Cael Sanderson spent the past seven years teaching Jake Varner how to be a world champion — and he was there Sunday when Varner joined him as an Olympic gold medalist.
With Sanderson watching, Varner defeated Valerie Andriitsev of Ukraine 1-0, 1-0 to win gold in men’s 96-kilogram freestyle.
Coupled with Jordan Burroughs’ win in the 74 kilograms Friday night, it gave the American team multiple Olympic gold medalists in men’s wrestling for the first time since 1996.
”Still not sure I’m in his league, but it’s awesome to be coached by a guy like that,” Varner said of Sanderson, a gold medalist at the 2004 Athens Olympics. ”I owe him a lot. It means a lot to have him with me.”
Varner and Sanderson’s relationship began in 2005 at Iowa State, where Sanderson coached before jumping to Penn State. The day after Varner graduated in 2010, he piled up the car and drove 15 hours to Pennsylvania to train full-time with Sanderson.
Sanderson said last week that Varner had pounded on him during training sessions leading up to the Olympics. Varner showed that good form by winning four straight matches for gold.
”He was going to get me to my ultimate goal, which was to win a gold medal at the Olympics — and that’s what he did,” Varner said.
Varner also will collect a $250,000 bonus from the Living the Dream fund, which supports American wrestling.
Sanderson said Varner was the same in the finals as in any other match.
”That’s one of the reasons he’s so good,” Sanderson said. ”He has great composure. That, in addition to just living the lifestyle for a long time. He’s the man.”
Throughout the Olympic tournament, the U.S. wrestlers received unfavorable draws in their unseeded brackets. They finally got lucky with Varner.
Most of the top medal contenders were on the other side of the bracket, and Varner opened with a three-period win over Kurban Kurbanov of Uzbekistan and a decisive victory over Canadian Khetag Pliev.
George Gogshelidze of Georgia beat Varner in the first period of the semifinals, and Varner appeared to be in serious trouble when the second period stayed scoreless after two minutes.
But the ball draw that decided who would be on offense for the period tiebreaker went Varner’s way. Varner took advantage of his good fortune with a takedown to force a third period in just one second.
Varner then scored on a pushout to advance to the finals, where he he turned a potential deficit near the edge of the mat into the winning point.
Andriitsev was the underdog against Iranian world champion Reza Yazdani in the other semifinal, but Yazdani hurt his leg just 28 seconds into the first period.
Yazdani got off the mat in obvious pain, but he waved off the stretcher, to the delight of the large Iranian section of the crowd. He clearly wasn’t OK, though, and the match was called because of injury after 77 seconds.
Yazdani was the favorite. But it was apparent from the opening match that Varner was going to have a major say in who won gold.
Varner fell to his knees once the clock ticked down to zero, soaking in the fact that he’d just accomplished the biggest goal of his life. He soon found Sanderson, embracing the friend who helped make it all possible with a leaping bear hug.
”Jake watched Cael win a gold medal as a kid. Came to Iowa State because he had that same goal. When they were there, Cael mentored him, coached him and became his friend,” U.S. freestyle coach Zeke Jones said.
”From that moment, they had a dream together that said, ‘I want to be the best in the world. I want to be the best in the world. And Jake did – and Cael got to be a part of that.”
Tatsuhiro Yonemitsu of Japan also won wrestling gold Sunday in men’s 66-kilogram freestyle, beating Sushil Kumar of India to give the Japanese their first Olympic title in the sport in 24 years.
Yonemitsu, runner-up at the world championships in 2011, beat Kumar 1-0, 3-1 in the first gold-medal match featuring an Indian wrestler. The win was Japan’s fourth gold of the London Games. Three Japanese women won gold medals earlier this week.
”It’s unbelievable that I really did it,” Yonemitsu said. ”I think that every day’s training paid off. If you did your best just on the day, it would not work. You need to train step by step.”