When I read that American Kyle Snyder won the silver medal in Freestyle Wrestling (215-pound category) at the Tokyo Olympics, it reminded me of interviewing gold medalist Brandon Slay for my book, How Do You Know He’s Real: God Unplugged. Wow, has time flown. I thought you might find his story inspiring. I surely did.
Brandon Slay surprised the world when he won the Olympic Gold Medal in Freestyle Wrestling at the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia. A native of Amarillo, Texas, Slay has wrestled most of his life, including a successful career at the University of Pennsylvania where he earned dual degrees in Finance and Management from the prestigious Wharton School of Business. Brandon is the Executive Director and Head Coach of the Pennsylvania Regional Training Center based in Philadelphia. He is committed to helping wrestlers on their journey to success on the mat, in life, and in faith. www.brandonslay.com.
I didn’t come from an ideal family—not even close. My mom and dad got divorced when I was three years old. She won custody of me in the courts and moved me from our home in Amarillo, Texas, all the way down to Houston—a ten-hour drive from my father. I used to cry for my dad all the time because I didn’t get a chance to see him much. It was just my mom and me until I was five years old. Now, my mom’s a pretty small lady, so when I was a rough and tumble boy of five, she realized it was probably going to be pretty tough for her to handle me as I got bigger. One day, she asked me if I wanted to go live with my dad. At five years old, I guess I was old enough to make that life-changing decision, so I said yeah and my dad came and got me. My father really didn’t have a house to live in, so we moved in with my grandmother. My grandmother was really the rock in my life as I was growing up. I would not be the man I am today without the love of my grandmother.
When I was six years old, my dad encouraged me to try wrestling. I remember losing my first match so badly that I ran and hid in the bathroom, crying. But only 19 matches later, I had a victory! And then I was hooked. I wrestled throughout high school and joined the wrestling team at the University of Pennsylvania. When I was in college, like so many other kids, I had this attitude… life was all about me, especially when it came to my sport. It was all about my strength; it was all about my courage, and it was all about my intelligence. Reaching my goals was all in my own power. But there was still a lot of emptiness in my life and I didn’t understand why. When I graduated from college, I moved out to Colorado Springs, Colorado, to the Olympic training center. And right outside my window was a 14,000-foot mountain called Pike’s Peak. Every morning I’d pull up the shades and look outside and see that beautiful scene. I started really realizing some of the beauty that God created and it started bringing me closer to the Lord.
Going to church wasn’t part of my life when I was at the Olympic Training Center. Until one day, when these two attractive volleyball players came up to me and asked me if I wanted to go with them the next Sunday. Isn’t it cool—God knew what it was going to take to get me back into church—two good-looking girls! Obviously, my motives were really wrong, but I found myself listening to the pastor talk about Matthew 10:39. And this verse says, “If you cling to your life you’ll lose it, but if you give it up to me, you’ll find it.” He was talking about my life—I realized I’d been clinging to my life for far too long and I wasn’t happy inside. But you know what, I wasn’t ready to give it up yet because I had been in control of myself for so long. I might want to give God 20 percent, but I’d keep the other 80 percent. I wasn’t ready.
In 1999, the year before the Olympics, I went to the World Team Trials. I placed 6th in the nation. Now that may sound pretty good, but if you want to be on the Olympic team, you’ve got to be first in the nation. I remember going back to the Olympic Training center confused because I had trained so hard and believed in myself, but still I’d failed. I didn’t understand why I kept coming up short. Suddenly I went back to that verse, Matthew 10:39, “Cling to your life and you’ll lose it, but give it up to me and you’ll find it.” I just continued to keep clinging! I figured it was time to give it up to God: “You know what, God, I’m going to start doing things your way. You say in Psalms 37:4 that if I delight myself in the Lord, you will give me the desires of my heart. Well, my sincerest desire is to be a national champion and to win a gold medal.” Once I got back into church, I understood that delighting in the Lord takes getting rid of the junk in your life: alcohol abuse, doing drugs, premarital sex, cussing and thinking life is all about yourself; all the sins I was struggling with. So I worked hard to get rid of that junk. I studied my Bible, spent time in prayer and worship, thanking God for all the things He’d done in my life. And I started hanging around with other Christians. Once I sincerely gave my life to Him, I started getting this peace that I’d never felt before. Now, instead of going out getting drunk with my buddies, I got home early and the next day I could actually enjoy my day without a hangover. I also made a commitment to purity, and I started seeing women the way God created them to be—not the way the world portrays them.
I took this peace with me to the 2000 National Tournament. I was a new man. I went to this tournament with a reminder of my faith written on my kneepad. Joshua 1:9 says this: “Have I not commanded you, be strong and courageous, do not be terrified or discouraged for the Lord goes with you wherever you go.” That meant he was going to be with me on the wrestling mat, how awesome! When I entered the tournament, I was only seeded seventh, which could have been pretty frustrating. But I had a new motto, “I’m going to do my best and let God take care of the rest.” And I went out there and pinned my opponents in the first three matches, all in less than 30 seconds. I beat the #2 seed whom I’d never beat before, and I beat the # 3 seed whom I’d never beat before. So I was in the national finals—the first Texan ever to be there—the #7 seed against the #1 seed. The #1 seed was Joe Williams, and I’d never beat him before. In fact, I was 0-4 against him, so I had my work cut out for me. Before that match I just prayed, “God, if you want me to get second—second, first—first. Lord, I just pray that your will be done. I’m going to go out there and do my best. I’ll do the natural but if you want me to win you are going to have to do the super.” And you know what? I won the national championship. When that match was over, I remember thinking about how I used to do this my own way with my own strength and my own courage, and when I finally gave it up to God, I won the national tournament. “God, you can wrestle!”
Many people thought it was a fluke that this country boy and “Fighting Quaker” from the University of Pennsylvania had beaten Joe Williams. They figured he’d probably beat me at the Olympic Trials. “Delight yourself in the Lord”—I kept that attitude with me through the Olympic trials, which were held in Dallas, Texas. They’ve never had the Olympic trials in Texas and I happened to be the only Texan in the entire tournament. There were over 14,000 spectators, and I was more nervous about the possibility of having to speak in front of all those people than I was about wrestling. But I didn’t see anybody else get interviewed, so I figured I was safe. Before I started competing, I once again gave it all up to God for his will to be done. Joe Williams didn’t make it into the finals. But I did, and I ended up wrestling my college wrestling Coach Brian Dolph. I attribute so much of my success in wrestling to Brian. He had molded me and mentored me for four years and we were really good friends. So for me to wrestle him was a real shocker. I was nervous because I had spent 80% of my time training for Joe Williams and here I was with Brian instead. For me to wrestle him to my full potential, I was going to need to see him as a mound of flesh in front of me, not my buddy Brian. With God’s grace, I became the first native Texan ever to make the Olympic wrestling team. As I’m standing there sweating and catching my breath, I see this guy running towards me with a microphone. He hadn’t interviewed anybody else yet, but he was going to interview me and my heart started pounding. Now, you have to realize that he could have asked me anything, like “Brandon, what’s your favorite move?” or “What was it like to go against your college wrestling coach?” But instead, he walks up to me and says, “You are one of the first Texans ever to make the Olympic team in wrestling and I just want to know, where do you draw your strength from?” It was perfectly quiet and everybody in the place was listening when I stepped up and said, “I draw my strength from my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” And the whole place started clapping for like 40 seconds—it was a really emotional moment.
With renewed determination, I went back to the Olympic Training Center to get ready to make that trip to Australia. I had a mission now, and trained hard. About two weeks before I left to go to Sydney, I woke up in the middle of the night because my right hand was killing me. When I turned on the light and looked at it, I discovered my entire forearm was so swollen that it looked like a football. I couldn’t even move it because the pain was so excruciating. I was scared. I lay in my bed praying for about four hours until finally the pain got so bad that I had to do something. I ran down to the training room and knocked on the door until they let in me. When the trainers looked at it, they could see a red line traveling up my arm towards my heart. “Brandon, we’ve got to get you to the hospital… NOW!” Fortunately, the hospital is next door to the training center, so we made it to the emergency room in time. Turns out I had a dangerous bacterial infection and it had to be aggressively treated with intravenous antibiotics. I was in the hospital for six days—six days that I should have been training hard for the biggest wrestling match of my career. But the more I prayed about it all, the more peaceful I felt. I knew everything was going to be okay. God was in control—he knew I needed some rest and this was his way of giving it to me! I left that hospital room stronger than ever.
To make the Olympic team, to have the chance to go over to Sydney, Australia and represent our nation was such an honor. It wasn’t just about me; it was about our entire nation of 260 million people. First, I wrestled the guy from Bulgaria and then I wrestled the Russian. This guy hadn’t lost a match in six years—he was the defending Olympic champion! He was picked the best wrestler in the world, pound for pound, and everybody assumed he would win the gold medal. And here I was, this guy from Amarillo, Texas. I just prayed and said, “God, you know I want to beat this guy. Lord, if you want me, get third—third, second—second, first—first. Lord, I’m going to do my best. You take care of the rest.” And I pulled it off, one of the biggest upsets in Olympic wrestling history. I defeated the guys from Kazakhstan, and Turkey and finally made it to the gold medal match against Germany.
Well, the Gold Medal match was just a disaster. First, the referees hit me with a caution because they said I wouldn’t let the German “lock” around me and they gave him two points. Now I’ve been wrestling for eighteen years and I know how to do this–I’d never, ever been called for that. Then they hit me with another caution, this time saying I was squeezing his hand incorrectly, which again was something they had never penalized me for. So he had three points on me. This was the most awkward, unfair match I’d ever wrestled in my life, and it was the biggest one. So I’m down three points with only a minute left. Frantic to make something happen, I took a horrible shot and ended up losing another point to him—the only clean point he scored the entire match. I ended up losing 4-0… so much for my Olympic dream. My coach was nearly speechless; all he could say was “Brandon, that was one of the worst refereeing jobs I’ve ever seen.”
I remember standing on the medal podium with a sort of “deer in the headlights” look on my face. I was absolutely stunned. And then the German reaches down, pats me on the head and says, “It’s okay, you can win the gold next time.” Don’t get me wrong, winning a silver medal in the Olympics is a really big accomplishment, but I didn’t want to lose the gold this way!
But even through all this, God gave me such a strong sense of peace. He made me understand that there’s more to life than winning gold medals and I took that message back home with me. It was great to share my story with kids—my message was that if you work hard, believe in yourself, and make good decisions (like staying away from drugs and premarital sex) you can accomplish your dreams.
The story doesn’t end here. One day, about three weeks after I got home from Australia, I received a call from the Olympic committee. They informed me that the German had tested positive for steroids—performance-enhancing drugs that are banned in competition. He was something like ten times over the limit. As a result, they stripped him of his medal, bringing me from silver to gold, just like that. They awarded me the gold medal in a special ceremony held on the NBC Today Show—the first ceremony ever to be held outside of the Olympics. It was an amazing feeling standing up there on the platform waiting for my medal. An official walked up to me, put the gold medal around my neck and said, “You’ll forever be Olympic champion.”
I’ll tell you what, having a gold medal is cool, but the biggest lesson I learned in this whole journey is that there is a greater peace, there is a greater treasure, there is a greater faith, there is a greater power, and there is a greater GOLD to life. And for me, the greatest gold medal that I have in my life is my relationship with Jesus Christ. My gold medal will eventually fade and tarnish. But my relationship with Jesus Christ will truly last forever. Nothing will ever satisfy you, ever give you peace, like knowing that when your life on this earth is over, you’ll have eternal peace and hope with Jesus Christ. I tried all the other things the world says will make you happy. The reality is they left me empty, miserable, and without a purpose. Living for yourself in sin causes you and others so much pain. Now I know what is true. Now I know what is real. Now I know there is something so much greater: A Greater Gold.
Brandon interviewed silver medalist Kyle Snyder on his podcast in 2019: Greater Gold