NCAA champion Jake Varner ready to make an impact at his first World Championships
When Jake Varner stepped onto the mat for the finals of the U.S. World Team Trials, two of the best wrestlers in this country’s history sat down in his corner.
Cael Sanderson and Kevin Jackson.
His former and current head coach at Iowa State provided instruction and encouragement as the 23-year-old Varner won the freestyle title at 96 kg/211.5 lbs.
Varner’s finals sweep over Olympian Andy Hrovat qualified him for September’s World Championships in Herning, Denmark.
Sanderson left Iowa State in late April to take over the program at Penn State. The 2004 Olympic gold medalist continues to be the mentor and primary freestyle coach for Varner, an NCAA champion who has a year of eligibility left at ISU.
Jackson was hired by Iowa State shortly after Sanderson departed. He also has been working with Varner. Jackson spent nearly a decade as USA Wrestling’s National Freestyle Coach.
“Cael is real crucial to helping me win the Worlds and the Olympics,” Varner said. “Having Coach Jackson in my corner now, that’s another big plus. He coached Cael to his Olympic title.”
It’s been a wild, and very productive, year for Varner.
Second in the NCAA Championships as a freshman and sophomore at 184 pounds, Varner bumped up to 197 for his junior season and finished it by winning the 2009 NCAA title this past March in St. Louis.
“It was kind of a relief,” he said. “It felt good to finally do it, especially after falling short twice. When I lost in the finals, it made me train even harder.”
Three weeks later, Varner shifted gears from folkstyle to freestyle and won the U.S. Nationals title at 96 kilos.
He followed that performance by taking two straight matches from Hrovat on May 30 to make his first World Team.
Varner, who grew up in Bakersfield, Calif., had lost to Hrovat in the 2008 U.S. Nationals and U.S. Olympic Team Trials.
Unlike his six freestyle teammates on the U.S. World Team, Varner has never wrestled a foreign opponent on the Senior level.
“But I’ve wrestled Cael every day,” Varner said. “I think Cael would walk through everybody at the World Championships. He puts it on me. He’s still got it. I think he’s 10 times better than he was in 2004.”
Varner trained and worked with Sanderson in Ames, Iowa, during the week before the Trials. They will continue to work together for much of the summer.
Sanderson stunned many wrestling observers when he left Iowa State for Penn State. He led the Cyclones to finishes of second, fifth and third in the nation.
Sanderson left behind a strong Iowa State team that placed third in the 2009 NCAAs and returns the nucleus of that team for next year.
“It was a shock to me at first when I heard he was thinking about leaving,” Varner said. “After talking with Cael about it quite a bit, it was the best move for him. I support him 100 percent. It was the best move for him and his family.”
Varner said it was tough to see Sanderson leave, but he and his classmates have some unfinished business to take care of in the 2009-10 season.
The Cyclones also haven’t beaten Iowa, which has won the last two NCAA team titles, in a dual meet during Varner’s time in Ames.
“We came to Iowa State to win a team title and it hasn’t happened yet,” Varner said. “We’ve come close, but we’re seniors now and it’s our time to do it. We want to go out on top.”
Jackson said Varner “has been invaluable” in helping him make the move to being the head coach at Iowa State.
“Jake is a leader,” Jackson said. “He’s really helped me with my transition. He’s almost like another assistant coach. Jake’s excited about being a part of this and he’s been real receptive to what we’re trying to do.”
Jackson, a past Olympic gold medalist and two-time World champion in freestyle, also is impressed with Varner’s skills on the mat.
“The bottom line is Jake can stop his opponents from scoring,” Jackson said. “He’s very strong. He wasn’t taken down at Nationals and wasn’t taken down at the Trials. He also has the ability to go get a score.”
Jackson said he is “very open” to the idea of Sanderson working with Varner as he prepares for the World Championships.
“Cael has been taking the lead in Jake’s training and preparations because they’ve spent the past four years together. They have that bond,” Jackson said. “I would be naïve and ignorant to not let that happen. I am just trying to assist Jake in any way that I can.
“I thought it was special for Cael and me to be in the corner when Jake made the World Team. It was a neat experience.”
Now Varner looks to take the next step in his career at the World Championships.
“I have confidence in Jake,” Jackson said. “My expectations are for him to win a gold medal at the World Championships. I think he’s going to do well.”
The 6-foot-1 Varner, who doesn’t have to drop any weight to make 96 kilos, will now spend the summer preparing for his first World Championships.
“My mindset will be like for any other tournament,” Varner said. “I’m not going to go there just to wrestle. I’m going in there to win it. I hate losing. It’s a great opportunity for me, especially still being in college. I’m excited to wrestle on this team and represent our country.”