Jake Varner gets no breaks as a reigning Olympic champion at the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials on Sunday.
To get to Rio, Varner must advance through a qualification bracket and then defeat the rested reigning World champion Kyle Snyder in the best-of-three finals.
A matchup of reigning Olympic and World gold medalists has happened before at the U.S. Olympic Trials — when John Smith defeated Randy Lewis in 1988.
USA Wrestling couldn’t name an instance since, making a possible Varner-Snyder finals matchup arguably the most anticipated showdown of the entire two-day event in Iowa City.
“As much as he’s preparing for me, I’m preparing for everybody else,” said Snyder, who at 20 is 10 years younger than Varner. “The feeling that I had winning at the Worlds only makes me want it more.”
Snyder also remembers the feeling in 2012, inspired by watching Varner take 96kg gold at the London 2012 Games.
Snyder and Varner went head-to-head for the first time a little over one year later in practice at an Olympic training center in Colorado Springs.
“It was kind of like, he’s a man, I’m a boy,” said Snyder, then a high school senior coming off a 179-0 record in three seasons at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Maryland.
Over time, Snyder closed the gap on the Olympic champion in training camp sessions. The turning point came about one year ago.
“I was able to shut down pretty much his offense and get to my attacks when I needed to,” said Snyder, then an Ohio State freshman.
By May, Snyder found himself grappling with Varner in the finals of the U.S. Open. And winning 2-1.
Snyder had lost in the Big Ten and NCAA Championships finals in March and then beat the reigning Olympic champion two months later.
He proved it was no fluke in June, sweeping Varner 4-1, 3-0 at the World Championships Team Trials.
Then, on Sept. 12 in Las Vegas, Snyder became the youngest American to win a World Wrestling Championship, upsetting the defending World champion 97kg freestyler from Russia via a tiebreaker.
By earning a medal of any color, Snyder also earned a bye into the Olympic Trials final.
Everyone else, including the Olympic champion Varner, must go through a qualifying bracket on Sunday morning and afternoon for the right to face a fully rested Snyder in the finals (7 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Live Extra).
“[Snyder] puts some depth in our weight class, but I’m coming to win another gold medal,” Varner said on the Big Ten Network in February. “I’ve got to go through the [Olympic Trials] tournament, that’s fine. It’s just like going through the Olympics, through the Worlds, and then you’ve got to beat [Snyder] two out of three. That’s just the way it goes sometimes. A little harder is sometimes the way it’s got to be done.”
Snyder originally planned to sit out the 2015-16 NCAA season to focus on preparing for the Olympic Trials. The format of NCAA wrestling — folkstyle — is slightly different from international freestyle wrestling.
But then, at 12:01 a.m. on New Year’s Day, Snyder and Ohio State surprised the wrestling community by announcing he would rejoin the program mid-season.
“The more matches I get, the more I can learn from quality opponents and the more I can grow as a wrestler,” Snyder reasoned.
He claimed Big Ten and NCAA titles for the first time as a sophomore, capping the abbreviated campaign with an epic NCAA Championships heavyweight final win over NC State’s Nick Gwiazdowski, ending an 88-match win streak on March 19.
Afterward, Snyder said he made the right decision to compete for the Buckeyes, even if he would have lost to Gwiazdowski.
“And hopefully I can prove that April 10,” he said.