“I didn’t want to be one of those women in the gym just on the elliptical, that’s not me."
Suzanne Snyder has been the top American female XTERRA athlete for six years. Her reign is part of a double decade of racing that saw her discover XTERRA in 2003 as a curious amateur and rise through the ranks to become a double age group world champion before turning professional in 2010. She became a 5 x XTERRA US Champion, 4 x USAT off-road athlete of the year, 2 x Pan American champion, a national champion, a world championship medalist in both XTERRA and ITU cross triathlon, and earned plenty of race victories and countless podiums. If you’re not impressed yet, Snyder has always worked part time (coaching tactical law enforcement officers where she has the nickname “The Soul Crusher”), has struggled with vocal cord dysfunction, and found her way to the top one single step at time. Competitive and classy, Snyder is a stalwart of the sport and the leader of the American women’s charge in the next XTERRA World Cup race and beyond.
Snyder’s origin story is one of humble beginnings. After watching XTERRA Skyhigh and hearing about a fellow lifeguard’s racing adventures, Snyder was curious about off-road triathlon. At the end of her college education, she was on the hunt for a new sport. “I didn’t want to be one of those women in the gym just on the elliptical, that’s not me. I found XTERRA, and I was a pretty decent swimmer and runner, but I had never mountain biked so it was a fun new challenge.”
After approaching the Skyhigh race director and, serendipitously, finding out he had gone to high school with her father and lived a mile up the road from her, he loaned her a mountain bike so she could try it out. “I didn’t have clipless shoes or anything so I just put my tennis shoes on top of the pedals, which, you know, doesn't work all that well. It was so rocky and covered in moss and I just crashed all over the place and I finished every ride bloody,” Snyder recalls. “I had no idea what I was doing, but for some reason I loved it and kept going.”
Snyder learned bike skills from simply riding with friends, following their lines and watching them ride over technical terrain. “I was a good swimmer and runner so I did fairly well starting out but, of course, it took a while for my mountain biking to catch up,” she says. Even after two seasons racing at the pro level, Snyder says she was still learning. “I made a lot of progress by then but once I took on the Luna sponsorship I had some opportunities to ride with world class mountain bikers. I was like, wow, I still have no idea what I'm doing compared to these girls. That was pretty eye-opening because by then I thought I was pretty decent but I learned, wow, there's a whole other level.”
“At that point I learned that I could actually just focus on practicing skills, like going out in the backyard and creating obstacles that you've got to get over or tight turns for turning drills and doing wheelies and stuff like that,” she explains. However, she never stopped learning from riding with more skilled riders. “When you become more fit, you can keep up with better riders who are also better technically. Learning from other people was the primary thing for me.”
But Snyder is the type of athlete who has to figure things out for herself. Even with coaches guiding her fitness, plenty of athletes to learn from, and support from sponsors and her nearest and dearest, there is a consistent underlying tone that she had to forge her own way. From trying to manage sponsorships, balance her ambitions with her need to work and pay bills, to nailing down race nutrition and being diagnosed with vocal cord dysfunction, Snyder always had to figure out how to keep moving to the next level by herself. “I didn't really have anyone to teach me. I just was kind of going at it on my own.”
In the early stages of her career, Snyder didn’t even have much experience traveling outside the Northeast, let alone the USA. Her brave choice to race internationally was the best decision of her career, she says, but racing at the world class level came with a steep learning curve. “When I first started racing, I had no idea what I was doing. It was just, I’ll figure it out as I go,” she says.
“I didn't really have anyone to teach me. I just was kind of going at it on my own.”
Her hunger to perform pushed her to overcome her inexperience and any other challenge that lay in her path with good old fashioned hard work. “I don’t have nearly as much talent as a lot of my competition,” she says. “Like, I had to work really hard to get up to the pro level. Sometimes I'm like, man, I really wish I had the talent that some of these other girls have. But, you know, I'm also proud of the fact that I don't have that and I made it as far as I have just on hard work and dedication. I have certain strengths but it's been challenging at times and frustrating at times, but makes it more rewarding that way too.”
One of those challenges came from her struggle with vocal cord dysfunction, a medical condition where the vocal cords abnormally close, restricting air flow, and making it hard to breathe. Misdiagnosed with exercise-induced asthma for years, Snyder was never able to find relief from her intense breathing problems during hard efforts. Around 2018, her condition was properly identified but unfortunately the only “treatment” is to control her physical effort. “When my heart rate goes up really fast, my vocal cords constrict and I can't breathe,” she explains. Just a few weeks ago in the world cup opener in Taiwan, Snyder had to ease off running into T1 because she was having trouble breathing. It caused her to lose the main pack for the bike and changed her race completely but it’s a reality she has just learned to accept and handle.
Snyder has also made her fair share of mistakes. Poor equipment choice made one season an uphill battle while following bad advice has cost her a few races. “Looking back, I clearly made a lot of mistakes that, of course, I know now but at the time I had no idea. I was just ignorant and naive and just didn't know what I didn't know,” she says. The race course was always an opportunity for mistakes. “You want to be perfect, you want to ride the course clean, you want to not have a crash or dismount but when you're competitive, you push yourself really hard. And sometimes when I push too hard, I make mistakes. I think you just learn by making the mistake of trying to race too hard, what your limits are and how hard you can push without making mistakes. When you go past that, you lose time because you make more mistakes, you bonk later on, or you just go over your limit,” she explains. “The hard thing is that you don't want to accept that you have limits.”
Laughing, Snyder admits she still starts too fast. Even after two decades of racing, her competitive spirit still wants to reject the reality of physical limits. “So, I still have to reign myself in and slow down, chill out, and ride smooth. I like to tell myself ‘smooth is fast and fast is smooth.'”
It’s exactly that mindset that has kept her passion alive. “XTERRA is that next level of challenge. Anybody can put their head down and just ride threshold on the road, but when you have to focus on the technical aspects, it's that next level of challenge that I really like. Like, here is another obstacle that you've got to figure out how to deal with. How well can you deal with things? It's like a mental obstacle. We’re all in the same boat and the difference is gonna be how you deal with it compared to other people.”
“The hard thing is that you don't want to accept that you have limits.”
From the physical to mental, learning on the job and making mistakes never stopped her from having success. Snyder had a breakthrough performance in 2012, winning the US Championship title, and went on to have a powerhouse season in 2016, winning two championship titles and two World Championship medals. She continued to win races, including XTERRA Beaver Creek, Oak Mountain, and Dominican Republic, and feature at the world championship level throughout the past six years. Most recently, she started off the 2023 season in Taiwan, making her XTERRA World Cup debut and placing 6th.
The inauguration of the World Cup series has given Snyder a new challenge and new motivation, especially with the next stop in the series being XTERRA Oak Mountain. "I'm excited about it because it's one of my favorite courses on the XTERRA circuit. I just love the venue. It feels kind of like home because I'm from the East coast,” she beams. “The lake is clear and I just love open water lakes because that's where I grew up swimming. The mountain bike course is twisty, turny, rocky, rooty, and I love that it's technical. It's not hard but it's hard to ride fast.” Along with comparatively short travel, the comforts of being on home soil, and her previous success on the course, Snyder is hoping to earn as many World Cup points as possible.
"The mountain bike course is twisty, turny, rocky, rooty, and I love that it's technical."
All eyes will be on her as the top American female but Snyder says she will be watching out for the incredibly strong contingent of up-and-coming European females and the two Kiwi's Lizzie Orchard and Samantha Kingsford. “I know Samantha will be tough because she always is. I know Lizzie has had some plantar fasciitis issues but she's normally a gazelle.”
Her excitement for Oak Mountain is boosted by its World Cup status. “My generation of athletes have been wanting a world cup for a really long time. To finally see it come to fruition is really exciting and it's a whole new level with the younger athletes now that are just so fast and so talented. On one hand it's overwhelming, but it's also like, you know what? I'm just kind of happy to still be racing in the top 10 and I'm just gonna see what I can do.”
There is no denying that there is a new generation of younger women coming to the fore. Snyder has been the standout American for a long time but she acknowledges change is happening for her too. "When you start winning races, you expect to win races, right? And over time you start winning less races because you're getting older and you're not as fast and the younger girls are faster. And that shift starts.”
“It's a really hard thing to go through, but I’m learning that, maybe I'm at the tail end and I need to find more life balance between racing and the rest of life because racing isn't my whole life and it's going to be less and less of my identity going forward.” Having a bit more fun, being less strict with her training, and discovering new things she enjoys is her process of discovering how to move forward.
Snyder adds that it isn’t just racing that she will eventually miss. “XTERRA is the most consistent thing in my life. XTERRA has always been the stability in my life, that one constant thing that I can always count on,” she says. “XTERRA is my family and my friends. They are my support group. I'm closer with a lot of XTERRA people than my own family. They've kind of been my support network through hard times and, yeah, I think that's been a major support for me in my life.”
Once again, Snyder is in uncharted territory. “Right now I'm still training hard because I want to do well in the World Cup. Five years ago I would've been gunning for the win, whereas now I'm hoping for top five finishes—and learning how to be happy with that. I’m figuring out how to be content with performances when they're not as good as they used to be and just being happy that I'm still able to train as much as I do and be happy with the performances I am doing, whatever they are, because I'm lucky to be able to still do it regardless of how I'm performing.”
The path forward might be unknown for Snyder but, as she continues to compete with the best in the world, it’s the path behind her that will continue to inspire, guide, and stoke the women of XTERRA.
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