The 2022 college wrestling national championships are over … but the great...
Varner followed in his coach’s golden footsteps with an Olympic championship
LONDON, England — Go ahead Jake Varner … smile … you are an Olympic champion.
Even the normally subdued native of Bakersfield, Calif., admitted he had to crack a grin after he defeated Ukrainian Valerii Andriitsev for the championship at 211.5 pounds in men’s freestyle.
“I think I smiled more than I usually do,” said Varner who scored one point in every period to shutout his finals opponent. “It’s exciting for me to have my family here.
I’ll probably drink some chocolate milk.”
Varner has never been one to get caught up in other people’s opinions or ways to do things, including wrestling.
The one person who definitely matters to Varner is Cael Sanderson, who became more of a role model for Varner, who was first recruited by the only man to win every match and four NCAA championships at Iowa State and a 2004 gold medal for the U.S. in freestyle wrestling.
“It’s awesome,” who eventually got lifted by Sanderson in celebration. “(Sanderson) was an Olympic champion. I’m an Olympic champion now. I’m not sure if I’m in his league. It’s awesome to be coached by a guy like that and thank him for everything. I owe him a lot.”
Even when Sanderson left Varner behind at Iowa State in 2009 to take the Penn State job, the young protégée eventually left Ames for State College, Pa., after winning a second NCAA championship.
“The day after I graduated, I left for Pennsylvania,” recalled Varner, who is now part of the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club, where Sanderson — who temporarily came out of retirement to compete at 185 pounds in last year’s Worlds — became Varner’s training partner and friend.
And it has been Varner’s continuing association with Sanderson that helped him win a bronze medal in last September’s World Championships in Instanbul, Turkey, and eventually a gold medal in this year’s Olympics.
“The dude still can wrestle hard,” Varner said. “He’s kind of a freak; a phenom. He goes hard and the last one out of the wrestling room every day.”
“In winning the first period against Andriitsev, Varner executed an ankle pick for a takedown … and then showed mat awareness in the second period, when he avoided being pushed out and eventually sent the Ukrainian outside the circle for the only point of that period with a minute left.”
Varner also silenced some critics who wondered how well he would perform at the Olympics after not faring well this summer during the World Cup.
What was different for Varner in London?
“Not getting thrown to my back a couple times,” who won all four periods of his four Olympic victories by a 1-0 margin. “You don’t make drastic changes. Just stick to your plan and work on positioning, set ups and shots.”
Varner also may have gotten a break when 2011 World champion Reza Yazdani, who suffered a knee injury in his semifinal — so serious that the Iranian could not compete in the bronze medal match — and was among several top-ranked wrestlers in this weight class that were upset.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Varner. “You can’t think ahead. You don’t think about that. You just wait to see who you are going to wrestle and stay focused on what you are going to do out there.”
That’s how Varner celebrates.