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Ohio St v. Xavier ncaa tournament Credit: Fred David

Strolling around campus, it’s common to walk alongside a Nobel Laureate or Rhodes Scholar.

But amidst all of Penn’s academic celebrities, don’t be surprised if you also find yourself face-to-face with an Olympic contender — former Penn wrestling phenomenon Matt Valenti.

Valenti, who returned to his alma mater in July as an assistant wrestling coach, has his eyes set on making the 2012 London Games as a 60-kilogram freestyle wrestler.

Arguably the greatest grappler to don the Red and Blue, Valenti holds the all-time Penn record for wins with 137 and was the second Penn wrestler ever to win two NCAA National Championships.

With such a resume, it would have been easy for Valenti to rest on his laurels. But there is a reason why the 2007 Ivy League Wrestler of the Year is known for his indomitable work ethic.

The New Jersey native is currently in Colorado Springs to train at the U.S. Olympic Training Center.

The two-week training camp will be crucial for Valenti as he aims to compete in the 2010 World Team Trials — one of the intermediate goals the wrestler has set for himself — this June.

It will also be another opportunity to gain more mat experience in a different style. While Valenti wrestled some freestyle before coming to Penn, he will still have to make the transition from collegiate wrestling back to freestyle.

“The gist of freestyle wrestling is basically that there’s no top and bottom wrestling as we know it in college wrestling,” Valenti explained. “It’s a little more dynamic of a sport because it rewards throws.”

And competing against the best of the best has helped Valenti with the transition.

For example, Valenti recently had the opportunity to take the mat against two wrestlers from Japan, who were silver and bronze medalists in the 2008 Games.

Even when he is coaching, Valenti still finds time to train. He regularly squares up against juniors Bryan Ortenzio and Zack Kemmerer in order to keep himself — and the team ­­­ — sharp.

Between training at Hutchinson Gymnasium and wrestling in the Lehigh Valley Athletic Club, Valenti lives and breathes wrestling. According to coach Rob Eiter, what sets the Penn alum apart is his passion and willingness to learn.

“Matt’s always learning. He’s one of the very few athletes that he can literally watch something … and go do it,” Eiter said.

Penn’s wrestling coach knows a thing or two about what it takes to be an Olympian. Eiter represented the U.S. in the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics and will be helping Valenti with his technique, as well as the mental aspect of dealing with the pressure of representing one’s country.

“Being an Olympian, he understands the international wrestling and understands what works in the highest level of the sport,” Valenti said.

While Eiter said he does see some of himself in Valenti, he conceded that the comparison isn’t all that fair.

“To be honest with you, Matt’s so much better; he’s such a great athlete.” Eiter admitted.

And while Valenti’s talent has never been in question, the fact remains that there can only be one wrestler representing the United States at 60-kg in the 2012 London Games.

Here’s to hoping he’s ours.

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