DES MOINES — Jake Varner’s a proud former Iowa State Cyclone wrestler.
A two-time NCAA champion.
Recently-minted Olympic gold medalist.
But sandwiched between native, current and long-standing Iowans behind a 30-foot table before Saturday’s “Homecoming” celebration at the Knapp Center made him feel a tad out of place.
“I guess I’m the outcast because I grew up 40 hours from here,” Varner, a native of Bakersfield, Calif., said. “But this was my home for five years and it’s great to see everybody out here.”
Dozens of fans lined Forest Avenue two hours before doors opened for the 11 a.m. Hy-Vee-sponsored event.
“This is where the heart is,” said 2012 Olympic distance runner Lisa (Koll) Uhl, who grew up in Fort Dodge and won four NCAA titles as a Cyclone runner.
Thousands of well-wishers eventually filled the arena.
They applauded Varner; two-time London gold medalist Gabrielle “Gabby” Douglas; Fort Dodge native and former Cyclone standout runner Lisa (Koll) Uhl; West Des Moines Dowling graduate Miranda Leek (archery); Des Moines Roosevelt grad Lolo Jones — who missed a medal in the 100-meter hurdles by one spot; 2008 Beijing Games gold medalist, Shawn Johnson of West Des Moines; 1992 Barcelona track silver medalist and Drake coach Natasha Kaiser-Brown; and Liang Chow, who coached both Douglas and Johnson to the top of the podium.
“I’m just thrilled to be back and to feel the support of the people who have actually supported me,” said Jones, a much-loved, but sometimes-maligned figure who saw a gold-worthy run in the 2008 Games ended when she clipped a hurdle.
Both Jones and Douglas — who moved to Iowa from Virginia two years ago in order to train with Chow — endured style-based criticism before and during the London Games.
Douglas was derided for her hairstyle of all things, which prompted a vociferous and near-unanimous defense from media, athletes and the public alike.
Jones was compared to former tennis celebrity Anna Kournikova in a particularly scathing New York Times opinion piece that failed to mention her two world championships.
So what kind of advice would she give to Douglas as she enters the glare of the media’s spotlight?
“She needs (none),” said Jones, who along with Uhl plans to compete in next summer’s USATF Outdoor Track and Field Championships at Drake Stadium. “She did a great job. We both kind-of caught backlash for weird, odd reasons — both about our looks. So I thought that was just kind-of crazy that people were just trying to find ways to pick apart our U.S. Olympic athletes.”
No one was picking up, at, or out anything Saturday, except pens for autographs and suitable backdrops for all-smiles photos.
“I’m just so happy,” said Douglas, who won gold in the all-around and team gymnastics competitions. “Tears of joy.”
Varner leaped into the arms of former ISU great and coach Cael Sanderson after his gold-medal triumph.
Sanderson, who led Penn State to the past two NCAA titles, coached Varner to his first national championship at ISU — and to gold in London.
Kevin Jackson mentored Varner as a senior after Sanderson left for State College, Pa.
“I’m one of those athletes lucky enough to be coached by two Olympic gold medalists,” Varner said. “Not many people can say that.”
And a relative few can say they’ve even been to the Olympics — let alone compete in them and win gold.
First-time Olympians Varner, Uhl, Leek and Douglas were wowed by the atmosphere and the scope of the Games.
“I thought the Olympic Village was awesome,” said Varner, who won the 211.5-pound title. “The dining hall was crazy. There’s so much food there, so for a wrestler it could be dangerous. It wasn’t for me, though. I was good.”
Varner’s also fine with leaving his wrestling future shrouded in secrecy.
What’s next for him?
“I plan on disappearing for a while,” he said. “Going on a fishing trip with my coach.”
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