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Olympic medalists Snyder and Cox enter rare territory upon return to NCAA competition

By Richard Immel, USA Wrestling | Oct. 04, 2016, 5:52 p.m. (ET)

 Kyle Snyder wrestling in the finals of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio
de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: Tony Rotundo,
American wrestling prodigies Kyle Snyder and J’den Cox entered rarified air this summer by winning medals at the Olympic Games as college-age competitors.

Snyder became the youngest U.S. wrestler to win the Olympics at age 20. Cox turned in a bronze medal effort as a 21-year-old. Both men will soon return to the wrestling mat and represent their respective college programs, Ohio State and Missouri, on the NCAA Division I level.

The question is now begged, exactly how rare are the Olympic-level accomplishments of these two transcendent talents?

Since the inception of the NCAA Wrestling Championships all the way back in 1928, seven U.S. wrestlers have won an Olympic medal and were eligible to return to NCAA competition. Only five of those seven men competed at the NCAA Championships following their Olympic journey.

The first opportunity for a run of this magnitude came in the beginning stages of the NCAA Championships. Allie Morrison won a freestyle gold medal for the U.S. in the 1928 Olympic Games held in Amsterdam, Holland. Morrison returned to the University of Illinois in 1929 for his senior campaign, but was sidelined halfway through the season due to a broken neck.

Fast forward to 1932 when reigning NCAA runner-up Peter Mehringer of Kansas earned a men’s freestyle gold at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Mehringer was eligible to wrestle collegiately in 1933 as a senior but instead elected to take his talents to the gridiron.

The first Olympic medalist to return to the college scene and compete at the NCAA Championships was Oklahoma legend Dan Hodge. Hodge won silver at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia, as a member of the 10th U.S. Olympic wrestling team. He bookmarked his Olympic medal on both ends with NCAA championships for the Sooners in 1956 and 1957. Hodge is the namesake for college wrestling’s most prestigious award, the Dan Hodge Trophy, given to the best college wrestler each year.

Two more freestyle wrestlers followed Hodge’s lead by winning an Olympic medal and going on to stand atop the NCAA podium. Heavyweight Chris Taylor secured a bronze at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany, then won his second NCAA title for Iowa State in 1973. Similarly, Barry Davis grabbed a silver at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and a NCAA title in 1985 for Iowa.

Hodge, Taylor and Davis are the only U.S. wrestlers to go from Olympic medalist to NCAA champion.

The most recent wrestlers to go from the Olympic podium to the NCAA podium come from the Greco-Roman side, and coincidentally, both wrestled for the University of Minnesota. Brandon Paulson won silver at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and Garrett Lowney a bronze at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Both went on to All-American at the NCAA Championships for the Gophers, but neither claimed the first-place prize.

 J'den Cox celebrates his bronze medal victory at 
the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Photo: Tony Rotundo,
It should be noted that Paulson’s All-American honors came two years post-Atlanta as he took seventh-place at the 1998 NCAA Championships but finished in the round-of-12 in 1997. His 1997 performance is the only time an Olympic medalist did not place at the NCAA Championships after owning the Olympic medal.

Lowney actually won his Olympic medal prior to wrestling a single college match for Minnesota. He took a both a traditional redshirt and Olympic redshirt in the two years prior to the Sydney Games.

Barring an extreme circumstance, Snyder and Cox will become just the sixth and seventh U.S. wrestlers to compete at the NCAA Championships with an Olympic medal on their resumes. The duo will bump the number of freestyle Olympic medalists to ever compete at the NCAAs from three to five.

Snyder takes pride in bringing an Olympic medal back into the NCAA fold and believes his presence on the NCAA level will only help the sport grow.

“For NCAA wrestling, anytime you have an Olympic medalist representing your school it adds an element of excitement that typically wouldn’t be there,” Snyder remarked. “I think it’s a good progression for the United States. Hopefully we can continue we can continue to win Olympic gold medals at younger and younger ages.”

To expound upon the analysis of college-age Olympic wrestlers, there are eight men who placed at the NCAA Championships directly preceding the Olympic Games in which they medaled.

Hodge and Taylor won NCAA titles directly before and after winning an Olympic medal. NCAA Champions John Riley of Northwestern (1932), Glen Brand of Iowa State (1948), Ben Peterson of Iowa State (1972) and John Smith of Oklahoma State (1988) join Hodge and Taylor as wrestlers to win the NCAAs and medal at the Olympics in the same year. Brand, Peterson and Smith all went on to win Olympic gold immediately coming off NCAA competition.

The aforementioned Kansas great Mehringer and Portland State’s Rick Sanders both made the NCAA finals the same year they won Olympic medals. In fact, Sanders won the NCAA Division II Championships and was runner-up at the Division I tournament in the months leading up to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, where he finished with a silver medal.

All told, the U.S. boasts a combined 10 wrestlers who have won an Olympic medal and placed at the NCAA Championships either one-year before or one-year after their respective Olympic competition.

Looking through the expansive 87-year history of the NCAA Wrestling Championships there was only one time period in which the competition as not held. From 1943 to 1945 the NCAA Championships were cancelled due to World War II. Likewise, there were no Olympic Games held in 1944 due to the worldwide chaos.

The U.S. boycotted the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow in large part to another international military struggle, the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan. The boycott affected three college-age wrestlers who would have potentially joined the list of wrestlers to place at the NCAAs and Olympics in the same calendar year, provided they would have won an Olympic medal in 1980.

1980 NCAA champions John Azevedo of CSU Bakersfield and Randy Lewis of Iowa, in addition to 1981 NCAA champion Gene Mills of Syracuse, were members of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team that did not compete in Moscow.

What does this mean for the next generation of Olympic medalists on the NCAA stage?

For starters, freestyle Olympic medalists go on to win the NCAA Championships 100 percent of the time they are entered in the field. There have only been three freestyle Olympic medalists from the U.S. to ever compete at the NCAA Championships, and in 2017, wrestling fans will be treated to not one, but two such athletes.

Since the first NCAA Championships were held, the U.S. has won a total of 77 Olympic medals in men’s freestyle, 36 of which were gold. Of those 77 medals, 64 were won by NCAA All-Americans, and 52 were won by NCAA champions. Moreover, 33 of the 36 Olympic gold medals were won by wrestlers who also won a NCAA title.

On average, the time between a wrestler’s last placement at the NCAA Championships and the time he won an Olympic medal in men’s freestyle is 3.53 years.

As most would expect, these numbers demonstrate a high correlation between placing at the NCAA Championships and winning an Olympic medal, but more specifically, the probability of winning an Olympic gold medal increases if a wrestler is also a NCAA champion. However, the numbers also show how uncommon it is to medal at the Olympic Games while still a college wrestler, giving greater breadth to the remarkable feats Snyder and Cox were able to achieve in Rio de Janeiro.

“Being the best in the world is really hard. First of all, you’ve got to be talented. A lot of things have to go your way. Not to praise myself, but to be young and to be able to accomplish those things is hard,” Snyder noted.

Looking ahead to what promises to be a landmark NCAA season, there is one scenario onlookers have not seen, an American Olympic gold medalist competing at the NCAA Championships. Snyder looks to add this accomplishment to his ever-growing list of “firsts” in St. Louis, Mo. this March. In his own words, it will be one of Snyder’s greatest honors on the wrestling mat.