NEW YORK -- The second time proved the charm for Olympic gold medalist wrestler Kyle Snyder, who won the 2018 AAU James E. Sullivan Award after finishing as a finalist to winner Lauren Carlini, a University of Wisconsin volleyball star, last year.
“I believe God has given me some great gifts and amazing opportunities to glorify him on the most prominent stages there are in sports,” Snyder told the audience at New York Athletic Club on Tuesday. “My only focus is to give as much effort as I can and improve each time I’m on the mat. That’s the only thing I can control, I can’t control the results. … That’s the most important thing I’ve learned from sports, the mindset of controlling the things that you can control.”
Snyder, who competes in the heavyweight (97 kg.) class, becomes the fourth wrestler to win the prestigious award, presented annually to the outstanding amateur athlete in the United States. The other wrestlers who have been so honored are John Smith (1990), Bruce Baumgartner (1995) and Rulon Gardner (2000).
At an age when many wrestlers are just maturing into their international careers, the 22-year-old Snyder has already achieved a dizzying tally of medals: Youngest-ever U.S. world champion in 2015 at age 19. Youngest-ever U.S. Olympic champion in 2016 at age 20. A second world title in 2017.
Widely considered the greatest college wrestler in history, the Maryland native amassed a 75-5 record for the Ohio State Buckeyes, winning three NCAA Division I national championships.
And, if he has his way, he’s not even halfway through his career.
“I’m still getting better, becoming more dominant,” Snyder said. “That’s the goal. I just want to become as dominant as I possibly can, to where no one in the world can wrestle with me.”
That’s not bragging, because Snyder can back it up. Rather, it’s just the right dose of confidence he needs, at about 235 pounds, to square off against athletes weighing up to 285 pounds. What makes it work is his passion, combined with a calm, measured game plan.
“I love wrestling and the accolades and the awards and championships, they are all really exciting,” he said. “But I’m just as excited about training. I’m excited about becoming better in all aspects of the sport. I’m extremely motivated to work on areas I’m not as efficient in, and improve in those areas.”
Current training goals include becoming stronger physically, as well as developing a more aggressive competitive posture.
“I want to be able to give more while I’m out there, not hold anything back,” he said. “It’s a lot of small things. It takes a while to get there because they’ve been engraved for such a long period of time. When you get to the top, it’s the miniscule things that make a big difference.”
Snyder credits his coaches, including USA Wrestling’s head freestyle coach Bill Zadick, with helping him become the best in the world. But he is quick to add the ultimate responsibility sits squarely on his shoulders.
“I’ve always been taught the best coach you can have is yourself,” he said. “I assess myself. I take guidance from other people, but I make sure when I compete or practice, I’m always thinking about things I can do better.”
Next up on Snyder’s agenda: receiving his degree from Ohio State. A sports industry major, he is set to graduate in two weeks.
“People ask me if it’s bittersweet to be done with college, but to me, it’s just sweet,” said Snyder, who recently purchased a home three miles off of the Columbus, Ohio, campus. “I’m happy about my career at Ohio State. I’m happy about not just the athlete I was, but my development as a man. My character, my ability to be a leader, all really grew when I was there.”
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Snyder returns to New York City next month for the annual Beat the Streets gala wrestling competition in Times Square, before buckling down to train for the USA Wrestling World Team Trials in Lincoln, Nebraska on June 9.
“Hopefully, I’ll make another world team and then wrestle at the world championships in Budapest in October,” he said. “Everything is really good. I plan to compete as long as I can, until I can’t wrestle anymore.”
The AAU has presented the Sullivan Award, named for its founder and past president James E. Sullivan, annually since 1930. After ballots from fans, AAU officials, United States Olympic Committee members and college sports officials were tallied, Snyder came out on top in a field of finalists that also included Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, ice dancing siblings who won two bronze medals (in team figure skating and individual ice dance) at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, and Paralympic equestrian athlete Annie Peavy.
“We were so focused on training for the Olympics, this was a nice surprise,” Maia said. “It’s a huge honor to be first a semifinalist and now a finalist.”
“Growing up we always saw ourselves as figure skaters and part of the figure skating family, and then when we reached the Team USA level it was the Winter Olympics family, and now it’s the Olympic family as a whole,” Alex said. “To be with this group of finalists who come from non-traditional sports as well as Olympic sports is really, really special.”
Peavy, who suffered a stroke prior to birth, began riding at age four as therapy for partial paralysis on her left side. She competed in dressage at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016, and her next big goal is to compete at the World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina, in September.
“It’s a great honor to be among some of the best athletes in the world,” Peavy said. “I’ve learned so much about other sports the last few days, being with these athletes. I’ve met other Paralympians, but I’ve never met Olympians before.”
Other Sullivan Award finalists included collegiate volleyball standouts Annika Albrecht and Kelly Hunter; NCAA long-distance runner Erin Finn, and North Carolina Tar Heels basketball star Joel Berry II.
Lynn Rutherford is a sportswriter based out of New York. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.