LONDON — It’s never clear at the Olympics exactly where gold medalists go after they get their prizes — mixed zones, press conferences, TV interviews. The hours after that brief moment on the podium are a whirlwind. But sometimes it’s absolutely clear where they come from.
On Sunday afternoon at the ExCeL center, Jake Varner of the U.S. had just won the 96-kg freestyle wrestling gold medal with an unruffled and dominating 1-0, 1-0 victory over Ukraine’s Valeri Andritsev. The win by the 26-year-old Varner, a two-time NCAA champion for Iowa State who now trains under 2004 Olympic champion Cael Sanderson in State College, Penn., followed Jordan Burroughs’ victory in the 74-kg class on Friday and it gave the U.S. wrestling team its first multi-gold medal Games since 1996. Now Varner, with sweat still dripping from his brow, had been hustled off to who knows where deep in the wrestling venue.
Meanwhile, out in the ExCel’s vast central hallway, amid the flow of fans headed for the exits and the trains after the day’s last matches, Team Varner had gathered: Father Steve, mother Renee, three sisters and assorted friends and relatives — all decked out in custom-made white T-shirts emblazoned with Jake’s name and image and the words, 2012 Olympics 96-kilogram. They had yet to catch up with Jake, but they were clearly happy just to wait, soaking up the scene and posing for photos for passing fans.
Happiest of all, perhaps, was Jake’s paternal grandfather, Bill, who had celebrated his 95th birthday shortly before flying from Bakersfield, Calif., to London to watch his grandson wrestle and who, now — red-white-and-blue sneakers on his feet and a bottle of beer in his hand — allowed that Jake had “done pretty good. “An amateur boxer in his Navy days, Bill was asked if he’d instilled some of that combativeness in Jake.
“Well, sure, “he said. “But I was 124 pounds. He’s a little bigger.”
Steve Varner, his voice hoarse and raspy from cheering his son through the day’s four matches, said, “It hasn’t sunk in yet. It all happens in a day and you just don’t have time to make a mistake.”
He said he knew, though, that Jake was ready for his chance on the Olympic mat. “We tried to instill in all our kids that if you want something, you have to put in the work. You gotta work. And there’s still no guarantee, but you have to do it with passion.”
Steve, whose face speaks to his own amateur boxing career, was the wrestling coach at Bakersfield High in the 1970’s and ’80s and he introduced Jake to the sport. By the time Jake got to high school, where he would win two state titles, Steve had moved on and Jake’s cousin Andy Varner had taken over the program. But Steve stayed closely involved with Jake’s career after he went to Iowa State to work with Sanderson, the most accomplished U.S. collegiate wrestler ever, and later after Jake followed Sanderson to Penn State. In July, shortly before Jake left for London, Steve visited him in State College.
“He had a bulletin board there, “said Steve, “and he’d pinned up photos of his family and messages to himself. One said, ‘2012 Olympic Champion — Why not me?’ and another said, ‘I AM the 2012 Olympic champion.’ I knew then he would be ready.”
And he was. In May, Varner had lost in the World Cup to 2011 world champion Rez Yazdani of Iran and the experience had made him determined not to be outworked in London. He and Sanderson wanted to make every match a test of endurance as much as technique. Said Sanderson, “That was part of his deal: Force the pace and make conditioning a factor.”
In his first match of the day, against 2007 world bronze medalist Kurban Kurbanov of Uzbekistan, Varner took that philosophy to the mat, wrestling aggressively and initiating contact, winning by taking two of the three periods (1-0, 0-1, 1-0). Fired up, Varner rolled over Canada’s Khetag Pliev 1-0, 1-0 to put himself in the semifinals. He faced a tougher nut there, though, in 33-year-old Giorgi Gogshelidze of Georgia, a bronze medalist from the 2008 Beijing Games who’d been world champion (in 2001) when Varner was a freshman in high school. Gogshelidze took the first period 2-0, but with Sanderson urging him on, Varner rallied to take the next two and the win.
As the draw progressed it had appeared that Varner would get a rematch with Yazdani in the final, but when the Iranian injured his leg in his semifinal and left the mat in a wheelchair, Varner was left to face the relatively unknown Andriitsev.
Said Anderson of the change in expectations, “You adjust to whoever you’re wrestling. In a tournament like this, if you come in trying to pick or choose who you’re going to wrestle you end up getting beat early.”
Varner adjusted seamlessly. Wrestling with calm intensity, as Anderson watched from beside the podium with his chiseled head resting on his fist as if he were studying a chessboard, Varner used a flashing ankle pick to take the first period 1-0. (“That’s the Varner pick right there, that’s his baby, “Sanderson would say later.) Thirty seconds into the second period, Varner turned a charge by Andriitsev into another point. And from there he controlled the action to the finish.
“Jake’s got great short time defense, “said Zake Jones, the other U.S. coach. “You can’t get to his legs.”
When the match ended, Varner dropped to his knees and pointed to the roof. Though he would do a quick victory lap with a huge American flag, his celebration was nothing like the pyrotechnics produced by the flamboyant Burroughs on Friday. But, said Sanderson, that was just Jake being Jake. “Sometimes you have to kind of push him out there to get him to run around, “he said with a laugh.
Half an hour later, the medal around his neck and a small mouse under his left eye, Jake was asked how he planned to celebrate.
“Maybe some chocolate milk or a Mountain Dew, “he said, allowing himself a grin. “But mostly I just want to find my family and be with them for a while.”
To judge by the gathering later outside the venue, they’d be there for him, the whole proud bunch of them, just like they’d always been.