UNIVERSITY PARK — Run down the list of cities Jake Varner has visited and wrestled in over the last four years, and it’d be fair to call him a world-traveler.
Sooner rather than later, the title World Champion could precede his name.
More specifically — Olympic Champ.
But even after all the cross-continental trips across vast oceans and over foreign, mountainous terrain, all the injuries naturally inherent to the sport he’s incurred and all the laborious hours spent toiling away with mentors who have walked this path in the past, Varner’s quest to become an Olympic gold medalist is just getting started.
The Nittany Lion Wrestling Club representative traveled from Belarus to England Saturday with the rest of the U.S. Olympic wrestling team in preparation for the wrestling tournaments which start today.
Varner will make his Olympic debut in the 96-kilogram freestyle bracket on Aug. 12.
“I fell short making the Olympic team (in 2008) and I really thought I had a good chance of doing it then but things didn’t go my way,” Varner said “I wanted to win an Olympic gold medal in 2012.”
Since his third-place finish at the 2008 Olympic Trials, a feat he accomplished while only a sophomore at Iowa State, Varner has approached his sport like a man on fire — not like he hadn’t before.
In the last four years the two-time NCAA champion for Iowa State has spent time in the United States shuffling about from wrestling rooms in Colorado Springs, Bakersfield, Calif. and State College. He’s packed singlets and wrestling shoes for trips to Baku, Azerbaijan; Targoviste, Romania; Istanbul, Turkey; Guadalajara, Mexico; Herning, Denmark and Guelph, Canada among others.
Last stop: London, where Varner will be looking to add to his already impressive trophy collection — which already includes the two NCAA title plaques, a Pan American Games championship and a world bronze medal — with the most sought after piece of hardware on the international wrestling circuit.
Varner expects to do damage in the 96-kilogram bracket which will most likely include the two men who finished ahead of him at the 2011 World Championships.
Iran’s Reza Yazdani and Turkey’s Serhat Balci, both of whom will bring their own impressive resumes and dangerous skillsets to London.
“I think he’s had some very good preparation,” Varner’s coach Cael Sanderson said. “He’s just a competitor. He wrestles at his best when he needs to and in the most critical moments. That’s one of the reasons he’s made the Olympics in the first place and has had as much success as he’s had. He’s going to give it his best shot every time he steps out on the mat. He does the same thing in practice. He’s definitely not somebody anybody’s going to want to see. He’s a bad draw, that’s for sure.”
While keeping up a hectic travel schedule competing in multiple freestyle events, Varner spent much of his summer inside the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex on the Penn State campus training with members of the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club.
Inside, where Sanderson and his staff have chiseled the current Penn State roster into the dominant unit it’s become, Varner sharpened his skills wrestling with Sanderson who coached Varner at Iowa State before the latter was hired to helm the Nittany Lions.
Shortly before April’s Olympic Team Trials, Sanderson — himself an Olympic gold medalist — showed up at practice with a nasty black eye courtesy of Varner. The Penn State coach can run down the list of attributes his top pupil possesses and how his skills from the collegiate folkstyle translate to the Olympic-style of wrestling.
Sanderson couldn’t put his finger on any particular weakness in Varner’s game.
“He’s very difficult to score on. He does a great job of controlling tie-ups and scoring off the tie-ups and he’s been developing some great shots. He’s got a world-class collar tie and he has a lot of ways to score from there,” Sanderson said. “He’s also got some power and explosion that he switches things up with. You’re not really sure when he’s coming or what’s next. And that’s something you don’t see a lot. You don’t see a guy that’s super strong that’s also going to drop and fire a double leg.”
Varner’s also a great scrambler, Sanderson said.
The 26-year-old from Bakersfield, California naturally has benefitted from having Sanderson, who went undefeated at Iowa State and then won a gold medal at 84 kilograms at the 2004 Olympics, in his corner.
“If you want anybody who’s going to teach you how to wrestle to win a gold medal it’d be Cael Sanderson,” former Olympian Rulon Gardner said.
But Sanderson isn’t the only former international champion Varner has worked with.
Kevin Jackson, who won an Olympic gold medal in 1992, coached Varner for the final two seasons of his collegiate career. Both seasons ended with Varner atop the podium in the 197-weight class.
Varner’s also been afforded the opportunity to work with U.S. Olympic team coach Zeke Jones and he’s been able to pick the brains of former Olympic gold medalists like Gardner.
“Looking at Jake, I actually talked to him (in July) and asked him how he was doing and he was confidently secure with who he was,” Gardner said. “And that either means A, he’s happy and content with where he’s at or he’s hungry. And from our conversation, it felt like he was still hungry. It felt like he still had that extra step to go.” Varner won’t deny his hunger.
“Learning never stops unless you choose for it to stop,” Varner said. “I’ve been fortunate enough with the coaches that I’ve had and I guess the level that they’ve achieved to learn from them. I’m willing to learn from anybody, soak up as much wrestling as I can. I’ve probably learned the most from Coach Cael. I wouldn’t be where I’m at right now without him. I try and learn as much from him as I can and whenever I’m at a training center or anywhere else I try to learn as much from the coaches and wrestlers out there as well.”
Varner isn’t the only NLWC member who will make his debut in London.
Franklin Gomez and Jaime Espinal, who also trained in State College this summer, will wrestle for Puerto Rico. The two Puerto Rican wrestlers are just two of three that will compete on the mats for the Puerto Rican team.
“They’ve been training really hard this summer,” Varner said. “Jaime’s been wrestling and looking good. He’s going to go out there and have some fun and Franklin’s been smashing guys this summer and he’s (a returning world medalist) for the past three years, so I think Franklin’s got a really good chance to get on the medal stand.”
Like Gomez and Espinal, Varner didn’t taken many breaks from his training regimen.
An avid fisherman, Varner spent what free time he had away from the mats of the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex fishing the many plentiful streams in and around State College.
He took a trip home to California to spend time with his family and his grandfather who passed away shortly after Varner’s visit. As a tribute, Varner set his Twitter profile picture to one of he and his granddad who is wearing a T-shirt with Varner, arms raised, superimposed in front of the iconic Olympic rings.
Varner is hoping another, bigger tribute will be in store in just a few days.
“As far as right now I feel really good and have been wrestling really good, Varner said. “So I’m just excited to go wrestle.”
Travis Johnson can be reached at 231-4629. Follow him on Twitter @traviswjohnson_