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Eyes on the prize

Just over a decade ago, Jon Trenge was a sixth grader at Kernsville Elementary School when he was given the time-honored "What do you want to be when you grow up?" writing assignment by his teacher, Steve Quinn.

While many of his classmates wanted to be the next Michael Jordan, Trenge was different. Instead of wanting to be like Mike, Trenge dreamed of being the next Sergei Beloglazov. Sure, Beloglazov didn ’t have the megabucks fast-food and sneaker endorsement deals that Jordan had at that time,but he had something more important in Trenge's mind-two Olympic gold medals in wrestling.

Trenge,who began wrestling at age 7, had attended a wrestling clinic at Lehigh University run by Beloglazov, a six-time world champion and the Olympic gold medalist in 1980 and 1988 at 125.5 pounds. At the clinic,Trenge was bitten by the Olympic bug and set about putting together a complete blueprint on how he was going to make his Olympic dream come true.

"By the time I was given that writing assignment by Mr. Quinn back in sixth grade,I had it all figured out," says Trenge. "I wrote that I wanted to win a state high school wrestling championship, get a full ride to Lehigh University,and then eventually try to become an Olympian, just like Sergei."

His teacher loved the paper and half-joked that Trenge would have to get him season tickets to Lehigh wrestling if his dreams ever came true.

"Mr. Quinn was totally shocked when I called him up after I got my full scholarship to Lehigh and asked him whether he wanted full season tickets or whether he wanted me to put him on the comp list for a few matches," says a proud Trenge, an ice pack attached to his right knee in Lehigh ’s fifth-floor wrestling room after an early March workout.

Nothing that Trenge accomplishes anymore comes as a surprise. In fact, he’s done almost everything on that sixth-grade checklist despite obstacles that would have knocked a less determined young man off the path. The first occurred when his parents separated when Jon was just 6 years old-leaving Trenge’s father, Mike, to raise Jon and his older brother, Mike (a recent Penn State grad).

"He ’s encouraged me to set high goals and to strive for them," Trenge says of his father. "Everything that I ’ve accomplished is because of him."

As a wrestler at Parkland High School, Trenge accomplished just about everything that a teenager can in the sport. He posted a 145-16 high school record, including a gaudy 79-2 mark as a junior and senior. Trenge won High School Nationals and Junior Nationals and was a back-to-back Class AAA 189-pound state champion in 1998 and 1999.

He chose Lehigh over fellow wrestling powers Penn State and Hofstra-becoming head coach Greg Strobel ’s first true blue-chip recruit at Lehigh.

"It was a no-brainer to come to Lehigh," says Trenge. "It had always been my dream. It ’s a great, great school academically. It’s near my home and it has the best coaching staff in the country.

"Coach (Greg) Strobel has done so much for me. He ’s been an Olympic assistant and Olympic head coach and knows everything there is to know about wrestling. It ’s ridiculous to think how much he’s helped me. And his assistant coaches for my few years here have been Kerry McCoy and Pat Santoro [who has since left to be the head coach at the University of Maryland]. You ’re talking about two guys who, like Strobel, have perfect technique and have done everything that there is to do in wrestling.

"You can’t even imagine the amount of confidence a guy like me can have heading into college matches after working out regularly with an Olympian like Kerry McCoy in practice."

Wrestling with eye injuries
After redshirting as a freshman,Trenge exploded onto the scene the following year-quickly blossoming into one of the nation ’s best in his 197-pound weight class. Late that season, Trenge was ranked third in the nation and had already beaten the No. 1, 2, 4, 5, 6 and 8 ranked wrestlers in the country before encountering another major obstacle. Just one week before the 2001 Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (EIWA) championship, Trenge saw a huge black spot whenever he looked out of his right eye, ending his first collegiate season and threatening his college career.

"Good gravy, without the eye injury, there’s no doubt in my mind that Jon would have won the EIWAs that year and could have very easily been the national champion as a freshman," says Strobel. "Instead,he was forced to sit on the sidelines and watch two guys he had already beaten that year (2001) wrestle for the national championship. It had to be devastating to him."

More devastating news came shortly thereafter when an eye specialist told Trenge that he should never wrestle again. The doctor told Trenge that he was suffering from lattice degeneration, a thinning and tearing of the retina from the jostling and pokes to the eye that are an everyday part of wrestling. A natural competitor,Trenge missed the
2001 EIWAs and the NCAAs that year,but refused to give up the sport he loves.

After one major surgery and then five corrective laser eye surgeries (five total surgeries on his right eye, one on his left),Trenge has successfully continued his wrestling career,thanks to protective goggles that are attached to his headgear. It took the combined efforts of his dad, Lehigh director of sports medicine Jack Foley, headgear supplier Brute, and goggle supplier Rec Specs to keep Trenge on the mats and wrestling at a high level. But wearing the goggles has been a frustrating proposition for Trenge.

"Both intentionally and unintentionally, opposing wrestlers bang my goggles with their head and that pushes the goggles into my face,causing me to bleed around my eyes," says Trenge, pointing to the scars around his eyes as proof. "It just happens. There’s nothing that I can do about it. I think the goggles hurt my overall aggressiveness too. I find that I don’t shoot (at an opponent ’s legs) as much as I used to because I ’m worried about banging my head into a guy ’s knee and bleeding."

Aiming for a career year
Still, Trenge has pressed on and has already met many of his stated childhood goals. In 2002 and 2003, Trenge was the EIWA champion at 197 pounds and then went on to reach the NCAA championship both years.

Trenge earned All-American honors both years, but lost to Iowa State legend Cael Sanderson (a 159-0 perfect record as a collegian) in a nationally televised match on ESPNews as a sophomore and then to Minnesota ’s Damion Hahn in the last three seconds of the match as a junior in 2003. Trenge, the nation ’s top-ranked college 197-pound wrestler heading into the 2003 NCAAs, was up 4-3 when No.6 Hahn recorded two take-downs to upset Trenge, 5-4.

"Losing to Cael was no disgrace, because he was a guy who never lost a college match. Cael even said that I gave him some of his toughest college matches," Trenge says. "But the loss to Hahn the following year was tough to swallow because it was my fault. I didn’t listen to my coaches and stopped wrestling.

"And as long as there’s time on the clock, you have to keep wrestling."

Ironically,that seems to be Trenge’s motto these days. Fearful that he’ll do permanent damage to his eyes, Trenge is attempting to reach his final two major wrestling goals-being an Olympian and an NCAA champion-within the next year. Trenge applied for an Olympic training year to attempt to make the U.S.team for this summer’s games in Greece, meaning that he deferred his final year of college eligibility until 2004-05.

"Because the age of the average U.S.Olympic wrestler is 28 years old, 2008 may have been a more realistic hope for Jon, if he was completely healthy," says Strobel,an assistant U.S. Olympic coach in 1996 and the head U.S. coach in 2000. "But his days of wrestling are clearly numbered due to the eye problems he’s having. He simply can’t run the risk of injury that wrestling the next five years would pose, so Jon needs to go for it all in the next year and then get on with the rest of his life.

Training for the Olympics has proven to be a full-time commitment, meaning that Trenge,who is now wrestling at 211.5 pounds, spent 70 percent of his time between October 2003 and February in the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs (where his boyhood idol Beloglazov is a resident coach for the U.S.team). Trenge then came home for a few weeks to work out with Strobel and his Lehigh teammates for part of February and early March before returning to
Colorado to train.

"I’ve gotten so much stronger and have learned a lot more different lifts and other things about weight training in Colorado," Trenge says. "From now until the Olympic Trials in May, I’m just working as hard as I possibly can to make my Olympic dream come true. I know that I’m a longshot,but I’m lucky to still be wrestling at all after all of the eye problems I had."

In the January 2004 rankings, Trenge was No.8 on the Team USA wrestling ladder at 211.5 pounds. Among the guys ranked ahead of him are No.1 Daniel Cormier of Oklahoma State (the runner-up to Cael Sanderson at 197 pounds in the 2001 NCAAs), Dean Morrison (a 1994 NCAA champion at West Virginia University), Tim Hartung (a 1998 and 1999 NCAA champion), and Melvin Douglas (a U.S.Olympian in 1996 and 2000). In order to make the team,Trenge must wrestle his way to the best-of-three finals at the Olympic Trials on May 20-22 in Indianapolis. Whoever survives the grueling path to the finals will take on the well-rested winner of the U.S. Open Freestyle Tournament,which took place in Las Vegas in April.

"It’s really intense out there. It’s almost like every day (of training) is like the Olympic Trials, because of the quality of wrestlers you go against out there and how hard you lift out there," Trenge says. "No matter what happens though, it’s made me a better wrestler."

After he finishes his Olympic quest, Trenge will return for his senior year at Lehigh in the fall to finish up his degree in Environmental Sciences (he’s 13 credits shy), to chase the elusive national title, and to finish as the all-time Lehigh leader in career wins. Trenge is 103-10 all-time at Lehigh and needs 17 more wins next season to pass 1999 grad Chris Ayres (who replaced Pat Santoro as an assistant coach for the Mountain Hawks) as the all-time Lehigh leader in career wins.

"I expect Jon to come back and dominate during his senior year," Strobel says. "He ’s always been a very coachable, goal-oriented kid. It’s my expectation that he ’ll come back, armed with what he’s learned from this Olympic training experience, and will be a more consistent, better all-around wrestler."

Trenge agrees with his coach on his 2004-05 goals at Lehigh.

"Once I get back to school, I’m just going to do everything in my power to be successful as a senior," Trenge says. "I’ve been wrestling since I was 7 and I just want to enjoy the time that I have left on the mat."

Of course, Trenge, a meticulous planner since the time he wrote that paper back in elementary school, has the post-wrestling stage of his life already planned out. He wants to attend graduate school at Lehigh and be a graduate assistant under Strobel. Once he finishes grad school,Trenge hopes to become a middle school science teacher and high school wrestling coach in the area.

"This sport has given me a chance to get a great education at Lehigh and to meet many amazing people," Trenge says. "When my time is done here at Lehigh, I want to give back to the sport, to help other kids chase their dreams."


--Bill Doherty

Posted on Thursday, August 12, 2004

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