April 14, 2021

PU Wrestler Merkin Competes at Olympic Trials, Gaining Lessons That Will Fuel Bid for 2024 Games

TRIAL BY FIRE: Princeton University wrestler Lenny Merkin gets pumped up with Sebby the Sloth, a mascot that he created, in the Utah Salt Flats. Earlier this month, Merkin competed in the U.S. Olympic Trials in Fort Worth, Texas, in the 67-kilogram Greco-Roman event. Senior Merkin fell 9-0 to Benjamin Peak in the first round and then lost 12-4 to Calvin Germinaro in a consolation match in his debut appearance at the event. (Photo provided courtesy of provided by Lenny Merkin)

By Justin Feil

Lenny Merkin culminated a rocky year by making his debut at the United States Olympic Trials in Greco Roman style wrestling.

The Princeton University senior was disappointed with an early exit after two matches at the Trials on April 2 held in Fort Worth, Texas, but is using it to fuel his desire to go for a spot in the next Olympics.

“Now that I got my foot in the door, I’m really optimistic about 2024,” said Merkin.

“I’ve seen the stage. I’ve competed with the best guys in the weight class. The guy who’s on the Olympic team, I had a really close match with the last time I wrestled him. He’s beaten me every time, but I think I’m finally starting to understand how to wrestle Greco on the senior level. Now is the perfect time for me to start working on the things that I’m missing. I think not qualifying is going to be my driving force for the following Olympics.”

Merkin is the only Tiger wrestler to qualify for this year’s Trials. Princeton University assistant coach Nate Jackson also qualified and competed at the Trials in Fort Worth, Texas, without winning an Olympic berth.

“It’s an important step in our process,” said Princeton University wrestling head coach Chris Ayres.

“It affirmed to me more than ever we need to get an Olympic gold medal to Princeton. That’s my goal. To have this step where we had two guys at the Trials, it made me more motivated to say we can do this thing.”

Merkin lost in his first match at the Olympic Trials to Benji Peak, 9-0. He returned to fall to Calvin Germinaro in the consolation round, 12-4.

“I would say I was super relaxed and super comfortable, until I stepped out right near where the mats were set up,” said Merkin.

“And when I stepped on the mat, I still felt ready and not much changed in my mindset, but I think unconsciously my body, it didn’t shut down, but it just didn’t want to do anything. Normally, the way I wrestled at the Last Chance Qualifier, I was super active and super aggressive. This time I was absorbing everything, whether it was the energy from the crowd or I was absorbing my opponent pushing into me, I wasn’t the one performing anything. I wasn’t putting any pressure on my opponents, I was just absorbing what they were giving me. That was my biggest takeaway.”

Only one week earlier, Merkin came up big as he won his event at the Last Chance Qualifier held at Fort Worth, Texas. Unseeded, Merkin went through four wrestlers, including stopping the top seed Hayden Tuma in the quarterfinals and beating second-seeded Peak by injury default in the final with Merkin already leading 6-2. It was an achievement that he hadn’t been sure would be possible earlier in the year.

“For some reason I was convinced when COVID hit, we weren’t going to have an Olympics, we weren’t going to have Olympic Trials, everything was done,” said Merkin.

“I was in that mindset when we got hit. Even three weeks before leading up to the Trials, I had some injuries and I had a lot of things going on with school and being able to figure out if I was going to graduate and trying to fix my body. I was on the fence. I didn’t know if I was going to go. Then I had a conversation with a couple other wrestlers that were set to compete. They were from Ivies as well and had a lot of work and had similar problems that I did. They said, it’s once every four years, give it a shot. After I had that conversation, it kind of brought me back. It snapped me out of the funk I was in.”

Training looked nothing like it had in the past. The instability wrought by the pandemic added hurdles to every step. Merkin was wrestling well in the fall when the Ivy League announced there would be no intercollegiate competition, which forced him to continue to train on his own.

“I really haven’t had a stable place to train,” said Merkin. “I’m sure everyone else on the national team, they also are struggling. Every week, I felt I had to find some new place to train and some place that didn’t have as many restrictions which were pretty tough. There were a lot of those kinds of challenges.”

Without college wrestling, Merkin could focus on Greco Roman style, which differs from college freestyle wrestling in that wrestlers cannot use any holds below the waist in Greco Roman. Merkin trained in a number of locations in New York state while living in his Brooklyn, New York, home and working toward finishing his senior thesis. Remaining virtual for schooling allowed him to travel to train.

“Normally whenever I’m back home, there’s always a place to train,” said Merkin.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to be invited out to places in upstate near Albany and near Ithaca, where they have good Greco programs established. I was able to volunteer coach and also train myself which was really great. When I was around the Princeton area, it was pretty tough, especially with all mandatory testing and all the other policies that they’ve put in place in the Princeton area.”

Merkin had the support of his Princeton teammates and coaches, although it wasn’t the same as being on campus in a school year.

“In a way, it would have been better to be around my friends and teammates,” said Merkin.

“From a maturity standpoint, I think this independent year was kind of good in that aspect. Coming off the gap year, I took last year, I got a taste of what making your own schedule looks like and finding training looks like and all those other things that you don’t necessarily learn when you’re a part of a structured team environment. I was able to put that to use once we got news that we weren’t going to have a season. It was really helpful.”

He and Jackson, along with former Princeton wrestler Matthew Kolodzik, competed at the Last Chance Qualifier after working through the ups and downs of the previous year. The finality of that tournament makes it especially pressure packed.

In addition, as coach Ayres noted, the wrestlers faced challenges in formulating a training regimen due to COVID restrictions.

“You have to find a way to win,” said Ayres. “This was the total test of that. It was piecing things together — workout partners, where we’re going to train, if we could be involved as college coaches. It was really challenging. I think we did the best that could possibly be done given the circumstances. We had a few guys do pretty good. In retrospect I don’t think we could do anything better. Moving forward, we’re still in this weird situation so you try to piece things together and get guys the best training that they can get.”

Ayres is looking forward to the chance to welcome all of his Princeton wrestlers back on campus for a season. It’s something that he missed mightily during this year when many national schools did hold seasons.

“What’s going to happen that’s beautiful is when we get back to Princeton and back to routine and having our facilities, we’re going have more gratitude,” said Ayres.

“I can’t wait for the day when we walk in that room and it’s a full room and I have my team there and we can just train. It’s going to make us better. We had to go through these tough situations.”

Merkin’s immediate steps are more grounded in the academic side of things. He is focusing on finishing his thesis. The civil engineering major is researching how choosing to live in a tiny home and reducing carbon emissions affects one’s mental well-being. Beyond graduation, he is focused on several possible pathways, including the chance to return to college in a graduate program.

“I don’t know what that will yield in terms of the wrestling aspect of things,” said Merkin.

“It’s a good thing to have in your back pocket. Army is on my mind. There’s potential to wrestle at other regional training centers depending on who reaches out and who I can reach out to. There’s options on the table. It’s about making the right call when the time comes, but right now the main focus is finishing school.”

Another potential option for Merkin would be to take advantage of the Ivy League’s waiver for graduate students to compete next year. He lists that is a very small possibility.

“I still have some form of spark left in me for collegiate,” said Merkin. “I love the sport regardless of the style. I have to see how it aligns with Greco training. That’s probably going to be my main focus going forward.”

Merkin remains dedicated to growing the sport of wrestling. In the midst of his Trials training, he had the opportunity to coach during his travels. He worked with kids as young as three to adults older than him and shared his passion for Greco Roman style wrestling with them.

“My favorite is working with older middle school and younger high school kids just because they’ve had a little experience but they haven’t quite had their Greco minds developed yet,” Merkin said.

“They’re coming from a folkstyle background. The club I was training at tries to use Greco as another tool to have in your folkstyle bag of tricks, and from there maybe kids transition to full-time Greco and full-time freestyle. That was my experience. I loved it. Coaching is a huge passion of mine. Especially for the people who want to be coached. That’s really important.”

He travels with a mascot he created, Sebby the Sloth, a tool he came up with to introduce young wrestlers to the sport. Merkin got his own start in Greco Roman wrestling at four years old with a gifted coach from the Soviet Union. He picked up the Greco basics early, then in middle school began to focus more on them under Belarus product Dmitriy Landa.

“Just from the constant learning of new things of what my body can do and what new techniques could be effective, I started falling in love with the sport and the culture,” said Merkin.

“Also I’m a big fan of underdogs and underrepresented things. Greco Roman and women’s wrestling are on the rise. I think they need help to take off. They need something to give them a push. I want to be able to say I took part in that.”

Coaching is one way he can share his love of the sport and share his experiences. He has grown increasingly devoted to the sport that has carried him all the way to the Olympic Trials, an important step as he eyes his goal of an Olympic team berth.

“I did feel like I belonged there,” Merkin said. “Unfortunately at the Trials I didn’t really get to show it. I didn’t feel like I wrestled like myself, or wrestled at all. I just kind of stepped out on the mat and was trying to absorb everything. I was trying to absorb the experience. That was one of the biggest flaws I had at the Trials. It was a big deal, it was a big deal for the program at Princeton. Coach Jackson and I were the only two people who qualified. It felt pretty special, but I wanted to do more.”