Iowa Hawkeyes

Iowa's Spencer Lee focuses on positive, prepares for what comes next

Junior named finalist for Hodge Trophy and Sullivan award after Hawkeyes' unbeaten season

Iowa's Spencer Lee grapples with Nebraska's Alex Thomsen in their 125-weight bout during their dual at Carver-Hawkeye Ar
Iowa’s Spencer Lee grapples with Nebraska’s Alex Thomsen in their 125-weight bout during their dual at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — The honors continue to mount up for Spencer Lee.

Rightfully so, the junior 125-pounder’s unbeaten season highlighted Iowa’s run that produced Big Ten Conference dual and tournament titles, positioning the Hawkeyes for their first national team title since 2010.

Lee’s dominance has garnered national attention, being named a finalist for college wrestling’s Hodge Trophy and AAU’s James E. Sullivan Award. The recognition comes after the NCAA Championships were called off and the USA Wrestling Olympic Team Trials were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Everything got postponed and canceled,” Lee said in a telephone interview with The Gazette. “Nothing went on and they’re still trying to give me all these awards, so it’s kind of anti-climactic.

“It just kind of sucks a little bit, but I’m staying positive. I’ll take what I can get and get ready for what’s next.”

Lee was named Most Dominant NCAA Division I wrestler Tuesday. He finished 18-0, outscoring opponents by a total of 234-18 and capturing his first conference title. The Big Ten Conference Wrestler of the Year recorded bonus points in 17 matches, including nine technical falls, four pins and three major decisions. Only five matches reached the midway point of the seven-minute regulation, including just four that went the distance.

It was the most technical falls by an Iowa wrestler since 1999.

“People keep trying to tell me, you had an awesome season, you’re the man or the things you’re doing haven’t been done in a long time or they’ve never been done,” Lee said. “I’m just like I don’t want to hear any of that because I wasn’t able to finish the way I wanted to, like getting a team title with my team.

“That was a big thing for me. The seniors on my team not getting a ring for winning nationals.”

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Iowa’s season was extraordinary, ascending to the top of the college ranks. The top-ranked Hawkeyes were one of two unbeaten dual teams, downing three of the final top-five ranked teams. Iowa claimed its first Big Ten Championships team crown since 2010 to go with another Midlands Championships title.

Even though All-American and Big Ten 149-pound champ Pat Lugo was the lone senior starter. Lee praised the entire senior class for the impact and contribution to the success.

“They deserved that, because they’ve played a huge part in this,” Lee said. “They helped change the culture and helped make the team who we were, how we competed and just because they didn’t start doesn’t mean anything.

“I feel for them more than I feel for myself sometimes.”

For Lee, he was denied a chance at a third NCAA title and an opportunity next season to become Iowa’s first four-time NCAA champion, joining Oklahoma State’s Pat Smith, Iowa State’s Cael Sanderson, Cornell University’s Kyle Dake and Ohio State’s Logan Stieber.

As disappointing as that is, he still is a strong favorite to win the Hodge, awarded to the nation’s most dominant college wrestler based on record, pins, dominance, past credentials, quality of competition, heart, sportsmanship and citizenship.

Lee, who has served as the face of the program since he stepped on campus, received 60 percent of the fan voting as of 12:28 p.m. Wednesday. His 11,074 votes were almost five times as many as Ohio State senior 197-pounder Kollin Moore, who was next with 2,313. He could join Brent Metcalf (2008) and Mark Ironside (1998) as the only Hawkeyes to receive the award.

“If I can’t be the first four-time national champ, then I can be the third Hodge Trophy winner, instead of being the first four-timer or sixth three-timer,” Lee said. “You’ve got to take what you can get, be positive with it and be ready to move forward to the next best thing.

“I’ve just got to stay positive. It’s hard.”

The All-Academic Big Ten performer is also one of 10 finalists for the Sullivan Award, presented to the country’s most outstanding amateur athlete. Only four wrestlers have been named winners of the award that began in 1930. John Smith was the first wrestler in 1990. Bruce Baumgartner (1995) and Rulon Gardner (2000) also won. Former Ohio State champ Kyle Snyder was the last wrestler to receive it in 2017.

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Lee noted those recipients are Olympic champions, which won’t be the case for him this year.

“It would be awesome to win,” Lee said, “but I don’t think that it’s my time, yet. One day, maybe.”

The recent announcement to postpone the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo until next year made the last couple weeks tougher.

From the time Lee started wrestling, his sights have been on winning an Olympic title. The three-time World freestyle champion unselfishly turned down an Olympic redshirt to wrestle for the Hawkeyes, competing for an Olympic Trials spot between competitions. He qualified for the Trials with a U.S. Senior Nationals gold in December.

The goal is put on hold temporarily.

“It sucked,” Lee said of hearing the Olympics decision. “I’m still trying to train. It’s hard. Everything is closed. Can’t go to Carver (-Hawkeye Arena). I have to do everything on my own.

“You’re like in a lull, right now.”

Comments: (319) 368-8679; kj.pilcher@thegazette.com

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