Before he was an NCAA team champion and a United States Open champion and the youngest world champion in the history of United States freestyle wrestling, Kyle Snyder was still a high school junior who needed no introduction.
His spot on the Olney (Md.) Good Counsel wrestling team took him to the Battle of the Bay Tournament in St. Michael’s, Md., in January 2013. Bill Haufe, the sports editor at the local Star-Democrat newspaper, had been told to watch out for the DC-area kid whose high school career record included nearly 150 wins and no losses.
“I had heard about this guy named Kyle Snyder that everyone said I had to see but nobody had pointed him out to me,” Haufe said. “I just thought I’d watch and see if I could figure out who he was without anyone telling me. They’re between rounds and the kids are milling around on the mat and I see this kid walking around on his hands better than most kids were on their legs. He was just walking around upside down like it was nothing.
“I turned to one of the local coaches and said, ‘Let me guess… that’s Kyle Snyder.’”
Indeed it was.
Snyder rolled through that tournament and made quick work of a talented field, but what really stuck with Haufe – other than that wild first impression – was the interview he did with the champion at the end of the day.
“This is something I’ve never forgotten,” Haufe said. “He said, ‘I want to go to a Division I school, I want to win four NCAA championships, I want to go to the Olympics and win a gold medal and then I want to become a coach and coach a team to a national championship.’
“He said it with no arrogance. Here’s a young guy who knew what he wanted to do and said it without bragging. It wasn’t like athletes who thump their own chest. He just knew what he wanted.”
Snyder developed into the No. 1 wrestling recruit in the nation, making it pretty easy for him to check off the first item on the list. His first NCAA season at Ohio State ended with the program’s first ever team title, but he fell short of his own goal when a slip-up in the NCAA final at 197 pounds ended with a pin – which he estimated was the first time he’d been pinned in competition since fifth grade.
Snyder had been controlling the match, but it was Iowa State’s Kyven Gadson who had his arm raised in the end. With that, his dream of matching fellow Buckeye Logan Stieber’s four NCAA titles was over before it really got started.
“I think he brought to reality that in life, a simple mistake can cost you big,” Ohio State head coach Tom Ryan said. “A simple mistake can cost you big. He made a simple mistake. He was going to win the match, but he didn’t.”
One day later, he was lifting weights. Snyder estimated that he took two or three days off from wrestling after the tough defeat, but the weights couldn’t wait. Awaiting Snyder was a gauntlet of freestyle events, a discipline that the Maryland native favors over the folkstyle used in NCAA competition because the style suits him better technically and because the 97 kg (213 pounds) suits him better than the 197-pound class in college.
“After the NCAAs, especially with the way it ended, I wasn’t finished training at all,” he said. “I knew I needed to get bigger and stronger if I wanted to wrestle at 97 kilograms, so the next day I was in here lifting. I took maybe two days off wrestling before getting back into it, but it wasn’t much of a break, just kind of a weekend.”
Snyder is currently taking an Olympic redshirt year to chase his dream of checking off the next box on the list, but that only became a possibility once he took the wrestling world by storm in the Summer of Snyder.
In early May, Snyder won the U.S. Open freestyle title at 97 kg, defeating 2012 Olympic gold medalist Jake Varner in the final. He followed that up by beating 2014 Worlds bronze medalist Javier Cortina Lacerra of Cuba, 4-0, in a match held at Times Square in New York City.
In mid-June, Snyder punched his own ticket to the World Championships by beating Varner two more times in the United States team trials. He improved upon his 2-1 win against Varner by scoring victories with margins of 4-1 and 3-0. That was followed by a gold medal in the Pan Am Games, where Snyder took down Canada’s Arjun Gill with a 10-0 technical fall that stopped the match.
All of that set the stage for the World Championships in Las Vegas, where Snyder advanced to the final and became the youngest senior world champ in USA history by beating Russia’s Abdusalam Gadisov, the defending champion, via criteria after tying at 5.
“It was a fun summer,” Snyder said. “I got to go to a bunch of different cool events, starting with the US Open. I had never wrestled in that before, so that was fun. The World team trials, that was exciting, making my first World team. The Pam-Am games were really cool because I kind of got that Olympic Village-type feel when I was there, so that was pretty exciting.
“The World Championships was just amazing. Having it in America and being able to compete in front of thousands of screaming American fans… I’d never really heard the “U-S-A!” chant for me before, and it’s extremely motivating and inspirational when I was on the mat and hearing them cheer.”
Although his September trip to the Worlds matched him up against the giants of the sport, Snyder had no problem betting on himself. He opened with a win over 2013 World bronze medalist Pablo Oliinyk of Ukraine and then beat Radoslaw Baran of Poland and Jose Diaz of Venezuela in the round of 16 and quarterfinals, respectively. He bested Abbas Tahan of Iran in the semifinal, setting the stage for a meeting with Gadisov.
“I always believed in myself and I had confidence that if I train as hard as I can and try as hard as I can while I’m competing and continue to try to learn, that I should be able to wrestle with anybody,” he said. “I grew up wrestling guys who had accomplished a lot of things, so that gave me confidence, too.”
Now Snyder is charting a course that will prepare him for the 2016 Olympics. On Dec. 11, he got back into competition at the Brazil Open, where he took 10-0 tech fall wins against both opponents to take yet another gold medal. Next, he’ll travel to the Yarygin Memorial in Russia in January and the Medved in Belarus in February. After that, the U.S. Olympic Trials in April will determine whether or not Snyder will go to Brazil in August to chase his dream.
Only months ago it would have been crazy to imagine Snyder moving up the ranks at such a breakneck pace, but he has a way of turning people into believers.
“I don’t know if I would have predicted him to win the Open the way he did or win the Worlds, but when you walk alongside him you think anything’s possible,” Ryan said.
Especially when he’s walking on his hands.