Spencer Lee leaves lasting legacy on Iowa men’s wrestling program

The 125-pound three-time national champion was upset in the 2023 NCAA Championship semifinals but will still be remembered as one of the Hawkeyes’ all-time greats.


Matt Sindt

Iowa’s No. 1 nationally ranked 125-pound Spencer Lee smiles to the crowd at the end of a wrestling dual between No. 2 Iowa and No. 6 Oklahoma State in Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Sunday Feb. 19, 2023. The Hawkeyes defeated the Cowboys, 28-7.

Kenna Roering, Sports Reporter

Iowa men’s wrestler Spencer Lee will be remembered as one of the greatest to ever do it in a Black and Gold singlet. 

The 125-pounder’s hopes of becoming Iowa’s first-ever four-time national champion came crashing down when Purdue’s Matt Ramos pulled one of the biggest upsets in collegiate wrestling history on Friday night. 

Ramos forced Lee to his back and pinned him in 6:59. When official John Hnath smacked his hand on the mat to signal the fall, over 16,000 spectators inside the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, erupted, hitting 106 decibels of cheers filled with both misery and elation. The loss snapped Lee’s perfect 18-0 record at the NCAA Tournament, along with his 58-match winning streak.

“He left the arena like you normally would after your match, and there was some conversation,” Iowa head coach Tom Brands said following Lee’s loss. “We have good support. His family is with him. He has great support. The cliche and easy thing to say is that he has to move on. It’s hard, this is really hard, but you still have to move on.”

Lee opened up his 2023 national tournament run on Thursday morning with a fall in 36 seconds over Air Force’s Tucker Owens. Later that day, Lee earned a 17-0 tech fall in 2:30 over Michigan’s Jack Medley in the pair’s third matchup of the season. On Friday morning, Lee still won handily via major decision, 14-4, over Lock Haven’s Anthony Noto in the quarterfinals. Still, he wasn’t pleased with his performance, saying that he needed to score more points, and “it’s that simple.”

Lee had trouble against Ramos in the semifinals from the first whistle, giving up a takedown and two-point near fall to trail, 4-1, after the first three minutes. Lee took the lead with a four-point near fall in the second period on his notorious tilt move. But once again, Lee found himself fighting to stay alive in the bottom position in the third period, and Ramos took full advantage.

“I know that he’s best when he’s wrestling,” Brands said of Lee. “I know that he’s best when he is flowing and moving and has very wicked quickness. But I don’t know if he was in that mode. But we have to move on.”

At 8 a.m. on Saturday, Lee’s Hawkeye career officially ended. Iowa wrestling released a statement announcing that Lee would medically forfeit from the medal round to automatically place sixth at 125 pounds. Despite the forfeit, Lee showed up to the arena on Saturday to support his teammates that were still competing.

Lee’s podium finish earned him his fifth All-American honor, joining former Iowa men’s wrestler Michael Kemerer and 197-pound Jacob Warner as the only three Hawkeyes to achieve the feat. Lee was one of six Hawkeyes to earn All-American status at the tournament, along with 149-pound Max Murin, 174-pound Nelson Brands, 197-pound Jacob Warner, and heavyweight Tony Cassioppi. Iowa finished second in the team race with 82.5 points, securing the Hawkeyes’ 14th team trophy in the last 15 NCAA Championships. 

Iowa grapplers that had to compete following Lee’s defeat knew they had to move on and focus on their own matches. But now that the season’s over, they want to make sure Lee gets all the support he needs. 

“[Lee] needs to know that we love him,” Warner said on Saturday. “I don’t care if he wins four national titles for myself. I only cared because he cared, and I want what’s best for him and what he wants. Whatever he needs moving forward is what I can give him. He has to know he’s loved, not by teammates but by friends.”

The two-time Dan Hodge trophy winner ended his collegiate career at 98-6 with 84 bonus-point victories, including 35 pins, 33 technical falls, and 16 major decisions. Out of Lee’s 98 wins, 40 ended in the first period, including 12 falls in under one minute. 

A star emerges 

The Murrysville, Pennsylvania, product, was contemplating between Penn State and Iowa to continue his wrestling career following high school.

Staying close to home, four consecutive NCAA titles from 2016-19, and four-time NCAA Champion Cael Sanderson as his coach were all appealing factors to Lee when considering the Nittany Lions. 

But Lee said he imagined Iowa associate head coach Terry Brands coaching against him during a match — and that was the dealbreaker. 

“I didn’t want him coaching against me, I wanted him coaching for me,” Lee told Big Ten Network. “If Terry Brands had that much of an impact on my brain, I had to go to [Iowa]. You’ll never find a man that can motivate you more than Terry Brands.” 

Lee, who Tom Brands referred to as a “once-in-a-decade” recruit, entered the Hawkeyes’ starting lineup as a true freshman.

In his home debut on Jan. 15, 2018, Lee gave everyone in Carver-Hawkeye Arena — and across the nation — a taste of what his career would entail in the Black and Gold. He pinned Michigan State’s Rayvon Foley in 46 seconds and walked off the mat like he’d been there a hundred times before. 

“He’s showed more action in the first period than any athlete. Ever,” former Iowa wrestling coach and world gold medalist Dan Gable told FloWrestling

Lee went on to place third at the 2018 Big Ten Championships in his freshman season. He redeemed himself two weeks later in Cleveland, Ohio, when he became the first true freshman to win an NCAA title at Iowa since Lincoln McIlravy in 1993. 

In his sophomore season, Lee placed second at the Big Ten Tournament after giving up a 3-0 lead to Northwestern’s top-seeded Sebastian Rivera to lose, 6-4, in sudden victory. Since that defeat on March 10, 2019, Lee went on a 58-match winning streak. 

He returned to the 125-pound national championship match in 2019 and shut out Virginia’s Jack Mueller, 5-0, to clinch his second NCAA title. During the bout, Lee reinjured his right ACL that he’d torn as a senior at Franklin Regional High School in 2017. Lee had surgery to repair his right knee after suffering the first loss of his high school career to eventual Hawkeye teammate Austin Desanto in the 2017 Pennsylvania High School State Championship bout at 126 pounds. 

This time around, though, Lee decided to opt out of a second surgery and wrestled through the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons with one healthy ACL. 

Lee told Big Ten Network there was a point where he wasn’t wearing a brace or taping his right knee when training and felt completely normal. This progress made Lee feel that he could compete well without having surgery. 

But the tables started to turn when Lee tore his left ACL in the 2021 Big Ten Championship match against Purdue’s Devin Schroder. He battled through the pain, earning a 21-5 technical fall to claim his second Big Ten title and Big Ten Wrestler of the Year honor. 

Lee said there was no hesitation in his decision to continue to wrestle. He cruised through the 2021 NCAA Championships with no healthy ACLs and shut out Arizona State’s Brandon Courtney, 7-0, for his third NCAA title. 

Lee’s four bonus point victories throughout the tournament helped crown the Hawkeyes 2021 NCAA champions — their first team title since 2010. 

“There’s nobody that’s more of a cold-blooded killer than Spencer Lee,” former Iowa wrestler and three-time conference champion Alex Marinelli told Big Ten Network. 

Season-ending decision 

Lee took advantage of his extra year of eligibility that the NCAA gave all 2020-21 student-athletes because of  COVID-19 and returned to the Hawkeyes in 2021-22 for what became a short-lived fifth season.  

He missed Iowa’s opening dual meets against Princeton, Army, and Iowa State, but competed in the 2021 Rofkin duals in Niceville, Florida, on Dec. 20-21.  Lee said his knees were swollen and hurting just days before the dual, but it was ultimately his decision to wrestle. 

“I will die on that mat. That’s how my brain works,” Lee said. “You’d have to tell me, ‘You can’t wrestle anymore.’”

He outscored opponents, 31-1, throughout the dual, downing Central Michigan’s Brock Bergelin, 17-0, Lehigh’s 11th-ranked Jaret Lane, 8-1, and North Carolina State’s fifth-ranked Jakob Camacho, 6-1. 

But it was clear Lee wasn’t his usual self on the mat. Although Lee said he hated the idea of not wrestling, he wanted to see what it felt like to be fully healthy for once in his career. 

So, after discussions with Tom and Terry Brands, medical professionals, and his family, Lee announced on Jan. 1, 2022, that he would undergo season-ending surgery to repair both knees. He said his left knee didn’t respond to the ACL tear as well as his right knee, and he was experiencing “extreme soreness during and after competition.” 

Lee was in a wheelchair for a few weeks following the procedure. He then started walking and riding an air bike every day until he eventually worked his way back to the mat. 

The return 

After what Lee called a “long and arduous” journey of rehab, he made his 2022-23 debut against Iowa State on Dec. 12, 2022. 

He strolled out to the mat in Carver-Hawkeye Arena to the tune of “We Will Rock You” by Queen, high-fived Terry Brands, and earned a 16-5 major decision victory over Corey Cabanban. 

The bonus-point victory was arguably the deciding factor in Iowa’s 18-15 win over Iowa State, which marked the Hawkeyes’ 18th consecutive dual meet victory against the Cyclones. 

But Lee said he was so “in his zone” that he couldn’t hear the deafening cheers of the Hawkeye faithful as he walked out from the tunnel. 

“People told me it was loud, but I was just so focused on getting out there for the first time and not thinking about the nerves,” Lee said following Iowa’s dual meet victory over Iowa State. “But, I’m really appreciative that the fans packed the arena and it was exciting for me to run back out in the arena again.”

Lee continued to dominate every opponent following his season debut, collecting eight falls in a combined 14:22, four tech falls, and two major decisions. From Dec. 29-Jan. 22, Lee had a career-best six straight falls, four of which were against top-10 opponents. 

In his last home dual meet on Feb. 19, his career inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena came full circle. He pinned Oklahoma State’s Reese Witcraft in 51 seconds to cap off a perfect 26-0 career record at home. As Lee walked off the mat for the final time, he made a heart with his hands, gesturing toward the crowd, and then pointed to the left thigh of his Hawkeye singlet, where “Iowa” was inscribed. 

He also made sure to give credit to Iowa’s medical staff for the progress he’s made physically, especially the squad’s athletic trainer Jesse Donnenwerth, who met with Lee every single morning

“We have the best medical staff that I’ve ever met in my entire life,” Lee said on March 13. “Every doctor, the amount of hours they’ve put in and the amount of tests and MRIs and whatever they’ve done just to keep me on the mat is probably a little excessive. I wouldn’t be able to compete without them.”

Global phenom

Although Lee came up short on his fourth national title, he has bigger shoes he wants to fill.

“My career is mainly focused on freestyle. People forget that,” Lee said at Iowa’s annual media day on Oct. 27, 2022.  “I’ve even had people ask me, ‘What are you going to do after college?’ To me, it’s like, I can’t even believe you asked me that.”

Lee said when he first wrote down his goals, nine-time world champion and three-time Olympic gold medalist topped the list.  

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

He was supposed to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which was 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.”

Lee is hoping to compete in the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris — the home country of his mother, Cathy Lee, who was a judo wrestler and alternate for the Olympic Games in 1992.

But Spencer Lee doesn’t plan on leaving Iowa any time soon.  He said he is looking forward to taking on more of a mentorship role after this season and believes he can train for his future endeavors in Iowa City with the Hawkeye Wrestling Club while supporting his teammates that still have eligibility. 

“Spencer Lee is an ambassador. He’s a lifelong ambassador. And it’s not just his wrestling, it’s how he conveys his love for the program,” Tom Brands said following Iowa’s dual meet victory over Oklahoma State. “He has been a staunch ally in rebuilding this program and putting us in contention to win titles.”