Sunday, Aug 12 2012 10:26 PM

On Top of the World: Varner captures Olympic gold

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    Jacob Stephen Varner of the United States celebrates during the victory ceremony after winning the gold medal in 96-kg freestyle wrestling at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012, in London. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

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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 graduate claimed the gold medal in the 96-kilogram division with a comprehensive victory over Ukrainian Valerii Andriitsev.

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On Twitter

@zewing: Jake Varner wins gold, drops to his knees and screams. #BCali

@SInow (Sports Illustrated): Jake Varner earns #TeamUSA a 2nd wrestling GOLD in the same Olympic games for the first time since 1996.

@AmesTribSports: Olympics: Former Cyclone Jake Varner wins wrestling gold.

@kevinomccarthy: Congrats to Bakersfield's @JakeVarner211 for winning the gold medal today! What an amazing accomplishment!

@michaelrubio: Congratulations to Bakersfield Olympian Jake Varner for winning Gold in wrestling.

@semayer: Wow! Bakotweeps abuzz about BHS grad Jake Varner's gold medal win this morning.

@zewing: Varner carrying the Stars and Stripes around the ExCel Centre. Hug from Cael Sanderson. Now they're both Olympic champs. #bcali

@KiraSuzanne: Congrats to Jake Varner on winning the GOLD!!! #wellearned #olympics

@Condors: @JakeVarner211 toppled the world. Now it's our job to #ToppleTheThunder.

@ErikaErika321: Congrats @JakeVarner211!! It's awesome having an Olympic winner from bakersfield! Enjoy your win.

@zewing: Varner was a medal contender but far from a favorite. He said from the beginning qualifying for the Olympics wasn't enough. Backed it up.

@litaliay: Excited to be able to say that I went to school w/ Olympic gold medalist @Jakevarner211 Will def be the coolest guy at our hs reunion!!

@caelsanderson: Olympic Champion Jake Varner 96kg!!! USA!! Next stop Conan O'Brien Show. Let's get this trending #VarneronConan

@gerogreene: Jake Varner of Bakersfield wins the gold medal. I have this urge to run up and down the streets shouting USA.

@nicky_stone: Jake Varner will you marry me?

@kaylinnxoxo_: Jake varner kinda cute .....

@Weah298: Jake Varner's ears are hardcore #cauliflowerear #hot

Diane Pucin, Los Angeles Times

LONDON -- Jake Varner learned to wrestle in Bakersfield. From his father, Steve. From his cousin, Andy, who coached Jake to two California high school state championships and who still coaches at Bakersfield High.

"It's in my blood," said Varner, who now has something Steve and Andy don't have.

An Olympic gold medal.

Varner, 26, tripped up Valerii Andriitsev of Ukraine, 1-0, 1-0, in the 96-kilogram freestyle wrestling final at the Excel Centre on the final day of Olympic competition. For the first time since 1996 in Atlanta, the U.S. team won two gold medals in men's wrestling. New Jersey's Jordan Burroughs won Friday night.

Luke Meredith, The Associated Press

LONDON -- Cael Sanderson spent the past seven years teaching Jake Varner how to be a world champion -- and he was there Sunday when Varner joined him as an Olympic gold medalist.

With Sanderson watching, Varner defeated Valerie Andriitsev of Ukraine 1-0, 1-0 to win gold in men's 96-kilogram freestyle.

Coupled with Jordan Burroughs' win in the 74 kilograms Friday night, it gave the American team multiple Olympic gold medalists in men's wrestling for the first time since 1996.

"Still not sure I'm in his league, but it's awesome to be coached by a guy like that," Varner said of Sanderson, a gold medalist at the 2004 Athens Olympics. "I owe him a lot. It means a lot to have him with me."

Varner and Sanderson's relationship began in 2005 at Iowa State, where Sanderson coached before jumping to Penn State. The day after Varner graduated in 2010, he piled up the car and drove 15 hours to Pennsylvania to train full-time with Sanderson.

Sanderson said last week that Varner had pounded on him during training sessions leading up to the Olympics. Varner showed that good form by winning four straight matches for gold.

"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 then 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 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 spend the night with them," said Varner, whose father, Steve, a 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 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 of the championship match, noting how Varner won using his special ankle pick over the Eastern 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."

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