Iowa men’s wrestling sixth-year senior Spencer Lee hunting for fourth national title

The 125-pounder hopes to become the Hawkeyes’ first four-time national champion, but he is keeping his health a main priority.


Jerod Ringwald

Iowa’s 125-pound Spencer Lee poses for a portrait during Iowa Wrestling Media Day in the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022. Lee is a three-time NCAA Champion and a two-time Big Ten Champion. The University of Iowa announced at the end of 2021 that Lee would undergo ACL surgery to repair his two torn ACLs, ending his 2021-22 season.

Kenna Roering, Sports Reporter

Iowa men’s wrestling sixth-year senior Spencer Lee isn’t satisfied with his three national titles.

Lee, a graduate of Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville, Pennsylvania, is a three-time high school state champion, two-time Junior World Champion, Cadet World Champion, and four-time All-American.

Now, the 5-foot-3, 125-pounder is hunting for his fourth NCAA title in 2022-23.

“I haven’t even achieved an iota of what I’ve wanted to,” Lee said.

If Lee wins his fourth national title in 2023, he would be the first four-time national champion in Iowa program history. Only four other wrestlers all-time have achieved the feat: Oklahoma State’s Pat Smith, Iowa State’s Cael Sanderson, Cornell’s Kyle Dake, and Ohio State’s Logan Stieber.

But the path to a fourth national title has been nothing but “long and arduous.”

Lee has been dealing with injuries every year since tearing his right ACL a few weeks before the Pennsylvania state wrestling championships as a high school senior in 2017. At the time, he had surgery to repair the knee.

Lee re-injured his right ACL in the 2019 NCAA Championship match. But that time, he opted out of surgery. He wrestled through the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons with one healthy ACL.

In 2021, Lee won his third national title in the most unprecedented circumstances yet — two torn ACLs.

Lee tore his left ACL in the 2021 Big Ten championship match against Devin Schroeder of Purdue. Lee won the match, however, to become a two-time Big Ten Champion. He won every match leading up to the 2021 NCAA championship match. On two torn ACLs, he beat Arizona State’s Brandon Courtney, 7-0, because “excuses are for wusses,” Lee told ESPN.

Because of his knee problems, Lee takes extra precaution to protect the rest of his body.

“One of the first things I remember that was unique about [Lee] was when he came to campus, and we were talking about how he drives,” head coach Tom Brands said. “He says, ‘I drive really slow, and the reason why is because I don’t want to get in an accident because if I get in an accident, I might get hurt and then I can’t wrestle.’ That’s as plain as it gets right there. Wrestling is everything to this guy.”

Lee tried to push through his left ACL tear last season, posting a 3-0 record in the 2021-22 season. But on Jan. 1, Lee decided to undergo season-ending surgery and has been rehabbing ever since.

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While Lee wants to add a fourth national title to his resume, it would only be a tiny accomplishment within his long-term goals of freestyle Olympic and world dominance.

“When I first wrote down my goals, it was four-time national champ, four-time state champ, three-time Olympic champ and nine-time world champ,” Lee said.

But because of his continuous injuries, Lee has not gotten the opportunity to compete internationally since he won his third age-group world championship in 2016 at age 17.

Lee was supposed to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which were pushed back to 2021 because of the pandemic. But with two torn ACLs, Lee decided to take that time to pursue alternative rehabs for his knees.

“It’s frustrating because it feels like I’ve lost six years of my career even though I’ve been in college,” Lee said. “My main goal has always been world and Olympic titles, not just NCAA titles.”

Through all the blood, sweat, and tears, one thing that’s stayed constant is Lee’s pursuit to be the best of the best. As he comes into the 2022-23 season with a 75-8 overall record and a No. 1 ranking in the 125-pound weight class, Lee is hungrier than ever.

“The bottom line about him is he’s never wavered in his quest to be the best wrestler on the planet, and that’s still the case,” Brands said. “… You know what, for his opponents, payback is a bitch.”

But for Lee to complete the quest and get back onto the international scene, he needs to get and remain healthy.

“For me it’s getting through the season healthy, wrestling as hard as I can, and scoring as many points as I can. And every match if I do that, the titles will come,” Lee said.

Without Lee, the Hawkeyes failed to defend their 2020-21 national title, placing third at the NCAA Championships in 2021-22.

This season, Lee wants to lead his second-ranked Iowa squad back to the top of the NCAA Championships’ team podium.

It is unknown when exactly Lee will return to the mat, but he will be wrestling in the Black and Gold in front of a sold-out Carver-Hawkeye Arena at some point this season.

“I’m not done yet,” Lee said.

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