Of the many students and alumni vying for spots in the 2020 Olympics, wrestler Leonard Merkin ’21 is the only one competing in an event other than the one he has practiced at Princeton. He’s spent most of the last year training in the Greco-Roman discipline, a style so distinct from the NCAA’s folkstyle wrestling that it’s practically a different sport.
“You’re not allowed to use your legs to make any of that action happen,” Merkin explained. “You can’t grab your opponent’s legs. You can’t use your legs to trip. ... You have to figure out a way to outsmart or outmuscle your opponent.”
That may sound tedious, but Greco-Roman rules punish passivity, providing an incentive to be aggressive. Matches often feature “high-amplitude throws,” Merkin said, with one competitor lifting and tossing the other to the mat. Those moves are what drew the Brooklyn, N.Y., native to the sport.
At Princeton, Merkin would practice with Mostafa Hassan (nicknamed Tiger), an Egyptian Greco-Roman wrestler who lives nearby. But finding consistent Greco-Roman training opportunities in the United States proved difficult, so Merkin traveled to some of the sport’s global hotbeds in search of instruction and partners. He has spent time in Belarus (his father’s homeland), Kazakhstan, Georgia, and Hungary, where he competed for the U.S. team at the Under-23 World Championships in October. He’s wrestling in the 67 kilogram division (just over 147 pounds), which is about 10 pounds lighter than his collegiate weight class.
Merkin turned to social media to help raise funds for his trip to Hungary, and to stand out from the crowd, he started posing at gyms and landmarks with his mascot and traveling companion, Sebby the Sloth, a stuffed animal he won at a carnival. Merkin raised more than $600, and Sebby became a social-media star in the wrestling world, drawing nearly 15,000 Instagram followers. (He’s also a handy travel pillow, Merkin quipped.)
Sebby was particularly popular during the trip to Kazakhstan, where Merkin traveled on a whim to watch the 2019 World Wrestling Championships, after his training partners in Belarus broke camp. “I went there was nothing and I came back with a huge support system, a huge fan base, a wealth of knowledge, and an awesome experience,” he said.
Even with months of elite training under his belt, Merkin said he has a lot to learn about Greco-Roman technique and strategy. He’ll put his skills to the test in March at the final qualifying event for the U.S. Olympic Trials. If he succeeds there, Merkin — and Sebby — will travel to the trials in University Park, Pa., in early April.
This is an expanded version of a story in the March 4, 2020, issue of PAW.