Spencer Lee said he thought he was just along for the ride.
He wasn’t sure this was his time to join an elite group of amateur athletes, especially when cancellations and postponements denied him a chance to earn a third NCAA title, vie for a spot on USA Wrestling’s men’s freestyle team and an Olympic gold medal.
The always modest Lee was pleasantly surprised Wednesday night when he was announced as a co-winner of the 2019 AAU James E. Sullivan Award presented annual to the country’s most outstanding amateur athlete since 1930. He shared the honor with University of Oregon basketball star Sabrina Ionescu.
Lee immediately thanked his family, teammates and coaches. He is the first Hawkeye to win the award.
“We, as amateur athletes, do it for the sport,” Lee said during the live webcast awards ceremony that last about 75 minutes. “The fight and the passion is upon us. I’m just honored as a finalist. To win, I did not expect that. I’m honored.
Lee and Ionescu were among 10 finalists that included USA rhythmic gymnast Evita Griskenas, University of Florida track star Grant Holloway, Marquette basketball player Markus Howard, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, Wisconsin volleyball player Dana Rettke, UCLA gymnast Kyla Ross, Maryland lacrosse player Megan Taylor and Cal swimming standout Abby Weitzeil.
Lee has become the face of the Iowa program and has been a key spokesperson for all things on campus. In addition to athletic success, the recognition was based on leadership, character and sportsmanship in the past year.
“You’re both great athletes and great people,” AAU President and CEO Roger Goudy said during the online event. “You’re going to go a long way in life long beyond you’re athletics because all 10 finalists this year are quality people as they always are. We at the AAU are proud to have you as representatives.”
The winner was determined by a combined vote from the public, media and the award’s Executive Committee. It is just the third time the award has had co-winners and the first time since Navy football player Keenan Reynolds and Connecticut basketball player Breanna Stewart won in 2015. Twin sisters Coco and Kelly Miller, who played basketball at the University of Georgia, were named recipients together in 1999.
“I am incredibly humbled,” Lee said in a news release. “It was an honor to be nominated and reach the finals, so to be selected among this incredible group of individuals is pretty special. It is great to be the fifth wrestler to win the award, and it is really special to be able to represent the University of Iowa. I am happy to share this award with Sabrina. All of the finalists are deserving. I am very surprised and very thankful.”
Lee becomes the fifth wrestler since the award’s inception in 1930 to receive the Sullivan, joining John Smith (1990), Bruce Baumgartner (1995), Rulon Gardner (2000) and Kyle Snyder (2017).
“All of them are gold medalists,” Lee said. “John Smith is the best wrestler our sport has ever seen for America, a six-time World champion — two Olympics and four Worlds.
“Rulon Gardner upset the best wrestler to ever live. It’s a group I would be honored to be a part of.”
Lee was named the Hodge Trophy winner, Big Ten Wrestler of the Year, InterMat’s Wrestler of the Year and he was the NCAA Division I Most Dominant Wrestler. He finished 18-0 with a 125-pound Big Ten title and was the top seed at the NCAA tournament.
The two-time NCAA champion dominated the competition, outscoring his opponents, 234-18. Lee scored bonus points in 17 matches, including four first-period falls and nine technical falls. Only four of his 18 matches went the entire seven minutes.
Lee also won the 57-kilogram men’s freestyle title at the U.S. Senior Nationals in December.
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