Kyle Snyder knew it was time to turn his world upside down two years ago.
The Woodbine native had been widely considered the best pound-for-pound wrestler in the world in 2017. Who could argue, really? Snyder had three straight NCAA championships, two straight world championships, an Olympic gold medal and a victory over Russian prodigy Abdulrashid Sadulaev in what fans dubbed the “Match of the Century.”
But 2018 and 2019 were not so kind. Sadulaev pinned Snyder’s shoulders to the mat in a World Championship rematch, and the next year, the American star lost before he could even make it to chapter three in their series. Beyond the results, he felt his lifelong quest to perfect his craft stagnating.
Snyder talked it over with his dad, Steve, and a few other trusted advisers. He prayed on it. He listened to his wife, Maddie, who told him to go wherever his passion called him. So he uprooted his training base at Ohio State, where he’d won those three college championships, and moved to State College, Pennsylvania, where he’d always been the enemy. For the first few months, while his wife completed a medical internship in Philadelphia, he lived in the basement of Penn State wrestling coach Cael Sanderson.
“The simple truth is I need to get better,” he wrote in a letter posted to social media Oct. 10, 2019.
The time has come for Snyder to test that choice. He’s in Tokyo as the defending Olympic gold medalist in the 97-kilogram (213.9-pound) freestyle class. He’s also an underdog, with Sadulaev, now the consensus best wrestler in the world, looming at the top of a loaded bracket. For an athlete who has always courted pain and sought matchups against the biggest, best foes, this scenario could hardly be more appealing.
“It’s motivating,” Snyder said over a recent Zoom call from Japan.
Team USA freestyle head coach Bill Zadick, who has known Snyder since he was a high school phenom in Maryland, is struck by the Olympic champion’s relentless thirst for improvement, even when it requires uncomfortable decisions.
“He’s a unique individual,” Zadick said. “He’s of course a great athlete, but his mind and his … life philosophy, are what make Kyle the most unique and separates him from others. I think he looks really sharp right now. I think his mind is in a great place, and he’s going to compete at a super-high level.”
Snyder, 25, has used defeat as a springboard before. As a freshman at Ohio State, he wept in disappointment after Iowa State’s Kyven Gadson pinned him in the NCAA final, smothering his dream of winning four college championships. The setback was a shock; Snyder had gone 179-0 in three years at Good Counsel and spent his senior year of high school at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado. How could the future star of Team USA lose to a regular college All-American like Gadson?
Six months later, Snyder won his first world championship at age 19. He was 20 when he beat Khetag Gazyumov of Azerbaijan in the Olympic gold medal match in Rio de Janeiro.
As he looked for another reset in the wake of his 2019 disappointments, he turned to one of the few U.S. wrestlers whose record stacks up to his own. Sanderson went undefeated in 159 matches at Iowa State and won a 2004 Olympic gold medal in the 84-kilogram freestyle class. He’s been just as successful at coaching, winning eight national titles in 12 years at Penn State.
Sanderson’s gravitational pull has attracted a growing crew of Olympians to the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club, from former Iowa standout Thomas Gilman to Rockville native Helen Maroulis, who won a 2016 gold medal in the women’s 53-kilogram freestyle class. He has 2012 97-kilogram Olympic champion, Jake Varner, on his staff.
With so much talent around, the daily attention to detail is remarkable, said former Penn State All-American David Taylor, who will represent the U.S. in the 86-kilogram freestyle class in Tokyo.
“In terms of what it takes to achieve something at the highest level, you can just look at your teammates and coaches and do what they do,” Taylor said.
Sanderson is what Taylor called “calming presence” at the center of it all.
“You just know that everything he says, there’s a reason,” he said.
“It takes a ton of humility,” added Gilman, who will represent the U.S. in the 57-kilogram freestyle class. “Because once you’ve reached a certain level, it’s hard to want people to surpass you.”
Sanderson is one of the few people Snyder has met who can match his passion for wrestling, not winning but the craft of it. At age 42, he still gets on the mat with his star pupils.
“That’s something you can’t really fake, the way you feel about the sport,” Snyder said. “You can just kind of tell by the way people act when they’re out on the mat. He really loves wrestling. When your leader loves what they do, it spreads to people.”
Snyder’s choice to relocate stunned many in the wrestling world, but he has no doubt he went to the right place to prepare for Tokyo.
“That decision has been a great decision,” he said, reflecting on his 21 months in State College. “I’ve gotten a lot better since I’ve been there, and I love the people I’m around.”
Though Snyder hasn’t lost since January 2020, he also hasn’t faced the best international competition since he made the move to train with Sanderson. Fans anticipated a major showdown at U.S. Olympic trials, where 2016 bronze medalist J’den Cox planned to move up a weight class to challenge Snyder for his Team USA spot. Instead, Cox was bounced from the tournament because of a miscommunication with his coach over the timing of a weigh-in.
Rather than face Cox, a respected rival since junior wrestling days, Snyder easily defeated Kollin Moore to make his second Olympic team and move toward a potential third match with Sadulaev.
Snyder has acknowledged that Sadulaev, also 25, makes him think harder than any other opponent. The Russian pulled him out of his comfort zone in their 2018 match, luring Snyder into a higher stance that exposed his leg. After his pinfall loss, Snyder vowed to study his nemesis more closely.
“I just thought that I could wrestle hard enough that I could beat people. It worked out well for a lot of tournaments,” he told NBC Sports in 2019. “I’ve prepared and learned more about Sadulaev and a couple more guys in my weight class that present some difficult challenges that I just want to understand more. I do well when I have something to focus on.”
On the recent Zoom call from Japan, Snyder said he still focuses more on his technique than on the tactics of any specific opponent. He has to worry about multiple Olympic threats, from No. 3 seed Alisher Yergali of Kazakhstan to Mohammad Hossein Mohammadian of Iran and Sharif Sharifov of Azerbaijan, who’ve both beaten him in the last two years. But he knows the man he will probably have to defeat on Aug. 7 to claim another gold medal.
Sadulaev, who won the 86-kilogram gold medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio and is known as the “Russian Tank,” has not lost to anyone since Snyder beat him, 6-5, in the “Match of the Century” four years ago.
“The most important part of the preparation is getting myself ready, working on the things that are going to be beneficial versus any of my opponents,” Snyder said. “But yeah, I’m motivated and ready to wrestle those guys.”