Former Cyclone Varner Wins Olympic Wrestling Gold

By K.J. Pilcher, Reporter

Jacob Stephen Varner of the United States, celebrates winning against Valerii Andriitsev of Ukraine, at the end of their 96-kg freestyle wrestling gold medal match at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012, in London. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

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By Grant Burkhardt

LONDON, England – Jake Varner will pass on the champagne.

If he will toast his latest accomplishment, it will likely be chocolate milk or Mountain Dew.

Varner earned the right by capping USA Wrestling’s 2012 Olympic Games with the gold at 96 kilograms Sunday ExCeL North Arena 2 in London. The former Iowa State two-time NCAA champion defeated Ukraine’s Valeri Andriitsev 1-0, 1-0, in the championship bout. Varner joined teammate Jordan Burroughs, who won the 74 KG gold medal earlier, giving the United States two gold medalists in the same year for the first time since University of Iowa Coach Tom Brands and Kurt Angle won Olympic titles in the 1996 in Atlanta.

One to avoid the fanfare was forced to soak in the moment, but he was happy to share it with more than 20 family members that traveled to England.

“Every time I step on the mat I expect to win,” Varner said in a post-match interviews posted here. “I think I smiled more than I normally do, but it’s just exciting to have my family here so I’m going to spend it with them.”

The finals match was the first meeting between Varner and Andriitsev. The 26-year-old Bakersfield, Calif., native said he knew Andriitsev liked the right underhook, so he remained patient and waited for his opening. He took advantage with an ankle-pick takedown in the first and then secured the win with a pushout in the second.

“I just went out there and tried to stick to my wrestling,” Varner said, “and focus on what I do best and score.”

Varner opened with a win over Uzbekistan’s Kurban Kurbanov (1-0, 0-1, 1-0) and then beat Khetag Liev of Canada (1-0, 1-0) to reach the semifinals. In the semifinals, Varner earned a hard-fought comeback 0-2, 1-0, 1-0 win over Georgi Gogshelidze of Georgia.

“He’s great. He’s the best in the world, an Olympic champ,” USA Freestyle Coach Zeke Jones said. “He was brilliant. He was stingy on defense (and) scored. He really dominated (Sunday).”

Gogshelidze, a former World champion and bronze medalist at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China, almost derailed Varner’s trek to become the United States’ 49th Olympic gold medalist in freestyle wrestling. Varner’s pushout in the third, elevated him to the finals.

“He was tough,” Varner said. “he was a big strong guy. He was hard to score on.

“After the first period I knew I had to do something after that clinch. I had to go out there and score some points . I figured out where to score. I did that.”

Not only was Varner able to share the moment with his family, but he did it with former Cyclone coach and mentor Cael Sanderson in his corner. After his college career, Varner moved to State College, Pa., to train with Sanderson, who left Ames to be the head coach at Penn State University.

“It was awesome. You can’t ask for anything better than that,” Varner said of Sanderson’s attendance. “I’m so fortunate to have him. I owe a lot to that guy. I love that guy. I thank him for a lot.”

The event was special to Sanderson, a gold medalist at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. The feat hadn’t sunk in immediately after the win.

“Jake Varner’s an Olympic champion. That’s it,” Sanderson said in post-match interviews. “That’s what he wanted since he was a little kid and now he’s an Olympic champion. It’s awesome.”

Sanderson said Varner stayed calm and collected during the day. Not easy considering he had one of the toughest brackets. One of the reason’s he is toting home gold is because of his composure Sunday and his focus leading up to competition.

“He’s been dedicated this whole trip,” Sanderson said. “He’s just been sitting in his room resting and doing what it takes to win. That’s why he won.”

The United States finished third in overall standings with 38 points, two behind Russia and Georgia, which tied for first. In addition to Varner and Burroughs, Coleman Scott earned bronze at 60 KG. The U.S. team still has work to do, but the progress is evident.

“Still not No. 1,” Jones said. “In 2009 (World Championships), we had seven first-timers. Now, we have two Olympic champions four years later. We’re on track.”

Clarissa Chun earned a bronze medal in the 49 KG division of women’s freestyle for the USA. It was her second Olympic Games appearance.

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