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Olympic/World fire relit under well-rested Varner
(Editor’s Note: On May 31 and June 1, USA Wrestling hosted Phase I of the World Team Trials in Madison, Wisc., where 12 of the 24 spots on the 2014 World Team were filled in either men’s or women’s freestyle. Six Greco berths will be filled June 13 in Daytona Beach, Fla., while the remaining six spots over the three styles will be determined during the Junior/Cadet Nationals, July 19-24, in Fargo, N.D. In honor of this seven-week period of World Team Trials events, WIN is providing features on those who have qualified to compete in Uzebekistan in September.)
By Mike Finn
One of the first things fans are noticing about Jake Varner is how much bigger the 28-year-old native of Bakersfield, Calif., has gotten since winning an Olympic gold medal in 2012.
What may be even bigger for Varner is his desire to earn even more World/Olympic honors, but only after taking last year off.
“My plan was to end my career in 2012 after winning an Olympic and World title, but I only got one of those,” said Varner, who settled for a bronze medal at the 2011 Worlds in Istanbul, Turkey. “Now two Olympic gold medals sound better than one, but I didn’t know that I’d come back. I needed the break.”
Two years later, Varner’s head is shaved and his shoulders appear much larger than they did in 2012 when the former two-time NCAA champion from Iowa State and disciple of Cael Sanderson won all four of his bouts at the London Olympics, including a victory over Ukrainian Valeri Andritsev in the gold-medal bout at 211.5 pounds.
With FILA adding 2.5 pounds to Varner’s weight class, the 2014 U.S. Open champion solidified his World Team spot at Phase I of the 2014 World Team Trials in Madison, Wisc., May 31, when he won a pair of Championship Series matches, 7-2 and 5-2, over Challenge tournament winner Dustin Kilgore.
And except for giving up two late takedowns to Kilgore when Varner appeared to slip, Varner was the more dominant wrestler … leading one to ask if Varner is better than he was in 2012.
“I’d like to think I’m a lot better,” Varner said. “I try to get better every time I go into the wrestling room, whether it’s one or one-half percent. Hopefully by now, I’m a lot better than I was in 2012.”
Varner said he didn’t know for sure he wanted to return until after the 2013 Worlds when the United States failed to medal at his weight class in Budapest, Hungary.
“You have to know you want to come back and want to win,” he said. “I’m not doing this just to do it or play around. I’m here to win. That’s what I do every time I step out on the mat. Whatever happens … happens. I figure I have a little left in me and will go as long as I can go.”
The only thing Varner may lack before the 2014 FILA World Championships in Uzbekistan in September is recent world competition. The only tournament Varner wrestled in since returning to competition was this past February in Turkey, but was forced to withdraw after suffering an injury.
“I’ve wrestled in plenty of overseas tournaments,” he said. “It’s getting back out there and in the competition setting.”
Varner, who continues to live and train in State College, Pa., for the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club, also believes those around him will remind him what is important.
“Once you win something big like the Olympics or Worlds, you hit the pinnacle of wrestling and it’s almost like, ‘what’s left?’” he said. “Your motivation wanders a bit and that’s why I needed time off. Coach Cael, Coach (Casey) Cunningham and Coach Cody (Sanderson) are always preaching about having fun and just wrestle. As long as you do that, you’ll be fine.”