Lenny Merkin (67 kg, NYAC/NJRTC, 5PM #13) studies engineering at Princeton University. It is a field that has long held his interest, satisfying various curiosities with regard to building structures, home efficiency, industrial mechanics… Whatever. It isn’t always easy for those of us on the exterior of such a pursuit to really grasp all that “engineering” entails because it is a fairly broad scope. The only thing we do know is that it’s broken down into one timeless concept — the need to figure things out.
Merkin isn’t new to Greco-Roman by any means, but he is new to the level in which he is now competing. At first, which is to say a few years ago, there were various age-group performances responsible for his arrival into the consciousness, including a Junior Pan-Am gold. Everything became a little more serious entering the 2018-19 season. Merkin’s activity on the National circuit increased, and with it, so too did his competitive trajectory. After placing fourth at the ’19 US Open, Merkin prevailed at the U23 World Team Trials a little over a month later.
The U23 World Championships in Budapest offered a fitful learning experience, so he didn’t even take a breather upon returning home. He couldn’t. The Bill Farrell Memorial — the first qualifying event for the eventually-postponed Olympic Trials — was a can’t-miss. When that was over, Merkin resumed training and traveling, his passport filling up quicker than he could have anticipated. Another necessity. The New Jersey Regional Training Center avails wonderful facilities, decorated coaches, and a collection of superb partners — but is designated mostly for collegiate folk and freestyle types. The NJRTC supports Merkin as much as is reasonable; but other than his having received permission to bring Mostafa Mohamed (EGY) in for workouts, the cupboard has been bare Greco-wise.
So, Merkin has hopped on a lot of flights to a lot of faraway places in search of the fine-tuning he so desperately wants and needs. Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Belarus…. He requires a minute or two to pinpoint everywhere he has been over the past year. Stateside is much easier, especially since the pandemic. Merkin participated in two of the “Summer Series” Senior camps (Nebraska and Utah, respectively); in between and afterwards, he has occasionally jaunted up to Troy, New York and Curby 3-Style. The trip takes two hours and some change from his home in Brooklyn. There, he has practiced with ’18 US Open runner-up Jessy Williams (NYAC/Spartan, 5PM #14) alongside whomever else happens to populate the mat space. Back in the BK, particularly when the weather was more amenable, Merkin would head to the beach for makeshift workouts in the sand with his cousin, or anyone else he could convince to join him.
But in spite of the pieced-together training plan that is even more eclectic due to COVID restrictions, Merkin’s recent performances haven’t suffered. He placed third at both the Senior Open in October and the U23 Nationals last week, not to suggest he was pleased with settling for a pair of bronze plaques. However, it pays to consider that the athletes to whom he fell — Calvin Germinaro (Minnesota Storm, 5PM #8) and ’20 National champ Benji Peak (Sunkist/NTS, 5PM #11) — enjoy more stability in their respective training situations. Merkin doesn’t use this fact as a crutch or an excuse, but he’d be blind not to acknowledge it.
What will the future bring? Who could know? Merkin needs to make the final of the Last Chance Olympic Trials Qualifier in March. To do that, a reliable, consistent training schedule that features fellow top-level partners would go a long way towards achieving that objective. Obviously. Not-so-obvious are the opportunities which might become rendered in the meantime. COVID guidelines and lockdown protocols in they city don’t make it easy to do all of this. Yet, Merkin isn’t anxious. If anything, he’s emboldened. There is no disputing the strides he has made. A little more runway, and the possibilities expand even further. Merkin likes a challenge. To him, this is a puzzle. He just wants to clear enough space in his brain to figure it out.
Lenny Merkin — 67 kg, NYAC/NJRTC
5PM: How did you in the beginning start to formulate an idea of how you would approach training for this Olympic Year? And, how long did it take you to get back into a rhythm during the spring/early summer?
Lenny Merkin: I took an Olympic redshirt, or I guess Olympic gap year at school, and decided that I would go abroad and take Sebby with me to keep me company. I immediately got on a flight to Belarus in September. My training last summer consisted mainly of Tiger (Mostafa) and bouncing back and forth between there (NJRTC) and home in Brooklyn. I just enjoyed the summer. From there, I went to Belarus for some training camps and then to Kazakhstan to watch the (Senior) World Championships and warm some of the guys up. After that, I believe it was off to Hungary for the U23 World Championships, where things didn’t go great — but it was still good to get some international experience before competing with some of the guys. Next, I went to Georgia and then found myself in Budapest. Essentially, I was organizing a world tour for Sebby and myself to get exposure and content (for Instagram), and to get the best training that I could.
After Hungary, I went to Denmark with Team USA and did Thor Masters. It was great to compete. I spent a lot of time in Bulgaria, too. I think I went to Bulgaria two or three times throughout the year. I also went to Rome to watch the European Championships, and then my last stop was in Turkey just before COVID hit. I had to buy my flight home because I was afraid to get locked out of the US.
As far as post-COVID, I started focusing on making sure my conditioning was there so I began training for a triathlon, which ended up getting canceled. But it gave me motivation to try something new and to go outside everyday and try to improve on something, even if it wasn’t on a wrestling mat. So, that was great. Now we’re here, where training is on the mat, sometimes it’s not. I live by the beach. A lot of this time I had spent training on the beach because the gyms were closed. I’d grab my cousin, who dabbled in wrestling during high school, or any body, and go work out on the beach. Slowly, as things started opening up, I was able to get to Jersey a little bit and then to Albany for Curby to get a little bit of training in. Now we’re here and I’ve taken third twice. I think the fact that I haven’t had any real training shows why I got the results that I did. They showed that I haven’t had the right training.
5PM: You did also go to two of the Senior camps this summer. After coming off of a strong latter part of 2019 and then find yourself at National Team-type camps with top guys, do you enter the room with an attitude like, I’m a top guy, too, that’s why I’m here?
LM: Yeah, sure. I think I’m a lot more confident now than I was in my actual wrestling game and tactics as opposed to simply relying on my talent like I had in the past. It’s not perfect yet. My tactics and gameplans aren’t ideal because I don’t have a coach who is with me all the time and can point things out to me, but I’m doing the best that I can.
I’m learning from my mistakes, and I’ve made a ton of them, which is good. I’m making mistakes at the right time. Any mistake that I make before the Last Chance Qualifier and Olympic Trials is fine with me. I’m here to learn. That’s why I went to the U23’s and to Seniors, even though there was nothing at stake. I just want to see where I am and what I have learned from my overseas experience, and to see how I have grown as a wrestler. And I feel that I have grown.
My confidence is high. Even though I’m losing, I’m losing because I lost, not because I was beat. That’s what I am learning from some of my matches.
5PM: Is that what these tournaments were more about, especially Coralville? Taking constant measurements just so you’re prepared to not only qualify for the Olympic Trials, but also get on a run once you get there? Or do you just see the last two tournaments as isolated competitive events?
LM: I feel like normally that I would have looked at them as isolated competitive events, but since the training has been so weird and there hasn’t been much competition, it is hard to gauge where you are if you’re not competing often or training with top guys in the wrestling room. There are some times when I just don’t have partners to train with, so it’s hard to know where I’m at. This year especially, every chance I’ve had to compete I have used as 1) a way to entertain both myself and the fans, and 2) to see where I am lacking, what I’m missing.
5PM: 67 kilograms, it might be the deepest in the country. A lot of people go crazy about 77, and I get it. But to me, I think 67 might have overtaken it.
Lenny Merkin: I agree, and I think everyone at 67 would agree, too. Especially because at 67 there are so many young guys who are really talented, hardworking… I think at U23 there were about five guys who could have easily done damage at the Senior level — or have already multiple times.
5PM: You took fourth at the ’19 Open, you won the ’19 U23 Trials, and now you’ve taken third at an Open and just placed third at U23. This is consistency, and indicative of a “top athlete”. Do you see it that way, that you are on that definitive level? Or do you feel there is still a lot of ground for you to make up?
LM: How do I put it? It’s weird, because the guys I’m up against here I feel wrestle much differently than the top guys who I’ve wrestled over in Europe. I feel like I have more of a problem with guys here than I do overseas. But, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m wrong. But it is very different preparing for US opponents than it is for foreign opponents and I feel that is one reason why we have been struggling as a country internationally. Because, we are getting ready to wrestle guys in the US for the whole year, and then we go overseas and see these different styles. It’s like, What is going on here?
5PM: How do you balance this? There is the USA style, which is a problem because when there are two top guys who are evenly-matched, it tends to be a tight pummel fest. The other problem, I feel, is that the officials are not nearly aggressive enough when it comes to penalizing low activity, nor are they consistent with their applications of the rules. And the reason why that’s a problem is because overseas matches tend to be officiated differently. So how do you balance these concepts when it comes to preparation and in-match approach?
LM: I’m still trying to figure that out. I’ve been told that I have a European style but, for some reason, some part of it isn’t translating to my wrestling here in the US. Against guys I should be beating, I’m beating them; but against guys with whom I am more evenly-matched, they are a lot more closed-off and I’m having trouble with that. Or, I was in the past.
So then it is, What do I do if a guy isn’t opening up? Well, I have to open them up myself. But most of the European guys are looking to score, looking to actively wrestle. I would think. Some countries, maybe not. There are a few brick walls who are hard to run through. But I have been having a hard time figuring that out, and I actually think working with Joe (Uccellini) on my strategy and tactics has been helping me a lot.
It is going to be a challenge until I can completely outclass everyone in my weight. Until I am outclassing them it is going to be something that I am working on continuously. Then it will be, How can I outclass the guys on the World level?
5PM: Did it bother you losing to Benji (Peak) last week?
LM: I wouldn’t say it bothered me. I was a little frustrated with myself because I felt that he was broken and I wasn’t, and the score didn’t show that. But I guess it goes with the rest of his performance, not to bash him or anything. He didn’t look good that weekend, at all. That wasn’t the same Benji who showed up to Senior Nationals. I think part of why he didn’t look good is because he wrestled me. After I was hanging on his neck for that long and doing whatever I did to him during our match… It didn’t win me the match, but it hurt him. Something hurt him.
Going forward, now I’ve felt Benji and I know what it’s going to take to get me the win and break him at the same time. I’m not training for Benji, but I never had experience before against anyone that tall (laughs). I didn’t even think I could reach his head with my arms extended. I was happy to have the chance to wrestle him because, like I said, the results are what they are for now. I’m just smashing heads, snatching bodies, but mostly taking notes. I’m a detective right now.
5PM: What do you like the most about your progress over the past two seasons, season-and-a-half? What you have been most encouraged by?
LM: What do I like about my progress? I like that I’ve been progressing. I feel like I would prefer to be progressing at a faster rate. The fact that I have been progressing alone and formulating training plans alone, and figuring out situations by myself — obviously, with people helping me, but I don’t have a program and I don’t have a room I can go into everyday to get a hard practice and good technical instruction — I’m just happy with the fact that I am where I am despite those hurdles and able to push myself as much as the circumstances will allow. It prepared me well for this COVID stuff. It’s like, Who cares? I’ve been doing this type of training my whole life. It’s like Rocky style. You just do what you can.
5PM: Until things change as far as the ability to travel, train, and compete, are you assembling a plan for the training block leading up to Last Chance?
Lenny Merkin: Yeah, probably. It’s always last-minute for me, so it’s either Curby, Jersey, and more recently the Utah Valley RTC with Taylor LaMont, Dylan Gregerson, and Sammy Jones. That has been a really good training spot for me. So, there are options. It’s just a matter of what I want to do and when, what the COVID stuff allows, and what the funding will permit.
I’m actually a little nervous all of this is going to continue and the Olympics are going to get canceled. We are getting pretty close to the end of the March and I’m nervous about that de ja vu feeling for when Last Chance comes around again and it will become just another tournament with nothing to compete for. I am really nervous about that. I’m hoping that’s not the case — and I’m training like it won’t be.