In the fall of 2019, Kyle Snyder moved into his new coach’s basement.
This, perhaps, was not the destination people envisioned when they said the wrestler, once the youngest to ever win gold and the first three-time NCAA heavyweight champion in 30 years, was on the path to becoming the sport’s greatest of all time.
But by most accounts, the Woodbine, Maryland, native felt he needed a fresh start. And temporarily staying in Cael Sanderson’s home made sense as he uprooted his life to live in State College, Pennsylvania.
The move brought out plenty of doubters. Including some living just upstairs from the basement.
“My kids were a little bit younger and … they were kind of skeptical,” Sanderson said, referring to his two pre-teen sons. “‘Why is Kyle Snyder staying at our house?’”
Snyder, after all, had been the enemy. As Penn State’s wrestling coach, Sanderson was tasked with coming up with ways to stop Snyder at Ohio State — often failing in the process. With Snyder, the Buckeyes topped Penn State for the 2015 NCAA title and the Big Ten title in 2017 and 2018. Now, here Snyder was to team up with Sanderson, a retired legendary wrestler who himself won gold in 2004.
When wrestling kicks off this weekend in Tokyo, Snyder will look to build on his success from five years earlier, when at 20 he became the youngest ever to win gold. The 25-year-old American will be in rarefied company if he successfully defends his title. Only three American wrestlers — George Mehnert, Bruce Baumgartner and John Smith — have won gold more than once, and it hasn’t been done since Smith did it in 1992.
But Snyder, who competes at 214 lbs., enters this year’s Games without the aura of invincibility that followed him coming out of Rio. He finished second in an upset at the World Championships in 2018. And a year later in the same tournament, he experienced a shocking loss to place third.
Losses happen. Even the best wrestlers don’t steamroll the competition. But when you’re on the path that Snyder was — when greatness is the expectation — sometimes change is necessary. So, Snyder made the tough decision: He was joining Sanderson at the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club.
Understand that a wrestler’s peak can’t be taken for granted. The Olympics only come around every four years — technically, five in this case thanks to the pandemic. And after Rio, one gold medal is not enough.
“Kyle’s motivation is to be the best wrestler that ever walked on the planet,” said Steve Snyder, Kyle’s father. “I don’t think he really thinks in terms of winning medals. He looks at it more as long term — in his mind, he believes that he’ll be competing for the next 15 years and possibly beyond that.”
Making the switch
Snyder is no stranger to getting out of his comfort zone. When he was 17, Snyder chose to leave his rural hometown of Woodbine to focus on wrestling at the United States Training Center in Colorado Springs. He left friends, family and classmates behind.
It was a step he had to take. In three years of high school, his record was 179-0. His main sparring partner at Good Counsel, Spencer Neff, said he only took down Snyder once in that span — so surprising that the rest of their teammates erupted in delight.
“He would (then) lay it on me,” Neff said, “just to remind everyone that he’s one of the best in the country.”
Departing Columbus, where he attended college, was different. This time, according to Snyder’s father, the young wrestler was torn: He and his teammates had won three college championships. Two world titles. They had a bond.
“I tried really just to encourage him to think like, ‘This is more of a business decision for you,’ and get him out of the emotional side of that,” Steve Snyder told his son. “It was very, very hard. … If your gut is telling you this is what you have to do, this is what you have to do.”
When Snyder finally arrived at State College, Sanderson knew this wasn’t going to be a reclamation project. There would be no teardown, only to build him back up. Snyder was already a world-class wrestler and Sanderson wasn’t looking to make major changes.
Instead, Sanderson went in with the goal of trying to make Snyder less predictable. In any sport, great athletes have their calling cards. Michael Jordan’s turnaround jumper. Nolan Ryan’s fastball. Tom Brady’s vision. Snyder, too, had his bag of go-to moves — techniques that were often too strong and too fast to counter. Still, Sanderson was determined to have Snyder add more variety to his game. Attack more with the other hand. Switch things up. Add another option or two.
There was also the competition factor. At the Nittany Lion gym, Snyder wrestled regularly with Jake Varner — the former 2012 gold medal winner who Snyder beat in the 2016 Olympic Trials to qualify for Team USA. He also squared off against David Taylor, a fellow Olympian in the weight class below.
“I think that had a lot to do with him coming here,” Sanderson said.
Ohio State coach Tom Ryan said he understood Snyder’s decision. “I’d be lying if I said I wanted him to leave,” the coach said. But he knows his former star pupil “wants to make four or five Olympic teams … He’s in this for the long haul.”
A class of his own
Ryan saw Snyder’s lofty ambitions firsthand in college, but they were there long before.
Skylar Saar, Snyder’s high school coach, likes to talk about listening to music with Snyder — then just a freshman or sophomore — on the wrestler’s phone. One day, Saar picked it up to change the song and asked Snyder for the passcode to unlock the device. The answer? 2016 — a nod toward Rio.
Snyder was already thinking “Olympics.”
Those who know him call Snyder a natural wrestler, one who could instantly learn a technique just by watching it once. “For me, whenever we’d learn a new move, I’d have to drill it for an hour,” Neff says. “But Kyle … would just be able to do it without even having to try it.”
That ability to learn on the fly, combined with incomparable power and speed, made him formidable. But Saar said it’s Snyder’s relentlessness— he‘s instantly back in a wrestler’s face if he‘s able to get up off the ground — that wears opponents down. “It’s just exhausting,” said Saar, who sparred with Snyder through his junior year.
There are only a handful of wrestlers who can relate to that type of excellence, wrestlers who understand the physical and mental commitment it takes to punish an opponent on the mat.
When Smith, a two-time gold medalist who won in 1988 and 1992, was preparing for his second Olympics, Smith used the final weeks before the Games to make sure he was in the right frame of mind. He understood that these Olympics would be his last, that he was no longer at his physical peak. But, he said, Smith was determined to “wrestle without fear.”
He urged Snyder to take the same approach for Tokyo.
“When we see him wrestle at his best, he’s exceptionally good,” said Smith, now the wrestling coach at Oklahoma State. “There’s been times since that last Olympics we’ve seen him not wrestle good. And so this is the time — you don’t look at your career as, ‘I can wrestle another Olympics.’ You look at your career as, ‘This could be my last match. This could be my last tournament.’
“Don’t convince yourself that you have another one. Convince yourself this could be the end.”
A second gold medal for Snyder is far from guaranteed. The two wrestlers who beat him in the world championships — Russia’s Abdulrashid Sadulaev in 2018 and Azerbaijan’s Sharif Sharifov in 2019 — are still out there. Sadulaev will represent Russia in Tokyo as the world’s top seed, while Sharifov also qualified. There’s also a third wrestler — Iran’s Mohammad Hossein Mohammadian, who pinned Snyder at a tournament in 2020 —that made the Olympics and could be standing directly in Snyder’s way.
Those close to Snyder say he embraces that challenge. During Snyder’s senior year at Ohio State, Snyder suffered a rare loss in a dual with Michigan — falling to Adam Coon, giving him his first defeat since his freshman year. Snyder, though, faced Coon two more times in the next month: Once in the Big Ten final and another in the NCAA championship.
Snyder prevailed both times, avenging his losses.
“As tall as the task might be,” Ryan said, “it’s hard to bet against Kyle because of the way he lives his life and his belief system and what he trusts.”