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‘Resilient’ Spencer Lee working to return to Iowa wrestling lineup after ACL tears
3-time NCAA champion is 1 of 6 returning All-Americans for the Hawkeyes
IOWA CITY — Spencer Lee will return.
The particulars are still to be determined. Iowa’s two-time Hodge Trophy winner said he would wrestle every match if he could, despite recovering from surgery to repair anterior cruciate ligament tears in both knees at the start of the year.
“I’ll be on the mat, eventually,” Lee said during the program’s annual media day Thursday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “I don’t know when it’s going to be, essentially because that’s a decision coaches make.
”We’re going to make a decision based on what’s best for me and the team.”
Lee is one of six All-Americans on the Hawkeyes’ wrestling roster this season, joining NCAA runner-up Jacob Warner, Real Woods, who is a graduate transfer from Stanford, Max Murin, Abe Assad and heavyweight Tony Cassioppi.
Hawkeye fans will anxiously await Lee’s insertion back into the lineup. It has to be the right situation.
“Even when you make your macro schedule, when you make the University of Iowa wrestling schedule, the right blend — the Big Ten, we don't control as much, but the right blend of competition, the right blend, the right date, and with him — actually that's the case with any individual,” Iowa Coach Tom Brands said. “It's got to be the right blend. That's a good word.”
Lee is the program’s seventh three-time NCAA champion and has persevered a national tournament canceled by a pandemic and injuries that would have ended most athletes’ careers.
“The next one is always the most important, so it is the most important one because it is the next one,” Lee said. “The thing is four is a big deal. I would be the first to do it for Iowa. That’s awesome. That’s amazing, but for me it’s getting through the season healthy, wrestling as hard I can and scoring as many points as I can in every match. If I do that, then titles will come and those accolades can be said and you guys can have a lot more questions for me.”
Lee has made throttling opponents look easy during his wrestling career, building a 78-5 career record including a current 38-match win streak with the Hawkeyes. The road has been far from smooth to get to this point. He’s battled plenty of hardship over the years, wrestling with an ACL tear his senior year in high school and tearing both in recent seasons at Iowa. You’d never know it by his demeanor and performance.
“He's resilient and he is incredibly focused on the next thing to get himself on the mat,” Brands said. “He's never wavered from that mission. That's a great testament. And you can say great, incredible, tremendous. You can say all those adjectives over and over and over again. The bottom line about him is he's never wavered in his quest to be the best wrestler on the planet, and that's still the case.
“It's unique, because a lot of civilians don't understand that quest, and he's never wavered from it.”
One of the elements that gets overlooked is the foundation set by his parents. His mother, Cathy Lee, was an Olympic Judo competitor. His father, Larry, an Olympic coach. They instilled a humble and hungry mindset in their son to be the best off and on the mat.
“The thing is he's got this little gear in him that is just ferocious and a ferociously competitive gear,” Brands said. “There's probably a little bit of fear built into this guy where he doesn't want to give the naysayers any foothold. He wants to prove them wrong. You know what, for his opponents, payback is a b----. You know what I mean? Payback is (tough), because he's coming.
“He's so humble, and he'll take time for autographs and conversation with all the fans. But make no mistake about who he is as a competitor.”
Toughness is a factor on the mat. The trait is also a key component to the tedious and torturous chores in recovery. Lee said he would much rather be on a mat than have to endure the repetitive exercises to overcome physical setbacks. It’s an unavoidable opponent.
“I’d say physical therapy is more of a mental battle than anything,” Lee said. “A lot of people need to understand that it’s an everyday thing. You can’t take a day off with that stuff. It is boring when you do it every day for six years, but it’s a necessary evil that I have to do to be healthy and wrestle for the team I want to wrestle for.”
Elite athletes often face aches, bruises, strains and soreness. It is part of the job description, training and competing at such a high level. Lee said he hasn’t felt 100 percent healthy since his sophomore season in high school, which is a long time ago.
Since then he’s either been working to carry on with injury or rehabbing from them.
“I would say as healthy as I could be every time out is the goal,” Lee said. “I don’t think 100 percent is realistic.”
Interestingly, he said the healthiest he may have felt at Iowa was when he won the 125-pound national title as a freshman. Coincidentally, he returned to action less than a year from his first ACL surgery. Confidence can be gained from that experience.
“I’ve been through it before,” Lee said. “I know what to expect. I know how to wrestle, so it’s nothing I haven’t done before.”
In addition to Lee, Iowa has a two-time All-American at 141 in Woods, who was sixth last season for Stanford. Four-time All-American Warner returns at 197, while three-time All-American Cassioppi anchors the top of the lineup. Cassioppi is coming off his second U23 World medal, earning bronze this month.
Patrick Kennedy is expected to step in to replace Alex Marinelli. At 133, UNI transfer Brody Teske, Jesse Ybarra and Cullan Schriever are competing for the spot held previously by Austin DeSanto. Cobe Siebrecht, Bretli Reyna, Caleb Rathjen and Joe Kelley were all mentioned at 157. Nelson Brands and Brennan Swafford are seen as possible successors to Michael Kemerer at 174.
“How would I assess it?” Brands said. “I assess it as being incredibly exciting.”