Merkin.

“The day in and day out grind kind of helped prepare me for the things I’ll continue doing – making an Olympic team and getting an Olympic medal. Having the right people around you, it’s taught me that the right support system is important and having coaches that believe in you is huge, as well as a good ecosystem and positive atmosphere, that’s important to have.”

Ayres calls Merkin the best athlete on the Princeton team. He’s hoping that Merkin has a chance to wrestle in NCAAs this year, something he felt Merkin was kept from unfairly junior year after beating an NCAA qualifier in the EIWA Championships.

“I would say upper body technique is his strength,” said Ayres. “It helps him in college. It translates well. He’s a great collegiate wrestler as well so he can attack the lower body well too. He’s very dangerous. In an instant, Lenny could end a match because he’s so dangerous. That sense of danger makes people cautious too. It’s an interesting dynamic. He’s got the KO punch if you make the analogy to boxing. If he gets you with one of those things, you’re in deep, deep trouble.”

As a freshman, Merkin pinned a Harvard wrestler 10 seconds into a match when he was adjusting to wrestling up a weight class. With his strength and experience having increased, he has become more dangerous on the mats, and Ayres notes that he had the potential to be All-American if Princeton had competed this winter.

In the meantime, Merkin continues to train with lofty goals in mind that should keep him taking Sebby the Sloth around the world.

“I’m potentially looking at going into the Army and wrestling for the Army team,” said Merkin.

“It’s still in the works and I’m thinking about options. I’ve been thinking about it for a while. It would be another really good stepping stone to get me where I need to be, and it’d be an honor to serve the country.”