World champion wrestlers and Maryland natives Kyle Snyder and Helen Maroulis teamed up with the Casey Cares Foundation to put a smile on some kids faces before the holiday. (Tim Schwartz/Baltimore Sun video)
Before he could become truly great — and he'll tell you his plan is to be the best wrestler ever — Kyle Snyder needed to stop caring about winning and losing.
Easier said than done.
He had never lost a match in high school, not one, then bawled in the shower after he was pinned in the 2015 NCAA championship final as a freshman at Ohio State. Snyder had yearned to join the exclusive club of wrestlers with four NCAA titles. And the abrupt halt to that quest about crushed him.
Only it didn't.
The other thing you need to know about the 20-year-old Snyder, who wrestles Sunday at the Rio Olympics in the 97-kg (213-pound) class, is that he embraces suffering. All wrestlers do to some degree. But Snyder lives for that moment when he looks across at his opponent during a match and senses the guy retreating from the pain. He believes you have to love the pain as much as the glory.
So he accepted the memory of Iowa State's Kyven Gadson hooking his leg and slamming him to the mat during the 2015 NCAA final — the biggest match of his life at the point. And he transcended it.
From that moment on, Snyder, who grew up in Woodbine, would treat wrestling as an artistic quest rather than a compilation of wins and losses. He would try to wrestle the most beautiful matches ever seen on this planet.
"That's my goaI," he said. "I want to be the best wrestler who ever lived, and that doesn't mean accomplishment-wise. I want to just technically and mentally and physically be the best wrestler anybody has ever seen."
He's not there yet, by his reckoning. But some of the best wrestlers and coaches in the world say he's well on his way.
"Kyle Snyder is the best wrestler ever," wrote Jordan Burroughs, an Olympic gold medalist and three-time world champion, in a March Twitter post.
"He's so good," Burroughs said recently after leading a clinic at Morgan State. "I always tell him he reminds me of me when I first graduated from college, but he's a couple years younger. … So he's a whole cycle ahead of me and doing things that I only dreamed of when I was 19 or 20 years old."
After his deliberate choice to stop obsessing over results, Snyder took off. Last September, he stunned everyone but those in his inner circle by sweeping to a world championship at age 19, the youngest American wrestler ever to do so. He had planned to take a year away from Ohio State to prepare for the Olympics but changed his mind in the middle of last season and captured the NCAA 285-pound title from the seemingly unbeatable Nick Gwiazdowski.
Just like that, he announced he was the future of the sport in this country.
"When you watch Kyle Snyder, what you're seeing is potential realized," said Tom Ryan, his coach at Ohio State. "Now, 99 percent of the time, that doesn't happen. So you ask yourself, what makes this person different? Well, I've been around many people who love this sport. But this guy is at an extraordinary level in terms of having a deep love of what he's doing."
The least surprised observers were those who've been around Snyder the longest.
"We're kind of at a point where it's not a shock," said his dad, Steve. "We're way beyond doubting him."
As Kyle developed in the Warhawks wrestling club and then at Good Counsel High School, Steve often told him he would surely lose one day. He wanted his son to know it would be OK to falter. Only Kyle never did — he went 179-0 in three years of high school wrestling, blitzing through the toughest tournaments in the country.
When he was a toddler, his parents noticed the uncommon coordination with which he bounded around the family home. But Kyle was more than athletic. He sought contact, even if that meant rough-housing with his brother, Steven, three years his elder.
"They broke a sectional [sofa]," their mother, Tricia, recalled. "And the repair guy came in and looked at them. He said, 'I'll make it bulletproof.' But yeah, holes in the walls, just from running and falling into a wall. They were rolling, touching, grabbing, in the car or wherever. They were just in constant motion."
Kyle hadn't even reached first grade when his parents took him to South Carroll High School to practice with the Warhawks.
Kyle Snyder of Woodbine won the world wrestling championship at 97 kilograms by beating Russian Abdulsalam Gadisov on Friday in Las Vegas.
By Luke Meredith
Sep 12, 2015 at 1:57 AM
Snyder possessed rare gifts for analyzing his opponents and devising new plans of attack. He wore out his phone and his iPad watching videos of Olympians Burroughs and Cael Sanderson. Then he put his own twists on their best moves. These skills were the seeds of the craft he's still honing today.
"I'm not really that artistic of a guy," he said. "I can't really draw. But wrestling might be … it just makes sense to me."
Snyder eventually ran out of viable competition in high school. But coaches at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs had noticed him and extended an unusual offer. Skip your senior year of wrestling, they told him, and move west to train with the national team.
"It wasn't too difficult of a decision," said Snyder, who graduated from a nearby high school in Colorado Springs. "I was mature even when I was younger in high school, and I knew what I wanted to do with my life. It was the next step to go there and train with the toughest guys."
The same logic steered him to Ohio State, where he felt he'd have the best training partners available in college wrestling. By then, the pressure to be perfect had begun to mount. Not only had Snyder never lost a high school match, Buckeyes fans viewed him as the prodigy who would take a rapidly improving program over the top.
"You're Kyle Snyder's mom?" one man said to Tricia at the team's early season wrestle-offs. "We've been waiting for you."
His parents believe he crashed so hard after losing the NCAA final as a freshman in part because he had accepted the burden of such expectations.
Pain still flashed across Steve's face as he described his son's sobs at the team hotel in St. Louis.
"We didn't know what to even say," he remembered. "It had nothing to do with the fact he lost or that he got pinned on ESPN. What was killing me was I knew how upset he was."
The irony was Kyle had helped Ohio State capture the team national championship. So he had to compose himself for the celebration that evening.
Within a few days, he was set on his new course.
"My goals have kind of changed over the last two years," he said. "I used to just want to win every match. If I won every match, I was happy. But then you lose a couple matches, don't wrestle that well in some, and you're not that happy.
"So I changed my goals to instead of thinking about winning and losing, I'm more just focused on the effort I put into each match and myself as a wrestler."
Maryland is celebrating an abundance of golden moments at the Olympics, claiming an outsized haul of medals not only from Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky, but also from lesser-known swimmers who have followed in their wake and reinforced the state's reputation as a hub of high-level aquatics.
From the moment on New Year's Eve when Snyder announced his unexpected return for his sophomore season at Ohio State, wrestling geeks buzzed about a possible showdown between him and Gwiazdowski, a 255-pound bear from N.C. State who had won the last two NCAA titles in the 285-pound class.
Gwiazdowski was up to 88 wins in a row and had 35 pounds on Snyder when the two met at a sold-out Madison Square Garden in March. It was the most-hyped collegiate wrestling battle in some time, and Snyder loved every bit of the build-up.
"I think it invigorated him for months leading up to it," Ryan said.
In this case, reality did not disappoint. Gwiazdowski led 5-3 with 22 seconds left in the third period when Snyder lunged in and snared his legs for a two-point takedown. Then, 25 seconds into overtime, Snyder cinched his arms around Gwiazdowski's massive thighs and bulled him to the mat for another takedown, this one decisive.
Snyder followed that up by beating 2012 gold medalist Jake Varner two out of three times at Olympic Trials to earn his spot in Rio. His parents and two of his three siblings will be there to cheer after a successful Go Fund Me campaign to cover their travel expenses. Saar and Ryan will be there as well, having learned never to turn down a front-row seat for the Snyder show.
Given his age, Snyder could wrestle in at least three Olympics if he stays healthy. He's talked to friends about wrestling in four or five.
"He works hard, he's coachable, he's just a great dude all around and he's going to be the face of USA wrestling when I step away from the sport," Burroughs said. "He's going to be the guy everyone looks up to, if they're not already."
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Tim Schwartz contributed to this article.