| By Craig Sesker USA Wrestling
Jake Varner captured an Olympic gold medal on Sunday afternoon. John Sachs photo.
LONDON – It was one of the last gold-medal moments for the United States on the final day of the 2012 Olympic Games.
And it belonged to American Jake Varner and the U.S. freestyle wrestling team.
Varner realized a lifelong dream when he capped a phenomenal performance by winning an Olympic gold medal at 96 kg/211.5 lbs. on Sunday afternoon before a sellout crowd of 6,500 fans at ExCeL North Arena 2.
Varner, a California native, took control early to sweep Ukraine’s Valeri Andriitsev 1-0, 1-0 in the Olympic gold-medal finals.
Varner scored early in both periods – on an ankle pick in the first period and on a pushout in the second period – to reach the pinnacle of his sport.
"Every time I step on the mat I expect to win," Varner said. "This is exciting. I came in here with a goal of winning a gold medal and I did my job for our team. I'm just enjoying the moment right now. I will probably have some chocolate milk or a Mountain Dew to celebrate."
Following his gold-medal victory, the normally low-key Varner grabbed an American flag and ran around the mat while pumping his right fist. He then dropped to his knees while taking in his dramatic moment.
He walked off the mat and jumped into the arms of his mentor, close friend, coach and training partner, 2004 Olympic gold medalist Cael Sanderson, as the crowd stood and roared. Varner trains with Sanderson as a member of the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club in State College, Pa.
"It's awesome to have Cael in my corner," Varner said. "He's an Olympic champion and I'm an Olympic champion now. I'm still not sure I'm in his league. I can't thank him enough for everything. I owe him a lot, that's for sure."
"Jake Varner is an Olympic champion - that's what he wanted to do since he was a little kid," Sanderson said. "It's awesome. I'm really excited for him. He loves to compete. He showed great composure out there, and that's why he got a gold medal."
Varner earned $250,000 from the Living the Dream Medal Fund, supported mainly by the wrestling community, for his gold-medal victory.
"That's pretty sweet," Varner said. "You don't wrestle for the money, you wrestle for the gold medal. The money is icing on the cake. It's a nice chunk of change and it's nice to have."
Varner, 26, a two-time NCAA champion for Iowa State University, was competing in his first Olympic Games. He is a native of Bakersfield, Calif.
Andriitsev was second in the European Championships this year and is a past Junior World champion.
The U.S. captured multiple Olympic freestyle gold medals for the first time since 1996.
Varner joins teammate Jordan Burroughs, who won an Olympic freestyle gold medal for the U.S. on Friday. Coleman Scott won an Olympic bronze medal for the U.S. on Saturday. Burroughs was one of the first people to congratulate Varner after his gold-medal win.
The U.S. won its 49th Olympic gold medal in freestyle wrestling.
The U.S. finished a close third in the unofficial team standings, under FILA scoring. The U.S. finished with 38 points. Russia and Georgia tied for first with 40 points.
"It's been a tremendous tournament for us, and what a way to cap it off with Jake's gold medal," U.S. Coach Zeke Jones said. "We've made a lot of progress as a team. We don't come for third, we come for first, so we've still got work to do. But I really like where we're headed."
In the semifinals, Varner scored on a pushout early in the third period to earn a hard-fought 0-2, 1-0, 1-0 win over Georgia’s Georgi Gogshelidze, a past World champion and 2008 Olympic bronze medalist.
Varner scored on two takedowns – on ankle pick in the first period and a throw-by in the second period – to sweep Canada’s Khetag Pliev 1-0, 1-0 in the quarterfinals.
Varner opened by earning a hard-fought 1-0, 0-1, 1-0 win over past World bronze medalist Kurban Kurbanov of Uzbekistan. Varner was the aggressor the whole way and his persistence paid off when he spun behind Kurbanov midway through the period for the eventual winning takedown.
American Jared Frayer dropped his opening match to Ali Shabanau of Belarus at 66 kg/145.5 lbs. Frayer won a ball draw after a scoreless second period, but was unable to finish in the leg clinch.
“Jared just made a mistake out of the clinch,” U.S. Olympic Coach John Smith said. “He had the leg up and then dropped the leg. We obviously weren’t able to finish and it cost us.”
Shabanau won the match 3-0, 1-0. Frayer was eliminated when Shabanau fell short of making the finals. Frayer told reporters it was the last match of his career.
Frayer, 33, an NCAA runner-up for Oklahoma, was wrestling in his first Olympics. He is an assistant coach at Oklahoma.
“It’s frustrating because I know how much the coaches put into me and I know how good I was feeling,” Frayer said. “I ran into an unorthodox guy and I didn’t wrestle the way I’m capable of. It’s hard.”
ExCeL Center, London, England
Sunday’s medal winners
66 kg/145.5 lbs.
Gold – Tatsuhiro Yonemitsu (Japan)
Silver – Sushil Kumar (India)
Bronze – Akzhurek Tanatarov (Kazakhstan)
Bronze – Livan Lopez Azcuy (Cuba)
96 kg/211.5 lbs.
Gold – Jake Varner (USA)
Silver – Valeri Andriitsev (Ukraine)
Bronze – Georgi Gogshelidze (Georgia)
Bronze – Khetag Gazumov (Azerbaijan)
66 kg/145.5 lbs.
Tatsuhiro Yonemitsu (Japan) dec. Sushil Kumar (India), 1-0, 3-1
96 kg/211.5 lbs.
Jake Varner (USA) dec. Valeri Andriitsev (Ukraine), 1-0, 1-0
66 kg/145.5 lbs. – Jared Frayer, Norman, Okla. (Gator WC)
WIN Ali Shabanau (Belarus), 0-3, 0-1
96 kg/211.5 lbs. – Jake Varner, State College, Pa. (Nittany Lion WC) – GOLD MEDAL
WIN Kurban Kurbanov (Uzbekistan), 1-0, 0-1, 1-0
WIN Khetag Pliev (Canada), 1-0, 1-0
WIN Georgi Gogshelidze (Georgia), 0-2, 1-0, 1-0
WIN Valeri Andritsev (Ukraine), 1-0, 1-0