Hawkeye wrestlers ready for return to mat

Iowa’s wrestlers used unconventional methods to stay sharp mentally and physically during their program’s COVID-19-related in-person activities pause.


Shivansh Ahuja

Iowa’s 125-pound Spencer Lee grapples with Nebraska’s Liam Cronin during a wrestling dual meet between No. 1 Iowa and No. 6 Nebraska at Carver Hawkeye Arena on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. No. 1 Lee defeated No. 11 Cronin by tech fall in 1:21, and the Hawkeyes defeated the Cornhuskers, 31-6.

Chris Werner, Sports Reporter

While most Iowans and Midwesterners hunkered down in February to avoid plummeting winter temperatures, some Iowa wrestlers bundled up and embraced the frigid air.

At that time, the wrestling room was not an option for the Hawkeyes, as they were forced to pause all team-related in-person activities on Feb. 8 after seniors Alex Marinelli and Kaleb Young, and head coach Tom Brands all tested positive for COVID-19 between Jan. 31 and Feb. 7.

So, without their traditional training options available, Iowa’s wrestlers had to resort to drastic measures to stay sharp mentally and physically.

“The guys that wanted to keep up shape did it,” Marinelli said. “Typically, starting lineup, a couple backups, it’s just the select few that want to be great. It was like negative 15 and I wore like four layers and I was sweating but my hands and my feet were freezing. And so, still got in a couple miles and blew my lungs out.”

The Hawkeyes resumed in-person activities on a limited basis Feb. 15. Iowa’s duals with Penn State, Northwestern, and Wisconsin were all postponed or canceled, however.

“I don’t know how many other sports would take that extra mile and go out and run in negative-degree weather,” Marinelli said. “I just don’t know who would do that, honestly, but we do. We want to be national champs. We don’t want to skip a beat. We want to go the extra mile.”

RELATED: Iowa wrestling returns to limited in-person activities, dual against Northwestern postponed

Much like the wrestlers he’s coaching now, Brands also went the extra mile when he competed at Iowa under Dan Gable and won three national championships from 1989 to 1992.

“You would do things that were seemingly insane just to keep your edge in any way possible, and that’s what these guys have been able to do,” Brands said. “When it comes down to, ‘Is it gonna be you or the other guy?’ You’ve got to make it you. You’ve got to make it be you every time.”

While Iowa has wrestled many foes this season, COVID-19 may still be its greatest challenger, according to 125-pound senior and two-time national champion Spencer Lee.

“I mean, everyone holds each other accountable, but I know most of us just kind of did our own thing,” Lee said. “I’m not saying we avoided each other but we did the best we could to stay isolated. We lost [the opportunity to compete for a national championship] last year, so I don’t think any of us want to do anything that could possibly affect this year. We all knew what we had to do. We did what we had to do to get back to competition.”

Iowa’s return to competition will come this weekend in University Park, Pennsylvania, at the Bryce Jordan Center for the 2021 Big Ten Big Ten Wrestling Championships.

Both Lee and Marinelli will enter the weekend competition as defending Big Ten Champions at their respective weights, and Iowa will kick off the event as the reigning team champion.

If the Hawkeyes are to repeat and reclaim their spot atop the podium, they’ll first have to shake off the rust they’ve accumulated after 27 days without wrestling a single opponent.