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By ED KLAJMAN, Special to The Californian
LONDON — Bakersfield’s Jake Varner is an Olympic wrestling champion.
On the final day of competition at the 2012 London Olympic Games, the Bakersfield High grad claimed the gold medal in the heavyweight division (211.5 pounds) with a comprehensive victory over Ukrainian Valerii Andriitsev.
"Every time I step on the mat I expect to win," said the 26-year-old, moments after having the gold medal draped around his neck and listening to his national anthem. "But I think I smiled more than I usually do. It's just cool to have (this medal). It's so crazy."
He said he planned to celebrate the fulfillment of his lifelong dream by "going out for some chocolate milk" with his parents, girlfriend and a few close friends who came to watch him.
"I just want to be around the people I love right now — just enjoy it as long as I can. It’s exciting to have my family with me and I can go out and spend the night with them," said Varner, whose father Steve, a former wrestling coach, got him involved in the sport.
He added that all the support he has received from Bakersfield has meant a lot to him.
"Bakersfield's awesome. I guess this puts it on the map, but it's a great place to be. I'm glad I'm from there."
Varner, who was a two-time national champion at Iowa State, also became a lot wealthier with his victory. He collected a $250,000 bonus from the Living the Dream Medal Fund that supports American wrestling.
"That's pretty sweet. I don't know what to say," said Varner, who now lives in Pennsylvania so he can train with Penn State wrestling coach and all-time great Cael Sanderson. "You don't come out here and wrestle for the money. This is for a gold medal. I guess the money's kind of icing on the cake and extra incentive to go out there and do your job. Regardless if there was that prize or not, we were going to do our job anyways. But it's nice to have."
Coming off a bronze medal at last year's world championship, Varner came into these Games with a laser-like focus on the gold medal — insisting that everything else about the Olympic experience was of minimal importance to him. And he had to wait until the very end of the two-week Olympiad for his chance to shine.
His patience was rewarded as this was a day where all the stars aligned for him. The Olympic wrestling competition is done with a blind draw, so the top two wrestlers can meet in the first round. Varner got a great draw, with the world champion and heavy favorite from Iran, Reza Yazdani, on the other side, along with a couple of other top contenders.
Still, there were quality opponents for Varner to battle, starting in the first round with veteran Kurban Kurbanov, the Asian champion from Uzbekistan.
After a scoreless first round, tiebreaking protocol was followed with a red ball and a blue ball placed in a bag. Varner had to choose. He got red, which put him in an advantageous leg clinch position. Kurbanov had to defend for 30 seconds to win the round, but Varner threw him out of the ring for a point within seconds. Kurbanov won the second round on a slippery maneuver but Varner got a quick takedown in the third and defended the rest of the way to advance to the quarterfinals.
Sanderson said he was particularly pleased with how Varner won by sticking with their game plan and not panicking.
"We wanted to push the pace and make conditioning a factor and I think he was able to do that," said Sanderson, who won gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics and went 159-0 wrestling at Iowa State for four years
The quarterfinal was an easy win over Canadian Khetag Pliev, who finished 18th at last year's world championship, with takedowns in consecutive rounds.
The semifinal was dramatic against George Gogshelidze of Georgia — a 32-year-old former world champion and bronze medalist from Beijing. Varner was dominated by his opponent in the first round, losing 2-0. The second round was scoreless, meaning another random choice of red or blue ball with Varner's Olympic Games hanging in the balance.
Once again, luck was on his side as his opponent grabbed blue, putting Varner in charge.
He threw down Gogshelidze in two seconds. Then he got a point early in the third round and held off the hard-charging Georgian to find his way to the gold medal bout.
"It came out blue and luckily that was my color. I know how to score so I just went in there and did what I could do," said Varner, about the good fortune of the random ball grab going his way.
Sanderson said it was a "huge win" for Varner.
"Jake's very good at adjusting and figuring out what the guy was trying to do, slowing him down, grabbing his shoe hand and he did a nice job and it was a little bit closer than we hoped, but that was good," he said. "You don't want to go to a ball grab in the second period down by one. But he did an awesome job. It's do or die and if you want to be a gold medalist that's the time to shine, and he did it."
After Varner made the final, the Iranian powerhouse Yazdani went down with a serious knee injury and could barely stand up against Andriitsev, who beat him easily. Yazdani was taken away in a wheelchair and the path was clear for Varner to face Andriitsev, who was second in the European Championships this year and is a former junior world champion.
"He won dominantly," said Sanderson, noting how Varner won using his special ankle pick over the East European. "He was controlling the periods and the tie-ups. He's awesome. He just likes to compete. He's the same whether it's the Olympic finals or any match. And that's one of the reasons he's so good. He just has great composure. That and just living the lifestyle for a long time. He's the man. He's been dedicated this whole trip. He's just been sitting in his room resting and doing what it takes to win and that's why he won."
U.S. Olympic team coach John Smith was also effusive in his praise for Varner.
"Varner's tough whether he's ahead or behind. It doesn't matter. He's the Olympic champ. But when he is in the lead, he's got great short-time defense. He's great at being in the blocking position. You can't get to his legs."
As for his wrestling future, Varner said he has yet to think about it.
"I love wrestling and I love competing," said the 6-foot-1, 211 pounder, who studied criminal justice at Iowa State. "I don't really know what to think right now. I'm not done. This was my goal — to be an Olympic gold medalist. We'll see. Just going to enjoy the moment right now and make plans later."