January 30, 2007

Leen Shines for Wrestling

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Some guys just know how to win. Despite not being the biggest athlete, Cornell wrestler Jordan Leen has experienced sucecss at all levels of competition.

In fact, few athletes come to Cornell as highly decorated as Leen did. Over the course of his four-year career at the Baylor School in Soddy Daisy, Tenn., he helped his program establish itself as a wrestling powerhouse while accomplishing impressive individual feats.

Like many of his collegiate teammates, Leen was a dominant wrestler in high school, winning the state championp four times at 130 pounds. Even amongst a group of some of the most talented wrestlers in the nation, the junior’s lengthy list of high school accolades stands out. During his senior season, Leen became the all-time winningest wrestler in Tennessee history with 214 victories; helped Baylor capture its third state title and second state dual meet championship; defended his No. 1 InterMat ranking by taking first-place at the NHSCA Seniors National Wrestling Championships; and even made it onto Sports Illustrated’s popular “Faces in the Crowd” feature. Despite his success, Leen never felt he was that dominant.

“It actually wasn’t all that glorious for me. … I was really a work in progress,” Leen said. “I got really lucky in some matches earlier in my career, especially in the state finals my freshman year, when I pinned a kid down 8-0 with 30 seconds left.”

As would become a recurring theme throughout his wrestling career, Leen always found a way to win. Although many high school wrestlers often have trouble adjusting to the level of competition presented by Division-I programs, Leen — despite moving up to 141 pounds — continued his success on the mat. During his freshman campaign with the Red, Leen battled his teammates and eventually earned a starting spot, accumulating a 25-16 overall record and a 5-0 mark against Ancient Eight opponents.

“Just making the lineup was the hardest part,” Leen said. “In the practice room, [head coach Rob] Koll always said I was maybe the fourth or fifth best guy — but I always won.”

This type of gritty attitude also translated to the big stage as Leen rose to the occasion throughout his freshman season at Cornell. For instance, after an opening-round loss in the EIWA tournament, he rebounded by winning four straight matches, earning third place and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. These accomplishments were impressive enough to earn Leen even more hardware for his trophy case, picking up not only first-team All-Ivy honors but also the Ivy League Rookie of the Year award.

He credits most of that success to the confidence Koll instilled in him as soon as he joined the program.

“I can’t say how much Koll has done for me, but we definitely have the best coaching staff in the country,” Leen said. “He has taught me to believe in myself. When I was struggling early on freshman year, he pulled me into his office and said you’re going to win a national title one day, just keep working.”

After his spectacular rookie season, however, Leen took an unorthodox route by leaving Cornell for a year to work as an intern for a notable medical practitioner in Chattanooga, Tenn., an experience he felt was beneficial to his wrestling career.

“Above all, it just gave me a year to grow and mature, which I needed,” Leen said.

After returning for his junior year, Leen picked up his collegiate career right where he left off, mowing down opponents left and right in his charge for a national championship. Leen — ranked No. 4 nationally at 149 by InterMat — is 24-3 on the season, with all three losses coming against higher ranked opponents. He lost two close matches to No. 1 Dustin Schlatter of Minnesota as well as one to No. 3 Josh Churella of Michigan.

“All three were two or three point matches,” he said. “When you get up to the top-15 guys, every match is that close.”

As the season winds down and the national championship clock in the Friedman Wrestling Center methodically ticks down to zero, Leen’s expectations are as high as they have ever been.

“I expect to win a national title,” he said. “There is really no reason I can’t; the guy who wins the national tourney isn’t always the best guy, just the one who has the best tourney. So that’s what I need to do. … I believe I’m the best kid in the country. No one else does though.”