By Gary Mihoces, USA TODAY
LONDON - Jake Varner dreamed of winning Olympic wrestling gold when he watched Cael Sanderson do it in 2004. He fed off Sanderson's coaching tutelage at Iowa State and followed him to Penn State. He drilled with Sanderson before the Olympics. And he gave Sanderson a mighty hug Sunday after making his own climb to the top of the podium.
"It's awesome. He's an Olympic champion. I'm an Olympic champion now. I'm still not sure if I'm in his league, but it's awesome," Varner said after he beat Valerii Andriitsev of Ukraine 1-0, 1-0 in the final of the 211.5-pound class of freestyle wrestling.
Just as teammate Jordan Burroughs did when he won gold Friday night, Varner earned a $250,000 bonus from USA Wrestling via its Living the Dream Medal Fund.
"It's pretty sweet," Varner said. "But you don't come out here to wrestle for the money. It's for the gold medal. I guess the money is kind of icing on the cake."
Varner, a world bronze medalist last year, wrapped himself in the U.S. flag and danced around a nearby mat after his win. When he finally reached Sanderson on the floor of the arena, Sanderson lifted him off the ground like the wrestlers they are.
"He's an Olympic champion," said Sanderson. "That's it. Now, he's an Olympic champion."
Varner didn't tweet a guarantee of gold as teammate Burroughs did before winning. But Olympic gold was his aim when he left Bakersfield, Calif., to wrestle at Iowa State. Sanderson was an assistant under Bobby Douglas when Varner got there. Sanderson became head coach the next season after Douglas' retirement.
"When I took my recruiting trip to Iowa State and met him (Sanderson), I knew that's where I needed to be, and he was going to get me to my ultimate goal, which was to be a gold medalist at the Olympics. And that's what he did," Varner said. That's what I told myself when I met him. That was the whole plan."
Sanderson left to become coach at Penn State after Varner's junior year. Varner stayed at Iowa State and won his second consecutive NCAA title under Coach Kevin Jackson. After that, he moved to Penn State to train under Sanderson with the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club.
"The day after I graduated I loaded up and drove out there (to Penn State). It was like 14½ hours," Varner said.
In Olympic wrestling, a match is decided by who wins the best of three separately scored two-minute periods. In the first period against Andriitsev, Varner got a takedown about 30 seconds in and held on for a 1-0 period win. He got his takedown on what is frequently called a "Cael Sanderson ankle pick," grabbing Andriitsev behind the ankle and tipping him over.
"That's the 'Varner pick,' right there," Sanderson said. "That's his baby."
Varner said this about Sanderson, who has coached Penn State to consecutive NCAA team titles: "He ankle picked me the other day in practice. He still can wrestle hard, and he's kind of a freak. He's a phenom."
In the second period against Andriitsev, Varner nimbly avoided being pushed out of the wrestling circle. That would have been a point for Andriitsev. Instead, Varner stepped behind him and got a takedown. He won the period 1-0. Match over.
"He likes to compete," Sanderson said. "He's the same whether it's the final or any match. He has great composure."
In the semifinals, Varner battled back to defeat 2008 Olympic bronze medalist Giorgi Gogshelidze of Georgia. After losing the first period 2-0, Varner won the next two 1-0, 1-0.
After that match, Varner was anticipating meeting 2011 world champion Reza Yazdani of Iran in the final.
But in Yazdani's semifinal, he suffered a leg injury while wrestling against Andriitsev. Yazdani was unable to continue. He was taken off the arena floor in a wheelchair. Andriitsev advanced. Yazdani later forfeited a match for a bronze medal.
"You adjust to who you wrestle," Sanderson said. "In a tournament like this, if you come in here trying to pick and choose who you are going to wrestle, you end up getting beat. Whoever steps out in front of you, you wrestle."
Asked about that, Varner said, "It doesn't matter. You can't really think ahead. Everyone thought it was going to be one guy, and it was another. You just wait to see who you're gonna wrestle."
Varner's words were almost identical to Sanderson's. They've been on the same page for a long time. Now they're both Olympic champions.
Varner doesn't show a lot of emotion. He hardly smiled on the podium. That's his way. So how was he going to celebrate?
"I don't know, probably some chocolate milk or some Mountain Dew, something like that," he said.
Cael Sanderson likes Mountain Dew, too.