Q&A with Wrestler Bernstein ’18: Technique Over Strength

On 17 March in St. Louis, Navy wrestler Jadaen Bernstein ’18 scored an 8-0 major decision over Rutgers’ Jordan Pagano at Bernstein’s third NCAA Championship, and that win put the 174-pounder once again in some elite company at Navy. Bernstein, who two years ago became the first plebe to win an Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association title since heavyweight Dan Hicks did it in 1992, became just the 14th Navy wrestler ever to notch three, 30-win seasons and the first since Bryce Saddoris ‘11, who pulled off that feat four times. Later on 17 March, Bernstein–entering the blood round and just one victory away from achieving All-America status–fell behind early and could not recover against Illinois’ Zach Brunson, who controlled the match and took a 12-2 victory. A former three-sport standout at Voorhees High School in Glen Gardner, NJ, Bernstein spent three seasons there as team captain, placed second twice at the New Jersey State Championship and graduated as the school’s all-time leading winner with a record of 135-9. Bernstein also followed two siblings at the Academy–his brother, Dantaun Bernstein ’16, and his sister, LeShay, a 2011 graduate who also was a member of the track and field team. Writer Gary Lambrecht recently chatted with Jadaen.

Q: When you look back on three seasons that ended at the NCAA tournament, is your first instinct to celebrate the achievement of qualifying each year, or is it to deal with the disappointment that comes with failing to win a championship or earn the All-America recognition you obviously want?

A: In my freshman year, I wanted to make the NCAAs, and when I won the conference and the EIWA [titles] that was huge. At the beginning of that year, I did not think I’d win the conference. But once I got to the NCAAs, I think I was content just being there. For the past couple of years, after seeing how I was good enough to get there and where I could be at the end, it’s been more about disappointment.

Q: You were the first plebe to win an EIWA title since 1992. Do you have any idea how many first-year wrestlers have come and gone at Navy since that last happened? With the adverse circumstances that mark a plebe’s daily existence, does that accomplishment impress you?

A: Looking back, I don’t think being a plebe made much a difference. Sure, there’s a lot of sleep deprivation and a lot of stuff you have to do in the [Bancroft] Hall, but whether you’re a freshman or a sixth-year senior with an Olympic redshirt, it’s still collegiate wrestling and you still have to beat the guy in front of you. In terms of how I did it, so many people had something to do with it–the coaching staff, the seniors who helped me that year, my workout partner, my high school coach. I think I only own about one-hundredth of that medal. It really does take a village.

Q: How long did it take to let go of that final loss to Brunson at the NCAAs this year? Or does that kind of defeat stay in your system?

A: I’m not replaying the match against Brunson. There weren’t one or two things I did wrong that I wish I could change. I just didn’t wrestle my best. I didn’t get to the positions I’d gotten to earlier in the day. That’s why Brunson dominated me. I wish I could re-start the whole match over again and make the kind of in-match adjustments I’d made in my first two matches. I felt I was wrestling really well that day.

Q: What is more important in wrestling, strength or technique?

A: Technique wins out over strength. Wrestling is really a violent chess match. There’s a counter to every move, a counter to every counter. It’s all about which guy is quicker and better at setting everything up and which guy is crisper with his technique and gets to the position he wants, gets to the shots he wants and executes his game plan. Whoever makes the best in-match adjustments usually comes out on top. There’s no break between periods, no halftime to make adjustments. It’s all on the mat and all in your head.

Q: As the youngest of three Bernstein children who have attended the Naval Academy, was your decision to come to Navy pre-ordained?

A: My family kind of turned into a military family. My oldest sister enlisted in the Marines. My second oldest sister came here and my brother came here. I guess you could say I was kind of pulled here. But I remember when I was a junior in high school I realized that wrestling was going to end at some point. This place was the best option for me. I can serve my country, get a free education and get a degree from the USNA. I can always have a job and I get to do some cool stuff [in the military]. I extended my wrestling career by five years [including a year at NAPS], and I might get to wrestle more in the Marine Corps.

Q: Wrestling is such a grueling sport. Give me some examples of your battles with injury or other adversity on the mat.

A: I got a concussion at the NCAAs last year in the quarterfinals [against Nathan Jackson of Indiana]. On a double leg move, we hit each other head-to-head. I don’t know how I convinced the doctors that I didn’t have a concussion. It was 2-2 in the middle of the second period when I got hit. I got back on the mat and wrestled terribly and lost, 14-4. I wanted to keep going [in a consolation round], but our team doctor pulled the plug on that. Also in my sophomore year, I was so sick wrestling at Lehigh that I threw up five times after the match. I got up 8-4 in the first period with four takedowns. I’m wrestling really well. Then I remember looking over at my team, and I start seeing spots and almost start to black out. I held on for an 18-17 win.

Q: After becoming one of the few Navy wrestlers to win at least 30 matches in three straight seasons, does that milestone satisfy you?

A: To me, it’s just a number. Thirty wins are nice to have, but at the end of the day, I’d take a lot fewer wins, while winning a national championship. I want those five wins [at the NCAAs] that really count.

 

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