BENNER TOWNSHIP — On the day after he graduated from Iowa State in 2010, Jake Varner packed his vehicle and started making the 900-mile drive to State College.
Varner hid his road lag upon entering the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex.
There was a familiar workout partner waiting: former Olympic gold medalist Cael Sanderson. Varner and Sanderson immediately went to work, scripting a two-year plan filled with sweat and fatigue.
The plan was designed to finish with Varner clutching the object he toted in a USA Wrestling backpack when he landed at University Park Airport early Monday evening.
Varner returned to State College with an Olympic gold medal, the most recent symbol of an incredible two-year run for Centre County wrestling. Varner trained with the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club, a State College-based freestyle club that developed a senior level training program after Sanderson’s arrival at Penn State in 2009.
Varner, a California native and two-time NCAA champion at Iowa State, uprooted to become one of the program’s first resident athletes. The NLWC handled Varner’s living expenses, allowing him to focus on the London Games.
“The train didn’t really stop,” said Varner, who defeated Ukraine’s Valeri Andritsev in Sunday’s 96-kilogram final. “My goal was to be an Olympic champion, and it’s an awesome place to train. In my opinion, people are crazy not to look at this place to come to school or train post-college. It’s just a great place to be. I can’t have anything better.”
The arrangement also had a major impact on Penn State’s wrestling team. Access to training partners such as Varner and Jaime Espinal, who captured a silver medal for Puerto Rico in London, has helped the Nittany Lions capture two straight NCAA team titles.
Add individual NCAA titles by Steve Bosak and Quentin
Wright, former members of the NLWC’s youth club, and it’s safe to categorize Centre County as one of the world’s wrestling hotbeds.
“Momentum is a good thing,” NLWC coach Dave Hart said. “Once momentum hits. ... It’s the Olympics. It’s hard to put a finger on one thing. A lot of things have worked out.”
Hart, his wife, Chena, and their children were among the 25 people who greeted Varner as his plane landed at 6:51 p.m. Monday. Former Penn State coaches Rich Lorenzo and John Fritz, NLWC heavyweight Les Sigman and a group of current and former Penn State wrestlers also awaited Varner’s arrival. Sigman is a former world team member and served as one of Varner’s training partners the past two years.
Varner said he didn’t expect to see anybody at the airport besides current Penn State wrestler Frank Martellotti, the only person he could reach for a ride home. The group awaiting Varner was tipped off by Sanderson, who sent out a tweet about the plane’s estimated landing time around 6 p.m. Sanderson, coincidentally, returned to State College on a later flight. Sanderson and Penn State assistant Casey Cunningham helped coach Varner in London.
“He knows I get embarrassed easily,” Varner said of Sanderson. “He always does this. I wasn’t expecting anybody to be here except Martellotti. It’s awesome. I feel like I’m part of the family here.
“When I came here, it wasn’t just to train. It was to help Coach Cael and the staff and these guys become national champs. Obviously, I’m a Cyclone at heart. That’s where I went to school. But I consider myself a Nittany Lion as well because this is who I’m helping out. I want these guys to win. Hopefully I’m making a difference with them.”
Like any gold medalist, Varner is juggling post-Olympic demands. Appearances on the Conan O’Brien and “Today” shows are possibilities.
When normalcy returns, Varner said he plans on staying in State College for “a while.” Sanderson, his older brother, Cody, and Cunningham hold the top three positions on Penn State’s staff. But Aaron Anspach’s recent move to Chicago might open coaching position.
Varner’s finances appear secure because of the $250,000 bonus he received from USA Wrestling’s Living the Dream Medal Fund.
“I’ll do some kind of role,” Varner said. “Whatever Cael needs me to do, I’ll do. I want these guys to win and accomplish their goals as well because I was in the same position as them.”
Varner wants to take a vacation before determining whether to compete again. Finishing third at last year’s World Championships behind Iran’s Reza Yazdani and Turkey’s Serhat Balci leaves one lingering goal.
“When I saw the Iranian get a world championship belt put around his waist, and I had a bronze medal, I was like, ‘This sucks,’” he said. “I don’t know if I can go out like that, just winning the Olympics, which is pretty sweet. I might want one of those belts. We’ll see. Options are open. I’m not making a decision right now.”
Guy Cipriano can be reached at 231-4643. Follow him on Twitter @cdtguy