Iowa Hawkeyes

Spencer Lee feels at home in Iowa

2-time NCAA champion enjoys having family close

Iowa's Spencer Lee checks with a referee before leaving the mat after wrestling Wisconsin's Michael Cullen 125-pound mat
Iowa’s Spencer Lee checks with a referee before leaving the mat after wrestling Wisconsin’s Michael Cullen 125-pound match at an Iowa Hawkeyes wrestling meet with the Wisconsin Badgers at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019. Lee won the match, 16-0, technical fall. Iowa won the meet, 32-3. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Iowa is home for Spencer Lee.

This is where he has made his mark as one of the best college wrestlers. He plans to train for more international success with sights set on Olympic gold and senior-level World titles.

By happenstance, his whole family ended up relocating to Eastern Iowa at the same time he left Murrysville, Pa., for the University of Iowa.

Lee still has a soft spot in his heart for his Pennsylvania roots, but there’s no doubt he bleeds Hawkeye black and gold.

“This is who I represent,” Lee said. “I’m an Iowan and I always will be.

“I’ll always be a Pennsylvania boy and now I’m an Iowan. I believe this is my home. My family is here. This is my home.”

The two-time NCAA champion continues to decorate his space with top awards, bringing coveted amateur awards like the AAU James E. Sullivan Award and returning prestigious wrestling honors like the Hodge Trophy back to Iowa City. Lee plans to be here for a while to the delight of Hawkeye fans.

“I plan on competing through 2028,” said Lee, a three-time World champ at the cadet and junior levels. “Wrestling in the Hawkeye Wrestling Club for all of that is my goal and my plan.”

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Lee doesn’t have to look far for support. In addition to a legion of wrestling fans that gravitate to him, his immediate family is a short trip up Interstate 380. His parents, Larry and Cathy Lee, and twin sister, Gaby, live in Cedar Rapids. Larry is the Vice President for Finance and Administration at Coe College, where Gaby is a student.

“It’s awesome,” Spencer Lee said. “I get to see them whenever I want.

“How could you not want your family close? They don’t miss any matches and I get to see them whenever. Nothing like family.”

Larry Lee said he didn’t share his opportunity at Coe until after his son decided to become a Hawkeye. The elder Lee had worked with Coe President David McInally for 12 years at Allegheny (Pa.) College. McInally had reached out to Larry Lee about the possibility to join the school.

Spencer’s commitment to Iowa was the first domino to fall. Then, after a lackluster visit to Iowa, Gaby was introduced to the Coe campus and fell in love immediately. Larry Lee recalled the family sitting around the dinner table when Gaby asked if they could make Coe work for her and how he was finally able to share the news. All the pieces fell into place.

“They really didn’t know anything about Coe,” said Larry Lee, who lives in Cedar Rapids. “As it turned out, it’s awesome. I love it. It’s a great small, private college. It really did all line up.”

Spencer was embraced instantly by the Hawkeye faithful and earned the favor of wrestling fans from across the state. His success on the mat is fueled by a flair to score points with turns and takedowns, tallying a 63-5 record in less than three full seasons. The humble attitude meshed with an ultra-competitive approach has endeared himself to fans of all ages.

“There’s no indication of him being anything other than all Iowa,” Larry Lee said. “He really loves it. I think they pick up on that.

“He loves kids and he loves the fans,” Larry Lee said. “I think that shows, too.”

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High expectations thrust Spencer into a role as face for the program. He accepted the responsibility shared by other Pennsylvania transplants like Michael Kemerer and Kaleb Young and Alex Marinelli, who is from nearby Ohio. Spencer can be found posing for pictures or signing autographs long after duals, interacting with Iowa’s other high-profile athletes and even in video interviews with Iowa President Bruce Harreld.

“I feel people want me to be here more than anywhere else,” Lee said. “They want me to stay here. They want me to be a Hawkeye.

“It’s hard to explain, but I’m a Hawkeye. I bleed black and gold. I always will no matter where I go.”

Spencer found inspiration in a simple principle that his father shared with him when he started wrestling at age 6. Larry Lee emphasized being a stellar athlete on the mat didn’t matter, if he wasn’t a good person off it.

“The better you are the more important it is for you to be the role model that others want to emulate,” Larry Lee said. “I’ve always told Spencer you almost have an obligation the more successful you become to hold yourself to a high standard of behavior. He took that very seriously.”

Larry Lee added, “I love the person he’s becoming more so than the athlete he is. No matter how great they all are, any of them, your athletic prowess is going to come to an end someday. Father time is going to catch up to you. Then, all you have is the person that this whole process has helped you become and that is what I’m proudest of.”

Iowa has fought negative stereotypes over the years. The Hawkeyes have been tagged as robotic, a bunch of no-fun grinders with a cookie-cutter Iowa brand of wrestling.

The Lee family heard all the rhetoric, but their recruiting experience didn’t resemble that at all. Larry Lee said he recalled how much fun Spencer had in his three visits, culminating in a session where Iowa associate head coach Terry Brands worked with Spencer on how to score from his patented splits position while fending off a neutral leg attack.

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Larry Lee has witnessed his son’s growth and credited Iowa Coach Tom Brands, Terry and the rest of the coaching staff.

“I think they have helped him develop as a wrestler,” Larry Lee said. “I think they have helped him develop as a man. I think they are helping him develop into that person I aspire for him to be.”

Spencer rolled through his junior season, compiling an 18-0 record and outscoring foes by a total of 234-18. The 125-pounder posted 17 bonus-point victories, including four pins, nine technical falls (the most by a Hawkeye since 1999) and four major decisions.

He became Iowa’s third Hodge Trophy recipient, joining Brent Metcalf and Mark Ironside. Spencer was also named Big Ten Conference Wrestler of the Year, InterMat’s Wrestler of the Year and NCAA Division I’s Most Dominant Wrestler.

The most impressive honor came last week when he was named co-winner of the Sullivan Award with Oregon basketball star Sabrina Ionescu.

When his name was announced on the live webcast, Spencer seemed genuinely surprised.

“I kind of thought they were joking to be honest,” Lee said. “There were three Olympic gold medalists and none of them won. There was a guy who won like eight national titles in track. They all had more accolades than me.

“I know the award is more than just accolades. I know that’s criteria, but it was sportsmanship, how you affected your sport and past accomplishments.”

In true humble fashion, Spencer had questioned whether it was his time to win the award, joining the likes of past Olympic wrestling champions John Smith, Bruce Baumgartner, Rulon Gardner and Kyle Snyder. He has been an ambassador of the sport and Iowa athletics.

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“I was shocked because I didn’t feel I deserved it yet,” Lee said. “I did but I didn’t. I worked as hard as I can. I achieved everything I could this year that I was allowed to achieve. I was almost as dominant as I could possibly be and that’s part of the criteria. I do my best to help grow the sport.”

Spencer has played a vital role for a group that has Iowa perched atop college wrestling again. They dominated the competition this season, posting a flawless dual record with Big Ten and Midlands Championships team titles. The Hawkeyes were heavy favorites to win their first NCAA title since 2010.

“This group of young men have come in here and made the choices to do the right things,” Larry Lee said. “They were on the path to win the national title this year and arguably putting a better team on the mat next year.

“I think if you put that all together people are just excited about the team. He happens to be on that team, right now.”

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

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