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ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Iowa's Spencer Lee elevated his legendary status with his latest feat.
Not that it needed a boost at all.
Top-ranked Lee produced another dominant national tournament, beating Arizona State's Brandon Courtney, 7-0, for the 125-pound title at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships on Saturday night at Enterprise Center. He's Iowa's seventh three-time NCAA champion and first since Joe Williams (1996-98).
The how might just outweigh the feat itself. Lee reluctantly told media after the victory that he had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee eight to 10 days earlier. It was the opposite knee from the one he injured in his freshman championship run. He wasn't sure he'd be able to wrestle. Forfeiting was mentioned, but Lee said if he was going to lose it would be on his terms.
'It doesn't matter,' Lee said. 'I'm not one that's going to make an excuse. If I lost, I would have probably said nothing, because that's just how I am. You've got to win no matter what is wrong with you and no matter what's going on. That's what defines a champion. You go through whatever.'
In a post-match interview, Lee said excuses are for wusses. His actions spoke even more than his words. Lee outscored his five foes, 59-8. Saturday night's shutout was his second straight in the NCAA finals, where he has an impressive 17-1 scoring edge on his foes. He is unbeaten in 15 national bouts with three pins, four technical falls and four major decisions.
Spencer Lee wins at 125-pounds!March 21, 2021
— NCAA Wrestling (@ncaawrestling)
'I talked about the importance of him in a lot more ways than being on the mat and demonstrating his skill and being a point-scoring guru,' Iowa Coach Tom Brands said. 'It's more than that. It's the toughness factor.'
'When it's time to show up, he's for real.'
Amazing considering he defied odds just to compete.
'Doctors were kind of shocked that I could do anything as soon as it happened. I'm like doing pistol squats with my knee and my doctors were like 'you shouldn't be able to do that,' but it's like whatever, man. We figured it out, so here we are.'
Lee has aspirations to represent the country at the Tokyo Olympics. With the U.S. Team Trials in the coming weeks, Lee said Saturday he plans to be in Texas for the freestyle competition.
'Right now, we're taking it day by day,' Lee said. 'That's my goal. Go down swinging, if I have to.'
Iowa Hawkeyes returning
This season did not count against athletes' eligibility, allowing wrestlers an extra season. Lee has long said he will be back to vie for a fourth title. In tweets, 165-pounder Alex Marinelli and NCAA 141 runner-up Jaydin Eierman said they plan to return. The same with Austin DeSanto, who finished third at 133.
'I'm not sure for everybody else,' DeSanto said. 'I'm not putting words in their mouth, but all I know is I'm going to wrestle next year.'
Max Murin (149) and 197-pounder Jacob Warner were juniors, while Nelson Brands at 184 and heavyweight Tony Cassioppi were sophomores and would return anyway.
Many factors have to be considered to see who returns next season.
'There's a lot to be ironed out,' Brands said. 'It's that simple.'
If Iowa returns everyone for a run at NCAA title No. 25, that would be all 129 points, 10 qualifiers and seven All-Americans from this weekend.
NCAA wrestling attendance
Attendance was limited, leaving many seats of Enterprise Center empty. The tournament crowd over the three-day, seven-session event totaled 19,751. In comparison, 19,657 attended the final session for the 2017 championship matches in the same venue.
The arena didn't have its normal buzz.
'A lot quieter,' Lee said. 'Used to hearing some loud Iowa fans.'
Iowa State 157-pound NCAA champ David Carr recognized a positive.
'Without having that many fans I can hear them (coaches) clearly,' Carr said. 'When they're telling me to push, I push. When they're telling me hard ride, I ride. It's nice to hear them very clearly.'
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