Monday, October 22, 2018

The Perfect Wrestler

By Dennis Young
October 18, 2018

This piece originally appeared on Victory Journal.

By March 2015, wrestler Kyle Snyder was used to winning. He had gone 179-0 against high school competition and won the world under-20 championships at just 17. Then, in 2015, his freshman year at Ohio State, Snyder lost the NCAA 197-pound* final to Iowa State senior Kyven Gadson. Immediately afterward, Snyder addressed a group of OSU boosters and donors at the tournament hotel. Despite the fact that his dream of being a four-time NCAA champ was dead, Snyder said, “If this is the worst thing that happens to be in my life, I’m a really fortunate guy.”

Snyder’s loss was almost certainly the worst thing that happened to the rest of the world’s men in his weight class. In the three years since, he’s racked up three straight global gold medals, two undefeated NCAA seasons, and three NCAA titles. His 2015 world championship at 19 was the youngest ever by an American; so was his 2016 Olympic gold. His third world championship, though, in 2017, was by far the most impressive. The then-consensus best pound-for-pound wrestler in the world, Abdulrashid “The Russian Tank” Sadulaev, moved up a weight class for the express purpose of taking on Snyder; it seemed that Sadulaev was almost bored with his weight class. Snyder–Sadulaev was the tournament finale and would decide the men’s freestyle team title.

USA Wrestling executive director Rich Bender explains that “most of the matches that are highly anticipated, especially with bigger guys, tend to be really boring, technical, and just not a lot of scoring.” Not this one. Only five seconds in, Snyder charged at Sadulaev, tried to push him out of bounds, and immediately got flipped over. Two-zero, Sadulaev. From there, Sadulaev subjected Snyder to a punishing series of assaults. Sadulaev tried to force Snyder out of bounds; Snyder snuck under him and picked up a point. Both wrestlers were “shooting”—trying to grab the other’s legs—at a ridiculous rate. Then, barely a minute in, Sadulaev picked up Snyder by the knee and carried him out of bounds for a 3-1 lead. Snyder recognized that his relentless offensive strategy wasn’t working, and he shifted to a slower pace and succeeded in pulling Sadulaev to the mat for a two-point takedown, making it a 3-3 tie heading into the final three-minute period. Witnessing the match unfold in front of him, one announcer breathlessly observed that “the difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to be believable.”

Sadulaev seemed to have taken total control of the match when, with two minutes left, he chased Snyder to the edge of the mat and took him down for a 5-3 lead. Snyder ended up on his knees twice after, narrowly averting disaster, but the score stayed at 5-3. (A takedown requires three body parts to be touching the mat.) Then, despite the fact that a 213-pound man had been pulling on his neck nonstop for five minutes, Snyder appeared to get a second wind. He may just have been letting Sadulaev tire himself out. Snyder shot at Sadulaev once and was barely held off; he shot again, this time pushing the Russian out of bounds. With 40 seconds left, it was 5-4, Sadulaev. But Sadulaev was clearly tired; he looked up at the clock. And then Snyder flipped Sadulaev onto his stomach to go up 6-5 and clinch the first men’s team title for the United States since 1995—the year Snyder was born. Snyder was now the best pound-for-pound wrestler in the world.

Kyle Snyder has two life goals: conduct himself as much like Jesus Christ as possible, and technically, creatively, and aesthetically master the sport of wrestling. The first is pretty straightforward, if by definition unattainable—though Ohio State head coach Tom Ryan speaks so effusively about how Snyder lives that he has to pull back and make it clear that Snyder is, in fact, not God.

The second is more elliptic: He wants to move beyond wins and losses and become the perfect wrestler. It’s not that Snyder lacks a competitive streak. He sheepishly tells a story of when he lost a beach volleyball tournament to his father’s team on a family vacation. Apparently, it was one aunt’s fault, and Kyle told her that she “sucked” and that her effort was poor. But Snyder finds pursuing gold medals fundamentally boring. “Winning what I’ve won at a young age helped me realize that that doesn’t completely fulfill you,” Snyder says. “I always dreamed of being an Olympic champion, and then when I won the Olympics I woke up the next morning and I didn’t feel any different.” Kyle’s younger brother, Kevin, also a wrestler on the Ohio State team, says, “If you want to win all the time, that’s just a hard life to live. It’s almost like when you win, it’s a sense of relief. . . . Wrestling is a martial art, and martial arts, there are always the masters. In a kung fu movie, there’s one guy who’s the greatest, and that’s who Kyle wants to be.”

Because of this, there’s a philosophical bent to the way Snyder trains. Ohio Regional Training Center head and OSU assistant Tervel Dlagnev, a two-time world bronze medalist whom Ryan calls the “Yoda of wrestling,” is most deeply involved with Snyder’s coaching. The 32-year-old Dlagnev, who can still hold his own against his charges on the mat, hates “suffer now and become a champion later” rhetoric. “I don’t want him to look back on his career and say, ‘I was legendary, but it sucked. I had no friends, I was miserable, but I did it.’ That’s such a clichéd story that’s not conducive to real life,” says Dlagnev. “I want him to love his time in the sport.”

Snyder does too: “Sacrifice is what people do when they don’t love what they’re doing.”

Both Snyder and Dlagnev agree that to master the sport, he needs to be more open, fluid, and aggressive. Dlagnev explains that maybe the biggest obstacle to Snyder becoming the perfect wrestler is that up to this point, his otherworldly combination of power and endurance has mostly led to winning. Snyder has more moves in his repertoire, but wrestling fans haven’t seen them yet because he hasn’t exactly needed them. During his freshman season, Snyder lost in the Big Ten final to Morgan McIntosh of Penn State. Shortly after that loss, Snyder came to Dlagnev and said he woke up in a panic after a dream where he had finished his wrestling career and realized that he had never touched his potential. Not that he had a dream where he didn’t win the Olympics, or the NCAA meet, but that he, as Dlagnev puts it, “didn’t see all of me.”

The most striking thing about Kyle Snyder’s physique is his back, which contains an enormous indent around his spine because the muscles on either side of it are so developed. Ryan says that when you hug Snyder, your entire hand fits in there. Because so much of wrestling starts with pulling on the opponent’s head and neck, the strength of the muscles on the posterior chain—the back of the body—is vital. Ryan, who has been a Division I head coach for more than 20 years, says it’s the strongest back he has ever seen.

But Snyder has never participated in the Ohio State strength-and-conditioning program. Instead, he credits his strength-and-conditioning guru, a family friend named Neil Serafenas, who was an elite shot putter. This is an unusual arrangement, but it suits him: “I think a lot of people are over-coached,” he says. “I like the relaxed culture of, if you need help, go ask coach.” Dlagnev is deeply involved with Snyder’s technical and tactical preparations, but other than that, it’s clear that Snyder makes a large amount of his own day-to-day decisions. He’s not brash about it, saying he frequently consults with his parents and coaches, but admits, “I know myself better than anyone else on this earth.”

Ryan and Snyder both give Serafenas an enormous amount of credit. Because of Serafenas’s blend of spirituality and science, he says, “I’ve never wrestled anyone of my weight class that feels stronger than me . . . My system is so much better than theirs that even if they’re taking [steroids], I’ll be able to beat them.” Serafenas also liberally incorporates spirituality into his coaching: “Neil talks to Him. He’ll pray, ask what type of thing he needs to do.” This suits Snyder. He was raised Catholic and went to Catholic high school, but says that he was too “immature” at the time for it to really set in. That changed during his senior year, when he moved from his family’s home in Woodbine, Maryland, to train with the country’s best wrestlers at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. The USA Wrestling coaches Gene Davis, Brandon Slay, and Bill Zadick hosted a weekly Bible study that Snyder began attending. By his own admission, he might have never gone if Davis and Slay weren’t Olympic medalists. But these conversations ended up changing Snyder’s life. He now hosts his own weekly group at the apartment that he shares with his brother and his fiancée, Maddie Pack, a Syracuse soccer player whom he met in high school. Religion runs deep in American wrestling. Many of the best wrestlers in the country, and their coaches, are devout Christians—both Ryan and Snyder tell me that they do not believe humans evolved from apes. But there are outliers, and Snyder says that when he engages with them, his attitude is, “if you disagree, let’s learn together.” With a smile on his face, Snyder recounts the time at a training camp when a Team USA teammate told him that he would “never believe unless Jesus literally walked through the door, in his flesh, and shook his hand and said, ‘Hi, I’m Jesus.’”

Snyder was paid $350,000 over his last three years at Ohio State for being good at wrestling; strangely, the NCAA knew about and blessed it. In the late 2000s, wrestling-obsessed billionaires Michael Novogratz and David Barry put huge sums in a pot now called the Living The Dream Medal Fund. At the high end, any American wrestler who won Olympic gold would get $250,000; a gold in the World Championship would net $50,000. These are eye-popping numbers for wrestling. There have always been a few meager endorsement contracts and USA Wrestling stipends available, but because they could earn more doing nearly anything else, many of the best Americans stopped competing entirely at a young age, like Cael Sanderson, or went into mixed martial arts after a short Olympic wrestling career, like Chael Sonnen, Ben Askren, and Daniel Cormier.

Part of Novogratz and Barry’s motivation was that wrestling wasn’t just struggling for relevance—it was facing extinction. In early 2013, the International Olympic Committee voted to remove the sport from the 2020 Olympics. This was largely blamed on wrestling’s international governing body, FILA, which had corrupt leadership, a poor relationship with the IOC, and a mediocre product. (It became so toxic in the process that it changed its name to United World Wrestling the next year.) Under well-coordinated international pressure, FILA changed the competition rules, added opportunities for women, and purged widely reviled president Raphael Martinetti. Just six months later, those changes were enough for the IOC to vote the sport back in.

The same year, NCAA rules changed, allowing undergraduates to receive payment from national federations for Olympic medals. (Novogratz and Barry’s fund routed payments through USA Wrestling to ensure compliance.) The payments made it easy for Snyder to stay in college, although he did consider turning pro at one point before ultimately listening to his father, who told him, “I didn’t know you wanted to be the richest man in the world—I thought you wanted to be the best wrestler.” His presence was unquestionably good for college sports, although the fact that the NCAA suddenly found some payments acceptable under amateurism wasn’t lost on the reformers suing the NCAA, who have cited these payments in court. And it isn’t lost on Snyder, who feels that “athletes should be able to make as much money as they can off their name. If Toyota wants to give a truck and a hundred thousand bucks to an Ohio State running back this year, let him do it.”

In addition to the one-off bonuses and an endorsement contract with Rudis, a wrestling apparel company, the Ohio RTC pays Snyder $110,000 a year. (Rudis was cofounded by Jeff Jordan, the brother of ultra-conservative congressman Jim Jordan and the father of Snyder’s teammates Bo and Micah Jordan. Multiple former Ohio State wrestlers have accused Jim Jordan of knowing that a school doctor sexually abused them while he was an assistant coach at the school.) All told, Snyder is easily one of the most well-compensated young American wrestlers ever. But he’s making a tiny fraction of what he would if he followed the well-tread path into the UFC. In the fall of 2016, Snyder set off a minor media furor by tweeting “I want to fight” at the UFC after attending an event. At the time, UFC heavyweight champion and former wrestler Daniel Cormier said that Snyder was “as blue as a blue chip prospect gets in any sport.” And it’s not totally off the table. After a hand-fighting workout against Kevin during which the pair took turns slapping each other on the shoulder very hard and usually laughing when on the receiving end, Snyder offhandedly joked, “I could go in the UFC right now.” But it’s clear that he has no plans to do so, in the short or long term. He wants to wrestle in five Olympics, through 2032, when he’d be 37—still two years younger than Cormier is now.

Kevin Snyder might know the clearest reason of all for Kyle sticking to wrestling: “I don’t think he likes getting punched in the face.” The writer John Irving has waxed about wrestling’s “safe return” rule, which requires wrestlers to bring their opponents safely to the mat after picking them up. Ryan calls wrestling “controlled violence” and contrasts it to MMA, where the objective is, as he puts it, to “concuss someone.”

The Biblical phrase “iron sharpens iron” is unsurprisingly popular across a range of macho sports, but it actually offers real insight in wrestling, where there’s no substitute for and little downside to practicing at full speed against the most formidable opponents possible. No amount of stultifying conditioning workouts or repetitive drills can serve as a substitute for the real thing.

At the beginning of the 2017–18 NCAA season, Snyder was on a collision course with Michigan behemoth Adam Coon, who presented a unique problem. Snyder wrestles against men his size internationally, but the lowest non-heavyweight classification in the NCAA is 197 pounds. The 6′ 6″, 285-pound Coon had redshirted the previous season and, allegedly, had grown in that time. Snyder, who is “just” 5′ 11″, 225, would have to go through Coon three times—a Michigan dual in February followed by the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments in March—to become the first man in 29 years to win three straight NCAA heavyweight titles.

Snyder searched the planet for one of the few men alive who could truly push him in practice. He found the ideal sparring partner in Turkish world and Olympic champion Taha Akgül, who is 6′ 4″, 265, and on any short list of the best wrestlers alive. Snyder direct-messaged Akgül on Instagram in English, Akgül used Google Translate to figure it out, and a mutually beneficial relationship was born. While the Ohio RTC pays for his lodging in Columbus, he’s paid for his own flights to and from Turkey, so it’s obvious that Akgül finds something beneficial in the arrangement. Akgül came to Columbus for his first stretch of training in February, and has been back several times since.

Snyder is studying Russian with a private tutor now. Wrestlers from Russia and nearby countries dominate the sport, and Snyder says, “If I can speak Russian, then I’ll change wrestling in America forever, because I’ll get all the Russians that are really good to come train here.” In his limited conversations with Russian athletes, they say they want to. “Everyone that I’ve ever talked to over there, they’re like: ‘Yes! America’s nice, man!’”

Maybe the Russians are ready to say America is so nice because they’re yearning to be literally anywhere else while in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, in January, when temperatures reach 30 below. Snyder has traveled there in the last three years to wrestle at the Ivan Yarygin Grand Prix, considered by some to be the hardest wrestling tournament in the world because the Russians have unlimited entries and a home-mat advantage. Going there during the collegiate season is in character for Snyder, who relishes the chance to wrestle the toughest matches possible. When the Russian Tank moved up to wrestle him, the American tweeted “It’s a beautiful day, the sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and Sadulaev is coming up to 97kg.”

Snyder won his last two Yarygins, making him the only American ever to win there twice. The first Coon match was less than two weeks after the 2018 Yarygin. Despite his usual ferocity, Snyder told me, “At the beginning of the season, I wasn’t that excited about wrestling Adam because of how big he was.” This is unusual language for Snyder. He’s so self-assured that before his first senior world championships, as a 19-year-old who didn’t even win the Big Ten just months before, he said, “There is no way that they can handle what I can.” (Of course, this did end up being true.)

But again, Coon is big. At 6′ 6″, 285, he could be a legitimate NFL prospect, although he’s two inches too tall to achieve his dream of being an astronaut. More saliently, he outweighs Snyder by at least 55 pounds. While Coon and Snyder were both “heavyweights,” the gap between them was equivalent to seven weight classes’ worth of difference. (The heaviest non-heavyweight class is 197 pounds; the heavyweight class is capped at 285. In the 55 pounds below 197, there are seven weight classes.)

Maybe it isn’t exactly cutting-edge science to say that a wrestler is tired after flying to Siberia and back, but Ryan says that the program had internal biometrics showing Snyder was exhausted despite his claim that he felt great the week before the Michigan dual. Whether it was due to fatigue or the sheer absurdity of wrestling a man seven inches taller and sixty pounds heavier, Coon beat Snyder 3-1.

It was Snyder’s first loss to a collegian since the 2015 NCAA final, and maybe worse, it was the exact type of low-scoring bruiser battle that Snyder and Dlagnev want to minimize. Coon, who opened up a 2-0 lead with a first-period takedown that would end up as half the total scoring, described the match as “two bears pawing at each other, trying to find that little inch of good position.”

Coon was the perfect opponent for Snyder: incredibly smart and a size that he’d never face internationally. Why bother with him at all when the Russians in his weight class were enough trouble? And besides, the rewards for beating them were Olympic and world gold medals, not Big Ten and NCAA championships. For one, Coon represented Snyder’s biggest loss in roughly a year, and he wanted to avenge it. But he also presented a unique intellectual challenge. Snyder and Dlagnev mostly say that Snyder’s improvement will come from wrestling more aggressively—shooting more rather than relying on his near-unbeatable combination of strength and fitness. Beating Coon required the exact opposite adjustment: “Holding position, not shooting as much, picking and choosing, trying to score late in periods,” according to Snyder.

In other words, Snyder’s whole life is built around creating the most energetic and entertaining wrestling style anyone’s ever seen, but winning a third straight NCAA heavyweight title would require the exact opposite. Beating Sadulaev took one of the greatest wrestling matches of all time, but beating Coon twice would be significantly more quotidian. Snyder avenged the first one, although barely, in a 4-2 overtime win at the Big Ten final. The NCAA final two weeks later in Cleveland would be the rubber match.

When Coon said that he and Snyder were two bears pawing at each other, the emphasis really was on pawing. Their matches look slow, but what’s really happening is that they’re competing on a razor’s edge, and seeking out the tiniest low point or angle to attack. Wrestling journalist Andrew Spey says that when wrestlers “look like an arch with hands on each other’s heads and elbows, there is a nearly imperceptible game within a game going on, like dozens of simultaneous rock-paper-scissors contests. If I pull on his elbow and he reacts, will that open up his opposite leg that I want to attack? Or will he see that coming and attack my opposite side?”

At the NCAA final, neither man scored in the first period. Snyder scored a lone point in the second. Coon tied it in the third, but it was obvious that neither man was eager to attack. With 25 seconds left, Coon blinked first and went for Snyder’s leg; Snyder saw it coming and threw Coon to the ground. A 3-1 lead between these two—much less this late in a match—was like a 5-0 lead against anyone else, and Snyder had it. A man 25 percent larger than him couldn’t stand between Snyder and the title he wanted.

Popular Posts