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Kyle Snyder becomes the youngest Olympic wrestling champion in U.S. history

(AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Three years ago, Kyle Snyder left the comfort of Woodbine, Md., and Good Counsel High, where he had won all 179 wrestling matches of his career. He moved at age 17 to the United States Training Center in Colorado Springs with the clear aim of making history. Sunday afternoon inside Carioca Arena 2, the vision he laid out – and, given its lack of precedence, perhaps the vision only he could see – came true.

Snyder became the youngest American to win a wrestling gold medal, the culmination of his stunning rise to the top of the sport at age 20. He defeated Azerbaijan’s Khetag Goziumov, a 33-year-old former world champion who won bronze at each of the last two Olympics. Snyder won with a push-out in the first period and by neutralizing Goziumov, who gave Snyder his second point on a stalling penalty. For the final minute, Snyder wreslted with a one-point led and held on.

Snyder, also the reigning world champion at 97 kilograms and an NCAA champion at Ohio State, supplanted Henry Cejudo, who won gold as a 21-year-old at the 2008 Beijing Games.

“It’s incredible,” said American Frank Molinaro, who lost a 65-kg bronze medal match. “Nobody deserves it more than him. He’s a guy who does everything right. He’s a good person. He works hard. He gives you 150 percent every time he wrestles. He’s a good [role] model for kids. The kid is young, and he’s wrestling men out there. And he’s the man. He’s throwing these guys down. He’s breaking them.”

Kyle Snyder has a ridiculous work ethic

In the semifinals against Georgian Elizbar Odikaze, Snyder utilized his superior conditioning, scoring all nine of his points in the second period to erase a 4-0 deficit at the break.

In preparation for the tournament, U.S. coaches cited three wrestlers whom they believed posed the biggest threat to Snyder. One of them was Goziumov, who beat Snyder at an international tournament earlier this year, one of the few losses Snyder has suffered in his entire life.

“I have got to get to his legs. I didn’t get to his legs, maybe not even once in Germany when I wrestled him,” Snyder said after the semifinals. “I have to move my feet a little bit more and just take more attacks. And give 100 percent of my efforts. Sometimes you only go 90 percent because you want to hold something back so he doesn’t spin behind, but 100 percent is what I am going to need against this guy. He is good.”

The gold medal provides yet another new height on Snyder’s explosive ascent. As a freshman at Ohio State in 2015, Snyder lost in the NCAA championship match. Six months later, at 19, he won the world championship in Las Vegas. He claimed an NCAA title at the heavyweight division, and the beat 2012 gold medalist Jake Varner at the U.S. Olympic trials in April.

Sunday’s victory launches Snyder on a trajectory for an all-time Olympic career. In a sport that resists phenoms, his peak should remain years away. If he stays healthy, Snyder’s dedication to wrestling and monumental work ethic justify the belief he will be a favorite to repeat in Tokyo, and perhaps even four years later, when he will still be just 28.

“He’s the future of the sport,” 2012 American wrestling gold medalist Jordan Burroughs said at the outset of the Games. “He’s definitely the future of the sport. I want to kind of pass on the things that I’ve learned to him, so he can be prepared for when I step down. And maybe not even then. I think we’re in a realm right now where we’re both successful enough to lead Team USA together. But I also think when I step away, he will be the lone figurehead of the sport of wrestling, because of what he’s done.”

Snyder has made it stated goal to be the best wrestler of all time, and after Rio it exists as something more than fantasy. Only two American wrestlers, Bruce Baumgartner and John Smith, have won multiple gold medals. It may be premature to raise the possibility, but Snyder stands a fighting chance to become the first American to win three.

“I think he’s comparing himself to the standard of what he wants to do,” American Coach Bill Zadick said earlier this month. “ ‘I love wrestling, and it’s a challenge every day: Can I be the best ever? Can I be the best in the world? Can I be the best right now? Can I be the best American?’ He’s super-competitive. His innate competitiveness, he just strives for excellence. It’s not versus my opponent. A little bit, it is. More so, it’s, ‘I want to be the best. I want to be the best I am capable of being. What is the most efficient way to do that?’ ”

Snyder became the second American – and second Marylander – to win wrestling gold in Rio. Rockville’s Helen Maroulis earned the first-ever U.S. gold for a women’s wrestler Thursday with a dramatic victory over Japanese legend Saori Yoshida. Snyder and Maroulis have been friends for years. When Snyder was 7, he practiced in the same Mount Airy wrestling room as Maroulis, who got into the sport tagging along with her brother.

Now Snyder can join Maroulis again, this time as an Olympic champion.