2016 Rio Olympics: Ohio State's Kyle Snyder, who has won at every level, is going for gold
Stephen and Tricia Snyder saw the ad for a local wrestling club in their Woodbine, Maryland, neighborhood 15 years ago, considered the household breakables and decided to take their rambunctious 5-year-old son Kyle in for a test grapple.
"He was athletic at an early age," said Stephen Snyder, a former college football player. "He would wrestle with me. He would wrestle with his mom. He would wrestle with the other kids. He was like a lot of boys: He loved aggressive play. We saw the advertisement and thought that might be a place for him to do that without destroying the house. So we signed him up to see what would happen. Here we are."
"Here" this week is in Rio de Janeiro, where the Snyder family will watch Kyle represent the United States in the 97-kilogram weight class in the freestyle wrestling competition for the Olympic Games.
A junior at Ohio State, Kyle Snyder is the reigning world champion in the 213-pound weight class. He was 19 years old in September 2015 when he won that title in Las Vegas, making him the youngest world champion in U.S. senior freestyle history.
Snyder followed that by winning the 285-pound weight class in the NCAA tournament for the Buckeyes in April. It was a nice accomplishment for a 5-foot-11, 225-pound ball of energy who now is 20. Olympic and NCAA ambitions never entered the mind of his 5-year-old self. He was having too much fun within each roll around the mat. And besides, he had no knowledge of either.
"I liked wrestling with people even though I didn't know what I was doing," Snyder said. "I don't think anything clicked immediately. I just loved fighting with people and messing with my two brothers."
His parents also made sure that Stephen Jr., Kyle, Kevin and sister Megan had well-rounded lives. Kyle played football, baseball, basketball and lacrosse. He was good at all of them.
Stephen Jr., a West Point graduate and former wrestler for the Black Knights, is three years older than Kyle. When Stephen Snyder coached his oldest son's baseball team, he took Kyle along to watch.
"He wound up being one of the better players on the team," Stephen Sr. said. "You could see that he had great hand-eye coordination. He's just one of those kids that everything seemed to come easy for him. He was a great football player. If he had been taller there's no question in my mind that he'd be playing in the NFL."
Kyle stuck with football and wrestling the longest. The more he wrestled, the more the sport drew him.
"I started learning more and getting better and better," he said. "I was always good for my age and my weight. Then I started wrestling kids that were older than me. I've always been pretty strong. In middle school, I started getting bigger than everybody else. I was 100 pounds in the sixth grade and 150 in the seventh. In the eighth grade I was 210."
In the ninth grade, Snyder won his first Maryland high school state championship. He would win two more in the 10th and 11th grades while compiling a 179-0 record for Our Lady of Good Counsel.
"My sophomore year I quit playing football," he said. "Wrestling became year-around."
People within the sport noticed. USA wrestling came calling with an offer for its junior program.
Snyder won a gold medal at the junior world championships in 2013 and spent his senior year of high school training at the USA Olympic facility in Colorado Springs.
College coaches such as Ohio State's Tom Ryan also watched Snyder with hopes of adding him to the program. Ryan said his jaw dropped upon seeing Snyder wrestle in person.
"I thought, 'Oh my God, this guy is a freak show. We've got to get him to Ohio State,'" Ryan said. "As a coach, you're taught to look for red flags. There were no red flags with him. I met his family. In every area of his life, he had a desire to be elite."
During his junior year, Kyle called Ryan on Jan. 1, 2013, to commit to the Buckeyes.
"It was the best news I had all that year," Ryan said.
Once Snyder arrived in Columbus, Ryan and associate head coach Lou Rosselli began to realize the depth of Snyder's passion for wrestling.
"We knew that Kyle had great potential," said Rosselli, a member of the USA Olympic team coaching staff. "Once he got here, he showed his work ethic. He can do two-a-day workouts all day long. Some people have to learn how to train. With Kyle, his work ethic matches his talent level. The result is: best in the world."
As an OSU freshman, Snyder wrestled his way to the NCAA championship match at 197 pounds but made a mistake in the finals and lost by a pin to Iowa State's Kyven Gadson. He found himself caught between Ohio State's first NCAA team championship and a crushing personal loss.
"The next day, he was back in the gym working out," Ryan said. "It wasn't like he needed a shift in his life. He just kept doing what he was doing."
Rosselli saw the same determination.
"The loss where he made the mistake, I think, catapulted him to do more," he said. "All of a sudden growth happens."
Snyder started preparing for the 2015 USA senior team trials where defending Olympic gold medalist Jake Varner was the heavy favorite at 97 kilograms. He had watched and rooted for Varner to win the gold medal in the London Olympics. Something did click for him then.
"I watched the Olympics in 2008," Snyder said. "In 2012, I really started watching it and decided it was something I wanted to do."
He would look across the mat at Varner in the finals of the team trials and feel a tingle.
"I was excited by it," Snyder said. "I knew that he was somebody I had to beat to make the team. He's always been really good. He's still really good. I just felt comfortable in the situation and I believed in myself."
He upset Varner in two straight matches to make the U.S. squad and wound up defeating defending world champion Abdusalam Gadisov of Russia for the gold medal in September. His age didn't matter.
"They don't care how young I am," Snyder said. "And I don't care how old they are. It's about seeing who's the better wrestler."
He celebrated the victory and returned to Ohio State to take what was supposed to be an Olympic redshirt season. He would train in Columbus and wrestle international events while preparing for the Games. Midway through the season, Snyder decided to sacrifice the redshirt and wrestle for the Buckeyes as an undersized heavyweight.
With the help of Tervel Dlagnev, his training partner and the USA Olympic heavyweight in 2012 and this year, Snyder won the Big Ten title and upset two-time defending NCAA champion Nick Gwiazdowski of North Carolina State in the championship final.
"There are sacrifices that you have to make," Snyder said. "But they don't seem like sacrifices to me because I like what I'm doing. I'm really passionate about it."
He defeated Varner in two of three matches in the team trials after the NCAA season to punch his ticket to Rio. He will wrestle on the final day of the Olympics. Ryan will be in the crowd with the Snyder family.
"When he's on the mat, there's a sense of love," Ryan said. "He wears that love for what he does on his sleeve. It's easy to see. Great-grandma can come into the arena and sense that this guy really loves what he is doing."
Snyder wants to show everyone that and more in the finale.
"I love it. End it with a big day," he said. "I think it's going to be the last thing that people remember. I've been preparing for this for a long time. I want to prove to myself that I'm the best wrestler in the world."
This article was written by Jim Massie from The Columbus Dispatch and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.