RIO DE JANEIRO — Kyle Snyder rested on his knees and panted as a dazed, disbelieving look hung on his face.
“Maybe I was in shock,” the 20-year-old said.
As scores of supporters in red T-shirts with his name on the back jumped up and down at Carioca Arena, as chants of “USA!” rained down, as Azerbaijan’s mountain-like Khetag Goziumov turned away, the reality began to set in.
Snyder outlasted Goziumov on Sunday in the final freestyle wrestling match of these Olympics to capture the 97-kilogram (214 pound) weight class and become the youngest American wrestler in history to win a gold medal.
The Woodbine, Md., native grabbed an American flag and climbed into the stands to celebrate with the people who best understood the price he paid for this moment. The friends and family bombarded him with hugs and rubbed his head. Snyder could barely understand the shouted congratulations as Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” pounded through the public address system.
“I’m a little claustrophobic,” he said. “So I was like, ‘Dang, I got to get out of here, because I don’t like being around that many people.’ “
That’s the price of gold.
In a machine-like performance, Snyder left a trail of weary and dispirited opponents Sunday in the three matches leading up to the final. That’s a normal day for the top seed in the event who is also the defending world champion and collected an NCAA title earlier this year at Ohio State University.
The success isn’t a surprise. Snyder went 179-0 during his first three years at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney, Md., then skipped his senior year to prepare at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
He’s been called a “freak show” because of a relentless approach that can make even seasoned opponents look helpless. He doesn’t hide the desire to be the greatest wrestler in history. Earlier this year, U.S. teammate Jordan Burroughs tweeted that “Kyle Snyder is the best wrestler ever.” Combine that with a dedication to the sport that borders on obsessive and he ended up on the mat against Goziumov, a two-time Olympic medalist, with a gold medal in the balance.
“He embraces the work ethic, he embraces the challenge, he embraces the hard work it takes to get where he is,” Bruce Burnett, the U.S. Olympic freestyle wrestling coach, said of Snyder.
Goziumov, who considered quitting wrestling after a heart issue at the London Olympics, defeated Snyder last month at the German Grand Prix. Snyder is a student of the sport — even going against 33-year-old competitors — and had a better feel for how to approach the rematch.
“It was very hard,” Goziumov said. “The American was too strong.”
Snyder carried a 2-1 lead into the final seconds. Goziumov mounted an all-out attack, but Snyder refused to relent.
“This guy is crazy strong in that position, but I wasn’t going to let another point go up on the board unless it was me scoring,” he said.
The same mat was the site of similar intensity earlier Sunday in perhaps the strangest episode in the 17 days of these Games.
Two Mongolian coaches stripped on the mat in a furious protest after judges awarded a penalty point to Uzbekistan’s Ikhtiyor Navruzov in the final seconds of a match in the 65-kilogram (143 pound) class to defeat Mongolia’s Ganzorigiin Mandakhnaran for the bronze medal.
One coach removed his shirt in front of the judges’ table and flexed. The other coach restrained him, then took off his clothing, slamming each item to the mat until he wore only dark-colored briefs.
“This was a protest,” one of the coaches, Byambarenchin Bayaraa, said. “There was a problem with the refereeing. … Three million people in Mongolia waited for this bronze medal and now we have no medal.”
The crowd roared approval and chanted “Mon-gol-ia! Mon-gol-ia!”
One of the coaches lay facedown in the center of the mat, kicking and pounding the ground. Members of Brazil’s National Public Security Force forcibly removed the men from the arena.