It took a trip back to Bakersfield High to finally find something Jake Varner was scared of.
Nearly 3,000 Drillers packed into Harvey Auditorium, cheering and screaming for Varner as he took the stage Friday afternoon as a conquering Olympic hero.
"I've never seen this place this packed before," said Varner, and he would know, considering he sat here as a student from 2001-2005 before heading to a wrestling career that most recently brought him a gold medal in the London Olympics. "I'm a little nervous. I'm not very good at this."
But as the crowd embraced him time and again, Varner warmed up, telling the assembled they should never be afraid of aiming too high.
"I've been here; I've been in those seats," he said. "A lot of kids think they can't do a lot of things. They think they're from Bakersfield and people don't really care about this place. But don't be afraid of shooting for the stars and accomplishing your goals. You just have to go out and work hard for it."
Varner is back home in Bakersfield for the first time since winning gold in the 96-kg weight class in London, where he defeated Ukraine’s Valerii Andriitsev 1-0, 1-0 for the Olympic title. He proudly showed off his gold medal at the auditorium, then flipped a replica Friday night during the coin toss before BHS’ football game with Garces.
This, Varner said, was the culmination of two decades of dedication, stretching from early in his youth to the past four years, when his single-minded training led him to gold.
“I was running around with that flag (after the gold-medal match),” Varner said, “and I just kept thinking to myself, ‘You did it, you did it.’ You just kind of think of everything in the past and how hard you worked and the ups and downs. It’s like a weight off your shoulders.”
That might be Varner’s most memorable Olympic moment, but the funniest he shared Friday came weeks earlier, during the Opening Ceremonies.
As Team USA marched out in front of the crowd and an international TV audience, one of Varner’s wrestling teammates spotted Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant walking off to the side, more or less by himself.
“(My teammate) said, ‘Hey, Varner. Go over there and just stand five feet in front of Kobe, and you’ll get on TV for sure!’” Varner recalled. “I’m like, ‘Really, you think?’ So I went back there and just kind of started walking. Next thing you know, I got back to my phone and had a ton of text messages saying I was on TV and whether I got a picture with Kobe. It was pretty cool.
“I like to say that he followed me, but I don’t know if that’s believable.”
Now that his star turn is over and he can enjoy this victory lap of a homecoming — today he’ll attend public celebrations at Mill Creek Park at 10 a.m., the Rosedale Highway Costco at 2 p.m. and the Bakersfield Blaze’s playoff game at 7:15 p.m. — Varner answered a couple of pertinent questions.
(1) How has his life changed? Not too much, he hopes, outside of an appearance on the Today show and a possible taping of the Conan O’Brien Show.
“I don’t know that I’m a celebrity,” Varner said. “Sometimes you hear from people you haven’t heard from in a while. You get asked to do a lot more things, which is pretty awesome and an honor. But it’s only been about three and a half weeks. I’ve just tried to relax — I took a fishing trip to Canada last week and just turned my phone off. That was kind of nice.”
(2) What’s next? Varner has plenty of options. He could enter another grueling four-year training cycle, hoping to qualify for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016 and become just the third American wrestler to win two straight gold medals. He could enter mixed martial arts. He could coach high school or collegiate wrestling.
“That’s a good question; it’s kind of a secret right now,” Varner said. “I need a couple more weeks to talk to my coaches, and we’ll come to a decision whether I keep competing or whether I get into coaching. I’m going to stay in wrestling either way.
“I love competing, I love wrestling, so it’s not out of the question. When you think about it, two golds is better than one.”
Right now, Varner is just enjoying the fruit of his labors — and trying to inspire another generation to reach their goals.
“I hadn’t been back in a while, and something like this, it’s just an honor to be a part of,” Varner said. “It feels great to be back.”