INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- Jake Varner knows what it takes to win an Olympic wrestling gold medal.
The Bakersfield, California, native did so in 2012 in London, when he won the freestyle 96-kilogram division.
|Jake Varner (R) appears during his match against Mohammad Hossein Mohammadian of Iran at the Freestyle Wrestling World Cup on April 12, 2015 in Inglewood, Calif.
Now 29, coming off a break from the sport and the birth of his first child, Varner is beginning in earnest the journey to winning another gold medal.
One of the first meaningful stops in that journey came this weekend. Varner, competing in his first competition since the 2014 world championships, went 3-1 and helped Team USA win a silver medal at the Freestyle Wrestling World Cup at the Forum in Inglewood.
“It feels good to be out there, get that first match out of the way and be ready for the next one,” he said.
The Freestyle World Cup proved to be an ideal place for Varner to test himself. Besides being close to Varner’s hometown, the event brought wrestlers with a bevy of Olympic and world championships medals to Southern California.
“Everything’s a learning process,” U.S. coach Bruce Burnett said. “So it doesn’t make any difference if you take a math exam or a wrestling exam, you got to find out what you did wrong, correct it and then come back and try to take the exam again. That’s the process that we have to do, and this is a great opportunity because we have some of the top wrestlers in the world here.”
Varner will have lots to dissect in the coming weeks.
Despite the lack of action early on in his opening match against Cuba’s Javier Lacerra Cortina, Varner defended to near perfection around the two-minute mark to take a 1-0 lead into the second. Varner dominated late in the match with a variety of shots to clinch the 3-0 win, and more importantly, a huge vote of confidence. The crowd erupted when Varner used the ankle pick to get the upper hand against a tough first opponent in in Cortina.
“I’ve wrestled him (Cortina) before, wrestled him in 2012, so I knew what he had and I was prepared for it,” Varner said. “He’s a tough guy, strong guy.”
Team USA defeated Cuba 6-2, despite losing the first two matches against a squad that featured five world championships medalists.
Despite Varner’s 0-4 shutout loss in Saturday’s second session to Russia’s Yury Belonovskiy, Team USA clinched the victory thanks to 2012 Olympian Tervel Dlagnev’s 10-0 shutout of Arslanbek Aliev at 125 kg. The United States needed a pin or a tech-fall to defeat Russia by criteria.
U.S. teammate Jordan Burroughs, a 2012 Olympic gold medalist and two-time world champion, notched his 100th career win after defeating Russia’s Iakubali Shikhdzhamalov 12-0 at 74 kg.
Varner came out strong to start the competition Sunday morning, being the aggressor against Mongolia’s Khuderbulga Dorjkhand that he failed to be the evening before. He dominated the center of the mat early on, going up 3-0 after one. Despite getting a warning in the following period, Varner's collar tie got him back in control to finish with a final of 3-0.
“It’s a cycle. He’s building back up to be at his best mentally and physically for the 2016 Olympics,” Cael Sanderson, Varner’s coach, said. “I think before the 2012 Games, he had been to the worlds, he had won a medal the year before, then he won (at the Olympic Games). There is that progression. I believe he’s on track to do the same thing (this time around).”
Sanderson was one of the most dominant freestyle wrestlers of all time while going undefeated in four years of college wrestling and then winning a 2004 Olympic gold medal. He coached Varner at Iowa State, and Varner followed Sanderson when the coach took over at Penn State.
|Jake Varner (R) is victorious in his match against Mohammad Hossein Mohammadian of Iran at the Freestyle Wrestling World Cup on April 12, 2015 in Inglewood, Calif.
Immediately following Team USA’s victory over Mongolia, Sanderson hinted at the potential test coming up for Varner.
“This is preparation. If he wrestles Iran, he’ll wrestle a world champion tonight,” Sanderson said. “It’s all part of the process and all practice.”
The U.S. and Iran met in the gold-medal match, with Varner matched up against Mohammad Hossein Mohammadian. Mohammadian, son of two-time Olympic silver medalist Askari Mohammadian, won a bronze medal at the 2014 world championships.
With Iran up 4-2 after six bouts, Varner had to deliver for Team USA — and he did. After Varner went up 1-0, a series of quality shots followed by a pushout by Mohammadian put the Irani up 3-1. With less than 45 seconds left to make a move, Varner level changed in the final 10 seconds to take down Mohammadian at the buzzer. Although the score was 3-3, Varner earned the win because he scored last.
“I thought to myself, ‘I'm not losing this match,’” Varner said. “I think I heard the announcer say 15 seconds so I had to do something. I did everything I could to score.”
Zach Rey had a chance to win the gold for Team USA in the 125 kg bout after Dlagnev scratched with an injury, but time expired with the score reading 3-1. For the fourth consecutive year, Iran was the Freestyle World Cup champion after defeating the Unites States 5-3.
For Varner, it wasn’t the result he was hoping for. But with less than 500 days until the 2016 Games begin in Rio, the journey still has a long way to go.
“You just got to always get better, no matter what you win, what you do, how good you are, that’s the good thing about this sport, you can always get better,” Varner said. “There’s always somewhere to improve, a new move to learn. It’s just about making adjustments to make yourself better. It’s just another step towards 2016.”