Kyle Snyder, an Olympic and world champion and one of the world’s best wrestlers, spent the autumn living in a basement.
Not just any basement. Wrestling legend Cael Sanderson‘s basement.
Snyder announced Oct. 10 that he was moving from Ohio State, his home since 2014, to live and train at Penn State, another NCAA and post-grad wrestling power.
“The simple truth is I need to get better,” was posted on Snyder’s social media, three weeks after he was beaten at the world championships for a second straight year (after winning Olympic or world titles in 2015, 2016 and 2017). “This decision isn’t to suggest that one program is better than the next, but this is taking advantage of additional thinking and incorporating that into my wrestling.”
Sanderson, a 2004 Olympic champion who before that went 159-0 in four years at Iowa State, is now the head coach at Penn State and also coaches a stable of post-grads at Nittany Lion Wrestling Club.
“Once I said I was going to move there, [Sanderson] was like, you can just live in my basement [at first],” the 24-year-old Snyder said. “If you would have told me when I was like 16, 15, years old, I would go spend a night in Cael’s basement, I would have been like, wow, it’s the greatest gift I’ve ever received.”
Snyder can afford his own place, but at the time his wife was on an internship in Philadelphia that ran to Dec. 15.
“Then when she gets there [to Penn State], we’re going to move out because I didn’t think we could both live in Cael’s basement,” Snyder said in a November interview (It’s unknown whether the move out has happened yet.). “But it’s been good because I knew Cael well, but I didn’t know him like I was living in his basement.”
There’s little in Sanderson’s house that would tell visitors he is one of the greatest wrestlers in history. There is an ESPY Award in his living room, Snyder said, but no other significant medals or trophies.
Sanderson and Snyder, two generational U.S. talents, passed the time discussing Sanderson’s new passion: coaching. He was hired by Penn State in 2009. He led the Nittany Lions to eight of the last nine NCAA team titles (Snyder’s Buckeyes prevailed in 2015), while briefly coming out of retirement to finish fifth at the 2011 World Championships.
“We play Call of Duty: Nazi Zombies and stuff,” Snyder said of Sanderson, who is married with two sons. “Maybe that’s not that normal for a dad to do that.”
Snyder also reunited with old rival Jake Varner, an assistant coach at Penn State. Varner won the 2012 Olympic title in Snyder’s weight class, but was dethroned by a 20-year-old Snyder at the 2016 Olympic trials. Varner didn’t compete beyond 2016.
“[Varner] kind of stayed his distance from me, and I stayed away from him, and that’s just kind of the way it was for us,” Snyder said. “Now that he’s done competing, I’m just super thankful that he’s there. He’s way different. Our relationship is way different. It’s really easy to talk to him. He’s helped me technically and mentally. He’s always willing to wrestle with me.”
Once he dethroned Varner, Snyder felt like he could beat anybody. And he did, becoming the youngest U.S. Olympic wrestling champion at age 20 and then defeating the Russian Tank, Abdulrashid Sadulayev, in a 2017 World Championships epic. Sadulayev had not previously lost in four years on the senior international level (and competed in a different weight class than Snyder in Rio).
But Sadulayev pinned Snyder in 68 seconds at 2018 Worlds. This past September, Snyder was upset before getting the chance to face Sadulayev in another final.
“The reason why I went to Penn State is because I believe God wanted me to go there,” said Snyder, who prays for 30 minutes to start the day and says he draws all of his value from faith. “To say that losing in ‘18 and ‘19 didn’t have anything to do with [moving to Penn State], I would say that’s not true. When I lose, I’m like, well let’s turn it up. I don’t want to lose again. I want more detailed coaching. I want my training partners to come in and be even more ready. It’s not that they weren’t helping me a lot, but I guess I was looking for change and thought that would help me.”
Snyder’s coach at Ohio State, Tervel Dlagnev, and Penn State coaches declined to comment for this story. Snyder will continue to train ahead of the Olympic trials the first weekend of April, when he will have a bye into the final.
“I just thought that the change would bring about a new perspective,” Snyder said, “and some small adjustments in my wrestling that will ultimately make big changes.”
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