Injured Lee plans on return; already holds special place in Hawkeye history

Updated: January 6, 2022

Photo: Iowa’s three-time NCAA champ Spencer Lee (top) only wrestled three times this winter; all coming Dec. 20-21 at the Journeymen Collegiate Duals in Florida, where his final bout was a 6-1 victory over NC State’s Jakob Camacho. Two weeks later, the Hawkeye senior announced that he was having season-ending knee surgery. (Photo by Bob Mayeri)

By Mike Finn

Spencer Lee could return for a final college wrestling season … in 2022-23. This news came shortly after the three-time NCAA champion and two-time Hodge Trophy winner announced on Jan. 1 he was undergoing knee surgery and will miss the rest of the 2021-22 season.

The 2023 NCAAs in Tulsa, Okla., are more than a year away and the 125-pound Iowa wrestler could still become the first all-time Hawkeye to claim four NCAA championships if he receives a medical redshirt. But until then, Lee — currently one of seven former Iowa wrestlers to win three national titles — may have already earned a special place in history, coaches say … for his perseverance and personal sacrifice for the betterment of the Hawkeye program.

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Unlike several other elite wrestlers, who had Olympic dreams prior to the 2020-21 season, Lee chose not to take an Olympic redshirt last winter. Instead, the native of Murrysville, Pa., competed in St. Louis, last March when he won Iowa’s only individual championship and led Iowa to the school’s 24th all-time team championship; its first since 2010.

But the Hawkeye paid a price as he beat Arizona State’s Brian Courtney, 7-0, with torn ligaments in both knees.

Shortly after his third NCAA title — after winning championships in 2018 and ’19 and after COVID cancelled the 2020 NCAAs — Lee told a national TV audience on ESPN that “excuses are for wusses,” when it came to explaining how he withstood the pain.

But the knee injuries — that first appeared in his senior year at Franklin Regional High School that helped prevent him from winning four Pennsylvania state championships in 2017 before coming to Iowa, where he retore the ligament in the 2019 NCAAs before tearing the other ACL in the 2021 Big Ten championship final two weeks before the NCAAs — forced the 2019 U.S. Open champ and two-time Junior World freestyle champion to drop out of the 2020 Olympic Trials that were delayed until last April.

With the NCAA giving last year’s wrestlers one more year of eligibility, the 23-year-old Hawkeye hoped to become just the fifth all-time NCAA Div. I wrestler to win four NCAA titles … joining the likes of four-time champs Pat Smith (Oklahoma State in 1994), Cael Sanderson (Iowa State in 2002), Kyle Dake (Cornell in 2013) and Logan Stieber (Ohio State in 2015).

Lee, whose all-time Iowa record is 78-5, did not start wrestling this season until the Journeymen Collegiate Duals, Dec. 20-21, in Niceville, Fla., where he won all three bouts. One of the victories was over including over NC State’s Jakob Camacho to help the undefeated Hawkeyes beat the Wolfpack, 19-15.

Spencer Lee (right) was presented his second Hodge Trophy by WIN publisher Bryan Van Kley and founder Mike Chapman at an Iowa football game on Oct. 16.  ( photo)

That would be his final bout of this season as Lee said in a statement that his season was over.

“After I tore my ACL in the 2019 NCAA finals, there wasn’t time to have surgery and still qualify and prepare for the Olympic Trials so I made the decision to pursue the path of rehabilitation.

“My knee came back remarkably fast … that experience showed me I could compete without surgery. It also influenced my decision to forego surgery and choose rehabilitation after injuring my other knee in the 2021 Big Ten Championship finals.

“Unfortunately, that knee has not responded in the same way. It was my goal to compete this year, for this team and with my teammates that I care so much about, but when I returned to competition, it became clear I would not be able to perform as I did the prior year due to instability in both knees and extreme soreness during and after competition.”

Iowa head coach Tom Brands respects Lee a great deal, especially because of all the personal sacrifices he’s made for the team.

“It’s well documented my respect for Spencer Lee, this program’s respect, my brother (Terry’s) respect for him and his family,” Tom Brands said. “You can’t say enough about his sacrifices, say enough about the courage that he has … and will have to have. He is endeared to Hawkeye fans because of his winning ways and because of much more than that. That cements his legacy. He is basically a living legend.”

Brands, who won his three NCAA titles between 1990-92, said he could not think of anyone else who accomplished so much after going through so much pain.

“To me, it’s unprecedented,” said Brands, who is in his 16th year at the Hawkeye helm. “I’ve known of other wrestlers who have competed for this program that have been ACL deficient who have had success. But I don’t know of anyone who has been ACL deficient in both knees.

“He’s a competitive guru. He’s a high, high-minded individual and he wears his emotions on his sleeve. A lot of times that has favored him in situations of crisis where he must persevere. I cannot say it enough; the courage and determination and forethought in a quick amount of time to continue to the national tournament. There were so many reasons he was doing it. He did it for himself first, but he did it for a lot of other people too … and he did it very unselfishly for a lot of other people.”

Lee will be eligible for a medical hardship waiver if he wants to return for the 2022-23 season. Waivers are given to student-athletes who compete in less than 30 percent of competitions in a season. Athletes also cannot compete past the midway point of the season.

As for who will replace Lee in the line-up for the Hawkeyes who were ranked No. 1 by WIN in December, before dropping to No. 2 behind Penn State in early January, Brands suggested that redshirt freshman Jesse Ybarra (5-1 this season as a sub for Lee) may be the Hawkeye facing Minnesota Jan. 7 in Iowa City.

But Brands also did not rule out the option of using true freshman Drake Ayala. The native of Fort Dodge, Iowa, won five of six bouts at the Jan. 1-2 Southern Scuffle in Chattanooga, Tenn., and claimed third place to earn a No. 14 ranking by WIN. Ayala is 10-2, wrestling unattached this season with his only losses (at UNI Open and Scuffle) coming against Minnesota’s Pat McKee, who is expected to face the Hawkeyes in Carver-Hawkeye this Friday night at 8 p.m. CST.

“We have two options and we like having options. Right now, Ybarra is going,” said Brands. “Ayala just got back from the Southern Scuffle on Monday. We saw him in the room yesterday. He is operating consistently since the day he arrived on campus.

“All year, he has been consistent and hungry and knows that this sport takes commitment. He comes from a great place that has emphasized that his entire life. We absolutely love his leadership. He is soft spoken but demands you pay attention to him.”

Lee’s teammates downplayed the fact that they must make up for the NCAA points that might have come from Lee if the Hawkeyes hope to win another NCAA team title this March in Detroit.

“I don’t think that’s on our minds,” said Iowa’s fourth-ranked heavyweight Tony Cassioppi, a 2021 All-American who is expected to face Minnesota’s Hodge winner and Olympic champion Gable Steveson this Friday night. “Everyone wants to perform to their best and score as many points as possible. I don’t think Spencer being out changes anyone’s approach because we are all super focused on reaching the top step of the (All-American) podium.”