It's never clear at the Olympics exactly where gold medalists go after they get their prizes -- mixed zones, press conferences, TV interviews. The hours after that brief moment on the podium are a whirlwind. But sometimes it's absolutely clear where they come from.
On Sunday afternoon at the ExCeL center, Jake Varner of the U.S. had just won the 96-kg freestyle wrestling gold medal with an unruffled and dominating 1-0, 1-0 victory over Ukraine's Valeri Andritsev. The win by the 26-year-old Varner, a two-time NCAA champion for Iowa State who now trains under 2004 Olympic champion Cael Sanderson in State College, Penn., followed Jordan Burroughs' victory in the 74-kg class on Friday and it gave the U.S. wrestling team its first multi-gold medal Games since 1996. Now Varner, with sweat still dripping from his brow, had been hustled off to who knows where deep in the wrestling venue.
Meanwhile, out in the ExCel's vast central hallway, amid the flow of fans headed for the exits and the trains after the day's last matches, Team Varner had gathered: Father Steve, mother Renee, three sisters and assorted friends and relatives -- all decked out in custom-made white T-shirts emblazoned with Jake's name and image and the words 2012 Olympics 96-kilogram
. They had yet to catch up with Jake, but they were clearly happy just to wait, soaking up the scene and posing for photos for passing fans.
Happiest of all, perhaps, was Jake's paternal grandfather, Bill, who had celebrated his 95th birthday shortly before flying from Bakersfield, Calif., to London to watch his grandson wrestle and who, now -- red-white-and-blue sneakers on his feet and a bottle of beer in his hand -- allowed that Jake had "done pretty good." An amateur boxer in his Navy days, Bill was asked if he'd instilled some of that combativeness in Jake.
"Well, sure," he said. "But I was 124 pounds. He's a little bigger."
Steve Varner, his voice hoarse and raspy from cheering his son through the day's four matches, said, "It hasn't sunk in yet. It all happens in a day and you just don't have time to make a mistake."
He said he knew, though, that Jake was ready for his chance on the Olympic mat. "We tried to instill in all our kids that if you want something, you have to put in the work. You gotta work. And there's still no guarantee, but you have to do it with passion."