Jake Varner was born to wrestle.
Raised in a wrestling family, Varner took up the sport as a young child and it became his passion.
A 2005 graduate of Bakersfield High, Varner’s skill, drive and passion for the sport paid off when he reached the pinnacle of world freestyle wrestling by winning the 2012 Olympic gold medal at 96kg (211.5 pounds) in London.
Varner, 32, will be inducted into the Bob Elias Kern County Sports Hall of Fame on Feb. 19.
The road to that Olympic victory was a long one, marked by a trail of victories and championships.
At BHS he won 159 matches with 132 of those via pins and was 88-0 over his junior and senior years. A four time-state medalist, Varner was untouchable as a senior. He became the first wrestler in California to pin every opponent in league, divisional, section masters and state meets, all without allowing any points. He pinned his six state meet opponents to earn the meet’s outstanding wrestler award.
Varner's collegiate career at Iowa State was equally impressive. He was a four-time national finalist for the Cyclones with 121 wins and 42 pins in his career including 31-0 as a senior. He was the 197-pound national champion as a junior and senior in 2009 and 2010 and was runner-up at 184 pounds as a freshman and sophomore.
He also won gold at the 2011 Pan American Games in Mexico and bronze at the 2011 World Championships in Istanbul. Varner was a three-time participant at the prestigious Yarygin Tournament in Russia, placing second in 2016 and third in 2012. He is a three-time USA Open winner and has represented the U.S. in three World Championships, getting the bronze medal at the 2011 World Championships in Istanbul. Varner was a three-time participant at the prestigious Yarygin Tournament in Russia, placing second in 2016 and third in 2012. He is a three-time USA Open winner and has represented the U.S. in three World Championships.
He is currently a college assistant coach under Cael Sanderson at Penn State University.
Varner recently took some time to answer a few questions for The Californian.
Obviously you’ve had a lot of influences on your career. Can you talk about the influence your father, Steve, had on you?
My father had a pretty big influence on me from the very beginning of my career. My dad was a wrestler himself followed up being a high school coach at Bakersfield High in the 1970s-1980s. He then helped start the youth program at Bakersfield High and then got back into coaching when I was in high school. But he is the one who introduced me to wrestling and got me started when I was 5 years old. He was very supportive and a tremendous coach. He got me hooked into wrestling and helped shape who I am today as a wrestler and a person. He never pushed me overboard in wrestling and allowed and encouraged me to do other sports. He knew when to be a coach, when it was time to be a father. Very hard quality to have. He did what was best for me to become the best I could be and I can’t thank him enough for that!
You’ve wrestled in two hotbeds of wrestling: The Central Valley and Iowa. How did that shape your career, help you prepare for the Olympics and ultimately end up coaching at Penn State (another hotbed for wrestling)?
Growing up and wrestling in the Central Valley I think was a plus for me. Being such a tough section you are constantly wrestling some of the best kids in the state. It definitely prepares you and makes you better every time you step on the mat, you have to be on your game.
I was only at Iowa State for 5 years which definitely helped shape who I was as a wrestler and helped prepare me for what was to come. The thing about college is you have teammates from all over the country so you get a little taste of wrestling guys from different areas and learning that way from them. Being coached by coach Bobby Douglass for my first year of college and then coach Cael Sanderson from my redshirt freshman to my junior year definitely made a huge impact on my career. I always knew I wanted to wrestle on the world stage and everything coach Cael did for me not only prepared me for college but at the same time was preparing me to win at the world level, and the pinnacle of the sport, the Olympics.
I also knew that when I was done wrestling I wanted to be a coach and I am very grateful for the opportunity coach Cael has given me at Penn State to coach alongside him, coach Cody Sanderson and coach Casey Cunningham, who are the best coaches in the world.
I was coached by some great coaches up through high school, which were my father, Steve Varner, my first high school coach, coach David East, and my cousin Andy Varner who I finished up my high school career with. Learning from them was very special and a great opportunity that helped get me ready to coach when that time came. Then being coached by coach Cael, coach Cody and coach Casey has also taught me even more about how to coach and help the wrestlers achieve their goals. It was something I enjoy doing and grateful I get to coach with these guys.
What moments stand out for you in your career?
One of the biggest moments that stands out in my career is winning my first National Title at Iowa State my junior year of college. Another moment that obviously stands out is winning the Olympic Games in London in 2012. The highlight of my career and one of the greatest feelings in the world. I couldn’t thank my coaches enough for helping me prepare and win the Olympics, most of all Coach Cael. I owe a lot to him with everything he has done for me! He is a very special person who I look up to and constantly still try to learn from.
What’s it been like working at a school like Penn State — tremendous following, tradition and in a wrestling-crazed state?
Being able to coach at Penn State is an amazing opportunity. I am very grateful that Coach Cael has given me the opportunity to be on staff and help anyone I can accomplish their goals, not only on the mat but preparing them for life as well. Pennsylvania has a very rich tradition of wrestling as a whole state and people love the sport here. Penn State also has a great tradition of wrestling and has only been growing. To be a part of something like this is truly special, and it is great to be able to work with wrestlers who have the same goals as I did coming through college. I am just grateful and thankful for the opportunity to work next to and learn from the three best coaches in the world in coach Cael, coach Cody Sanderson and coach Casey Cunningham.
How often do you make it back to Bakersfield with your extensive schedule at Penn State?
I do not make it back to Bakersfield as much as I would like too. Maybe one-to-two times a year. My home is now in State College, with my wife Brittany and four kids (soon to be five) Kylynn, Brynlee, Blakeley and Jaxton. Bakersfield will always be a special place to me for all it had brought me and taught me growing up.
MMA is full of former wrestlers. After you won Olympic gold in 2012 you continued to wrestle, did you ever entertain thoughts of going in that direction or was it just not for you?
After the 2012 Olympics I took a year off then continued to wrestle through 2016 and did not make the Olympic team again. I took another year off then competed last year. I had thoughts of MMA before but never really entertained them to the point I did with wrestling. My focus has always been with wrestling and I love coaching so never really put much thought into MMA. I think it would be fun but love what I am doing.
What are your future goals?
My future goals are to continue coaching and helping younger athletes strive and accomplish their goals as best as I can.