Tervel Dlagnev hasn’t forgotten what pupil Kyle Snyder told him on their walk back to the hotel in Budapest on the night of Oct. 23.
“I wish that I can remember this feeling,” Snyder said after being pinned in 68 seconds by Russian Abdulrashid Sadulayev in the world championships 97kg final earlier that evening.
In a sport as macho as wrestling, a bear of a man such as Snyder would not be expected to take defeat well. Snyder, who in 2015 became the youngest American to win a world title and in 2016 the youngest U.S. Olympic gold medalist, lost on the global stage for the first time against the Russian Tank who has become an archrival.
Back in 2015, Snyder cried tears of sadness on the podium while accepting the NCAA team title with Ohio State, because he lost the 197-pound final to Iowa State senior Kyven Gadson. Snyder, then a freshman, came to Columbus with a goal of becoming one of a handful of men to win an individual NCAA title all four years. There are stories of calling out an aunt after a family vacation beach volleyball defeat or going silent and hitting the gym hard the day after the rare loss in his college career.
But on this night in Hungary, Snyder shared a different sentiment with coach Dlagnev, a fellow devout Christian.
“I wish I can harness this feeling when I lose,” Snyder went on, “to remember it’s not that big of a deal.”
Dlagnev knew at that moment that Snyder would be OK after what could easily be called the toughest, perhaps most humiliating defeat of his career. Snyder didn’t see it that way.
“I knew it was in my benefit that I lost,” Snyder said by phone Sunday. “I just had to figure out why. Part of the reason why, I was still holding onto part of my identity being a wrestler. That was holding me back from competing to the best of my ability. I let go of some of that and just moved forward.”
Snyder took three and a half weeks off from wrestling training, vacationing in Florida with his wife as planned ahead of worlds, and would not compete again for three months.
“People would think that [the loss] would be in my mind, and it’s all I’d be thinking about for weeks and weeks after it, but it isn’t,” Snyder said in one of his first interviews after returning to training.
He actually lost his first match back in January — Snyder can’t remember the last time he lost back-to-back matches — but won his next two tournaments in March and April.
Top U.S. wrestlers are in New York City for Monday night’s Beat the Streets event, where Snyder faces Canadian Nishan Randhawa, a 21-year-old who may be out of his league having never wrestled the Olympic champ nor competed at a senior world championships.
It is Snyder’s last meet before June’s Final X, where he will face a to-be-determined countryman for the one available 97kg spot at September’s world championships in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.
At worlds, Snyder could next face Sadulayev, whom he rallied to beat in their first matchup in the 2017 Worlds final that also clinched the team title for the Americans and arguably made Snyder the world’s best pound-for-pound wrestler.
Their roles reversed Oct. 23 in Budapest.
“[Snyder] ran off and had some alone time,” Dlagnev said. “To be fair, [Snyder] walked out off the mat [in 2017] with the cameras in his face, and [Sadulayev] was alone in the corner with his head in his hands.
“The script flips. You can’t play the pity game. That’s sports.”
Snyder was praised in the wrestling community for how he publicly handled defeat.
“I’m not defined by the sport,” he said as Sadulayev strode behind, patting him on the back. “God’s given me the wins that I’ve had, the great wins that we’ve seen. God’s also given me losses. I’ll take both of them.”
Snyder evaluated the match with Dlagnev and again with USA Wrestling in December but said he hasn’t watched the video this winter or spring. There’s not much to learn from 68 seconds.
And while Snyder wore a “Round 3” t-shirt in a day-after-Christmas Instagram, he insists that the thought of a rubber match is not fuel.
“I’m not motivated to beat Sadulayev, or anybody in my weight class,” he said. “My motivation isn’t even to win world championships.
“I truly don’t care if I win or lose, but I just want to wrestle hard.”
Of everything that happened the night of Oct. 23, Snyder recalled being backstage in Budapest and seeing Sadulayev surrounded by media, cameras and well-wishers.
“It seems like every time I lose a match at a big event, it frees me up a little bit more. It unlocks part of my brain,” he said. “Now I know what it’s like at ends of losses that previously, early in my life, seemed like they would just crush me. Now I know it’s not that bad. I feel like, really, there’s nothing that’s going to hold me back from now on.”
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