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Former Buckeye Is Happy in State College; Ready for Olympic Trials and Unique Worship Service

OK, boys and girls, now that our community has become the undisputed throne room for American wrestling, I want to make sure you’re well-informed fans. So here’s a wrestling trivia question which really isn’t so trivial. 

Of all our local grappling heroes, which State College resident has earned the greatest collection of awards as a wrestler?

Cael Sanderson? Nope. Admittedly, he won a gold medal at the 2004 Olympic Games, he captured a silver medal at the 2003 World Championships and he’s one of only seven athletes to win four NCAA individual championships. He would be atop this local leader board if his coaching achievements were included, but this question deals with “awards as a wrestler.”   

David Taylor? No, but that’s another good guess. So far, Taylor has captured an Olympic gold medal plus three golds and a silver from the World Championship. And yes, he captured two NCAA individual titles.  But, dare I say it, two natties may soon seem commonplace around State College.    

The answer for our question is Kyle Snyder, certainly the most famous Centre Countian that most locals have never heard of. He’s captured one Olympic gold and one Olympic silver; three golds, two silvers and two bronzes from the World Championships; and three NCAA individual titles. Not to mention his 10 Pan American titles and other assorted awards.

He’s called “Snyderman” around the country, so why doesn’t this almost-superhero get more attention in the local media? Maybe it’s because he didn’t wrestle for Penn State. Or maybe because he did wrestle for Ohio State. But if you learn more about Kyle Snyder, I’m pretty sure you’ll become a fan.   

I first met Snyder through a common friend—former Penn State wrestler Chad Dubin—and then talked with him further last week in the College Heights home he shares with his wife, Maddie, and their little boy, Judah. The following edited portions of that conversation provide a look inside the mind of an elite wrestler, an update on Snyder’s pursuit of more Olympic success, and a glimpse at his loyalties toward Penn State and Ohio State.

When we talked earlier at Chad Dubin’s home, you mentioned your struggle with “competition anxiety” that came to a head during your freshman year at Ohio State. How can anyone who posted a record of 179-0 in high school have competition anxiety?

Snyder:  I was so afraid of losing and I was so wrapped up in who I was as a wrestler that even though I was winning a lot, I wasn’t wrestling near my ability. I’d walk off the mat and my parents and coach wouldn’t even be happy with the way I wrestled. They knew I had a lot more in me. 

And then, of course, you suffered a defeat in the NCAA finals as a freshman that ended your dream of winning four national collegiate titles. Can you tell me about that experience?  

Snyder:  Yeah, I was wrestling Kyven Gadson of Iowa State in the finals at 197 pounds. It was scoreless in the first period. In the second period I escaped, so I was winning 1-0. And then I shot and got to his leg but he broke my grip. Then he immediately threw me to my back and pinned me. It was tight, I couldn’t get out of it. And it was kind of an interesting experience because Logan Stieber, a teammate of mine, had just won his fourth national title an hour or so before. And Ohio State had just won the team title for the first time in history. So our teammate became the school’s first four-timer and the team won its first championship ever, but I couldn’t honestly care less. At that moment, I was just heartbroken. 

Kyle Snyder at the Bellefonte home of former PSU wrestler Chad Dubin. The two have bonded over their faith. Photo by Bill Horlacher

So what happened after that?

Snyder:  For a week, basically I didn’t eat and I didn’t talk to anybody. I was just lying there in Columbus in my apartment bedroom and just feeling empty. And then for some reason I called my strength coach, Neil Serafinas, and he said, “Well, you know what you’ve got to do now.” And I was like, “I’ve got no idea what I’ve got to do now.” And he said, “You’ve got to commit your whole life to Jesus. You’ve got to be more committed to him than you are to anything else in your life.” I knew I wasn’t fully committed before then, and I understood what commitment looked like because of how committed I was to wrestling. So I got down on my knees that night and I prayed that God would help me be more committed to him than anything else. He helped me do it, and he’s been faithful to change my heart and my mind.

What changed in your emotions or thoughts? 

Snyder:  I started to feel like my life wasn’t over and that God was going to take care of me. But there’s an interesting thing about my faith. So much of my confidence in God has actually been learned through competition. Like at the 2015 U.S. Open two months after the NCAA finals, I just felt like a completely different wrestler. I was wrestling NCAA champions, U.S. World Team members and an Olympic champion in the final and that was Jake [Varner, now the head of the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club]. So I’m wrestling guys where previously I’d be scared to go out there and compete. And now I feel good, I feel confident, I feel happy to be there. I’m not wishing the moment away.  

Had you expected that kind of change from what you had seen in the Bible?

Snyder:  I didn’t even have that much knowledge of the Bible then. It’s almost like I was experiencing what the Bible says before I knew the verses. Like 2 Corinthians 5:17 that says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” When I read that it was like, “Wow, that’s what he did in me.”

And you could see a difference in your athletic performance?  

Snyder:  I mean you could see it in the fact that I was second best in college wrestling and then two months later I was the best in all of America. And then two months after that I proved that again by winning the U.S. World Team Trials. And then three months after that, I beat the number one pound-for-pound wrestler in the world at any weight class. It would’ve been impossible for me to do that with my old life. I would’ve never competed to my ability. I would’ve been too afraid.

Did other things change in your life that had nothing to do with wrestling? 

Snyder:  I started getting a desire to study the Bible in a deeper way. And my language changed. I used to curse a lot and then I started thinking, “I don’t think God wants me to talk this way.” And another thing was my ability to be happy for other people. I used to be really jealous if one of my teammates would win and I wouldn’t. These days, God is refining me and teaching me the attitude of being a servant. By his definition, the one who serves is the greatest and the least of all is the greatest of all. 

But now you’re focused on the Olympic Trials and ultimately seeking a gold medal at the Paris Games. How does that fit into servant leadership?

Snyder:  I’m competing for God’s glory. I don’t care about receiving any glory myself, and I want people to see him through me on the mats. I pray that my opponents would know that it’s only because of Jesus that I’m able to do what I’m able to do. And so with that in mind, I train as hard as I possibly can so that I can compete and honor him. 

Kyle Snyder will be seeking his third trip to the Olympics when he competes in the U.S. Trials April 19-20 at the Bryce Jordan Center.

You won’t actually be competing at the Trials until the final best-of-three round at the BJC on April 20. Do you have a preference as to who wins the challenge round to become your opponent? 

Snyder:  No, I don’t care. I’ll be ready for whoever it is. I know they’re going to be competing to make a dream come true, so they’re going to bring a lot of effort. I’ve just got to be ready.

You’re going to serve as the host for a special worship service the very next morning after the Trials.  That’s amazing to me. I’m thinking, “He’s probably going to win, but he could lose. How will he feel if he lost the night before? How will he feel if he won?” 

Snyder:  Yeah, I’m not even really thinking about it because the first thing is to wrestle at the Olympic Trials next Saturday. I know God’s in control of the results, and I’m just doing my best to live the way he wants me to and give him the best reason to choose me as the winner. Whatever happens is his will. And then when it comes time for the service, it’ll be all good.

About this service called “SOS” for “Sunday Olympic Service.”  What are the details and what will the program include? 

Snyder:  It will be at The Penn Stater Hotel from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. on April 21. Maddie Nolf, wife of Jason Nolf, will lead worship singing along with a local pastor (Stacy Sublett from Calvary Church in Penns Valley). And we’re going to get some great teaching from people who truly live what they speak. Some of the competitors from the Trials will attend along with people from the State College area and fans from all over the place. (More information is available at www.coachj.org.)

So many prominent wrestlers these days are talking about their faith—many of the champions at this year’s NCAA nationals did so, including guys from Penn State. Has it always been like this or is there some kind of movement or revival going on?

Snyder:  Since I’ve been wrestling, it’s been this way. When I think about tools that God uses to bring people to him, I think wrestling is a great tool because it’s always forcing you to look within and there’s no one else to blame. It’s all on you when you get out there and there’s a lot of pressure and you’re really nervous. 

Kyle Snyder leads a Bible study session that included Jason Nolf (left). Photo by Bill Horlacher

How about this question that I know everybody must be asking you, why is Penn State so dominant right now? Recruiting, coaching or maybe the spiritual dimension?

Snyder:  I think it is everything. I mean, the coaches work really hard, and if I were to say one thing that separates this program from other programs in the country, it is the coaches’ love for the sport. I’m not saying other coaches don’t love it, but I don’t think they love it as much as these guys do. And when the coaches love it and they’re on the mat and they’re just happy to be there, everybody feeds off that energy. 

Nobody curses in the wrestling room, nobody plays music with curses in it. The coaches are asking God for wisdom in their training plan. And they believe that if they live according to God’s principles, he’ll be with them and they can rely on him for strength. So it definitely makes a difference. 

It was in October of 2019 that you announced you would be leaving Columbus to move here. And you said on your social media that you wanted to take advantage of different approaches to wrestling in order to improve your game. Do you ever feel conflicted about being a Buckeye in Happy Valley?

Snyder:  No, I don’t feel conflicted because I know what I’m about. I always tell people I’m a Penn State wrestling fan and I’m an Ohio State football fan. So I mean, I train with these Penn State guys every day, and I want them to win. I want to help ’em as much as I can. And so that’s easy for me. But football’s a different story. Ohio State football, in my opinion, is the pinnacle.

I’m sure our readers will enjoy that last comment. 

Snyder:  I’m sure they will, too.

Hey, you were saying that these days you root for Penn State wrestlers because you train with them.  But probably it’s just easier to root for the guys in the upper weights. Maybe with the lower weight classes you have an equal attitude toward both teams?

Snyder:  No, I always want Penn State to win and it doesn’t matter what weight class.  I’m around the guys every day, and I want ’em to win.

Kyle Snyder finished his collegiate career as a three-time NCAA champion at Ohio State before heading to Penn State to train with the NLWC. Photo courtesy Ohio State Athletics

I’ve heard you talk about an experience you had at Walmart soon after you moved here. Can you tell that story?

Snyder:  So me and my wife were at Walmart, and there was an older lady in front of us and she knew I was a wrestler although I didn’t tell her who I was. So she tells us her grandson was on the Penn State team. She was like, “Yeah, one time I went to a wrestling match and they were wrestling Ohio State, and they came out in these silly red robes and they thought they were going to win, and they were all excited. And then we kicked their butts and they just looked so dumb in those robes.” And I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re right, they did.”

You were in one of those robes, weren’t you? 

Snyder:  Yeah, I was on the team. I was in a robe and all that stuff. I thought they were cool. 

How do people treat you here?

Snyder:  Everybody always says it’s unfortunate that I had to go to Ohio State. They say that it seemed like I was a nice guy but they were always rooting against me. But everybody’s great, and they’re thankful to have me here. And I love State College, it’s great for me and my family, and it’s a great place to live.