Skip to content

Share this article:

Spencer Lee, the face of Iowa wrestling, has surpassed high expectations

In pursuit of 4th NCAA title, Lee has the opportunity to cement his legacy as the most accomplished Iowa wrestler of all time

Spencer Lee, the face of Iowa wrestling, has surpassed high expectations
Spencer Lee poses for a portrait during Iowa wrestling media day on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City. (Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Fans and media deemed Spencer Lee the face of the Iowa men’s wrestling program from the moment he announced his commitment.

Lee was a wunderkind, a phenom who had won two Junior World titles and another as a Cadet. He was a three-time state champion and four-time finalist on Pennsylvania’s daunting high school scene.

His success brought high hopes to be heaped on the 125-pounder’s shoulders before he even stepped on campus.

Lee embraced that role and surpassed even the grandest expectations of a fevered fan base, producing a career on the verge of being the best in the Hawkeyes’ storied tradition. He has stockpiled titles, awards and even helped Iowa return to the top of the team ranks.

“It’s been really fun,” Lee said. “It has went by fast. It was super exciting to be a Hawkeye. I’m thankful for my years and my time here.”

Lee (16-0) has the opportunity to cement his legacy as the most accomplished Iowa wrestler of all time. He will attempt to win his fourth title at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla., this week.

Lee could become the Hawkeyes’ first four-time champion.

“Of course, I’ve definitely thought about it,” said Lee, noting it has been one of his goals. “It means a lot to me but the thing is I haven’t done it yet. One match at a time. A tough tournament. You’ve got to be ready to go.”

The resume is unparalleled already. The three-time national champion is a two-time Hodge trophy winner, receiving it outright in 2020 and sharing it with Minnesota heavyweight Gable Steveson in 2021. He also earned the AAU James E. Sullivan Award in 2020, becoming the fifth wrestler to win it.

Get exclusive Hawkeye insights in your inbox

Hawk off the Press Newsletter Signup

  Delivered once a week, each Friday

Please wait...

Thank you for joining us!

You will begin to receive our Weekly Hawkeye updates. Add to your contacts.

Add in the facts he is a three-time Big Ten Wrestler of the Year and three-time conference champion, has a 95-5 career mark and a current 55-match win streak where opponents struggled to get out of the first period.

“The key component is just focusing on yourself,” Lee said. “I think us 125-pounders from Iowa have always had that kind of edge to us that we’re the guys that start it off. We don’t draw. We always want to be first because that’s our job.

“I think that helped me a lot. I’m not sure if I would have been a different weight class if it would have been the same. I don’t know. I just know that being first made me prideful and the coaches helped me in that role as well, knowing you’ve got to be ready to go and I’ll start them off strong.”

Iowa’s Spencer Lee has his
Iowa’s Spencer Lee has his hand raised after a major decision victory during the Cy-Hawk wrestling meet on Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa. (Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette)

Lee seemed ready — maybe even destined — since he committed in April of 2016 as the No. 1 overall prospect in the Class of 2017. He listed multiple reasons for his choice and at the top of the list were Iowa Coach Tom Brands and Hawkeyes associate head coach Terry Brands.

Lee shared a story from his freshman season. Terry arrived for a 90-minute workout with a senior, whose season and competitive career were finished. Terry devoted the same effort to that wrestler as anyone else.

“I loved their passion,” Lee said. “I loved how each and every guy they coached in the room, whether they were a starter or not, got their blood, sweat and tears, no matter what.”

Lee delivered and lived up to the hype. He has been the guiding force from the time he shed his redshirt in January of 2018 and pinned Michigan State’s Rayvon Foley in his official debut in front of the Carver-Hawkeye Arena crowd.

“When fans are unfiltered and come up to you and you haven’t even wrestled a college match and they’re talking about how great it is to have you here and we know you’re going to turn it around and you roll with that,” Tom Brands said. “It’s not like you’re put in that spotlight and there’s stress that maybe goes with that expectation but you just roll with it.”

The trek for a fourth title began with NCAA finals victories over Rutgers’ Nick Suriano, who started his career with Penn State and ended as a national champion for Michigan last season, Virginia’s Jack Mueller and Arizona State’s Brandon Courtney. He outscored them 17-1 on the biggest stage.

He thrives in big moments.

“I think Spencer is a cool cucumber,” Brands said. “I think he’s cool under fire.”

Those championship runs didn’t come without adversity. He won his first title less than a year after having ACL surgery. During his junior year, he was denied a chance with the cancellation of the NCAA tournament because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Wrestling the whole 2021 regular season without an ACL in one knee, Lee suffered a torn ACL in the other knee during the Big Ten final. He managed to win his third crown without a good knee.

“I think he naturally has a knack for moving on to the next thing the right way,” Brands said. “That’s not to say there isn’t frustration but he handles it well. He can move on quick and that’s a pretty good ingredient for great athletes, I think. Probably one of the better characteristics you should have.”

Iowa's Spencer Lee points to
Iowa's Spencer Lee points to where wrestlers family and friends are seated after defeating Rutgers Nick Suriano in the 125-pound championship match of the 2018 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio on Saturday, March 17, 2018. (The Gazette)

Obviously, his family, especially his dad, Larry, and mom, Cathy, provide plenty of support. Lee was also quick to praise the training staff, specifically wrestling athletic trainer Jesse Donnenwerth, and numerous doctors who helped him compete at less than 100 percent, as well as a surgery that sidelined him last season to repair his knees and recover to be in his current position.

“We have the best medical staff I’ve ever met in my entire life,” Lee said. “Every doctor. The amount of hours they’ve put in and the extra stuff they have to do.

“I definitely wouldn’t be able to compete without them and I don’t know if I’ll be competing this year without them.”

Lee is a student of the sport and was able to rattle off all the previous four-time champions — Oklahoma State’s Pat Smith (1990-92, 1994), Iowa State’s Cael Sanderson (1999-2002), Cornell’s Kyle Dake (2010-13) and Ohio State’s Logan Stieber (2012-15). He also has company in the quest for the rare feat. Cornell 149-pounder Yianni Diakomihalis could achieve it as well.

Interestingly, Lee and Diakomihalis have wrestled in the same tournaments since they were youths, going back to age 8 or 9. They have a mutual respect, winning their first NCAA titles in 2018 and commenting they could win four titles together.

“I’ve seen him everywhere,” Lee said. “It’s been a cool journey, having the same guys at the highest level and from the lowest level as kids and continue having success and enjoying the process. Doing our passion and what we love to do.”

The end of the tournament won’t mean the end of Lee’s impact on the Iowa program. He plans to remain involved, likely turning his focus to his freestyle career and Olympics goals.

“I plan on sticking around so I’m not leaving,” Lee said. “I’ll still be a Hawkeye in name and past only. It will be fun going into a different role, a mentorship role more than a selfish role that I’ve kind of been in the last five and six years.

“I’m excited for that but we have to get there first.”