Leistikow: Mega-recruit brings bold goals to Hawkeye wrestling
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Along with enormous expectations that are as tangible as the 3½-inch scar just below his right knee, Spencer Lee is here.
Behind the wheel of his mother’s Ford Escape, one of the most decorated recruits in the history of college wrestling made the 10½-hour drive Monday from Murrysville, Pa., to Iowa City.
“I’m really excited to be here,” Lee, 18, says in his first interview from his new home. “I’m excited to be a Hawkeye.”
Over the course of our 45-minute conversation Thursday inside the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex, Lee made it abundantly clear he was embracing all aspects of his new journey that is just beginning:
The patience and discipline it’ll require to rehab from a torn ACL.
The pressure that comes with being the Class of 2017’s best pound-for-pound prospect.
And, absolutely, the idea of bringing the NCAA team championship trophy back to Iowa City.
“Third and second and fourth is good for some programs; I’m not trying to put down other programs. … But this program, we want first, every year,” Lee says. “We’re going to do everything we can to get there. And I know this is the group of guys I want to be around to do it with. I want to hoist that trophy with them.”
Iowa wrestling fans, you’re going to love cheering for Spencer Lee.
Not long ago in Hershey, Pa., fans were booing and laughing at him.
The decibels in Lee’s voice rise as he remembers the hostility sent his way on the night of March 12 in the Giant Center after he suffered the only loss of his 145-match high school career in the 126-pound finals.
“Those are the same people that would’ve asked me for autographs and pictures had I won,” says Lee, who three days earlier was the subject of this Pennsylvania headline: “Is Spencer Lee the world’s best wrestler?”
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To understand the circumstances behind Lee's 6-5 loss to a competitor he defeated 15-0 in the previous year’s championship bout is helpful to understand the mentality he brings to the Hawkeyes.
Lee tore his ACL on Jan. 23, but instead of opting for surgery right away, he wanted to see if he could win a fourth straight state championship and finish his high school career undefeated.
After all, he won his first of three world titles in 2014 (cadet) with two cracked ribs.
He won his second world title in 2015 (junior) with a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
“It would have been easy to just have surgery and be done," Lee says. "In my mind, I could do it. It didn’t matter to me that I was hurt.”
He later found out he had mononucleosis at the time, too. Between that and hardly stepping on a mat for more than a month, it’s no wonder he felt so exhausted as Drexel-bound Austin DeSanto circled around him for the winning two points as time expired.
The crowd roared at the stunning result. As Lee exited, the jeers came.
LEE'S HAWK DEBUT:Spencer Lee gets a pin as Iowa blasts Michigan State
"I wasn’t mad that they called that a takedown. I was mad because I couldn’t defend myself," Lee says. "It was sickening to me that that’s why I lost. I was out of shape, because I couldn’t train."
He tried what seemed impossible. He came up just short.
“Not one bit. I’m going to get this knee strong and come back,” he says, patting his leg. “It’s going to be fun.”
It’s been 2½ months since Lee’s March 28 knee surgery.
He’s antsy to get going. Iowa head coach Tom Brands describes him “as a guy that does not want to let the grass grow under his feet.”
Lee says the Brands brothers, Tom and Terry, have given him three repeated words of rehabbing advice.
“Don’t be stupid.”
He’s been getting therapy and working out for about two hours each morning. If everything goes perfectly, the knee could be ready in time for the college season.
And that begs the big question: Will Spencer Lee red-shirt?
Lee laughs. On this topic — unlike the rest of his free-wheeling, opinionated responses — he sticks to an abbreviated answer.
“That’s a question no one knows. Not even me,” he says. “Right now, I’m thinking about my knee. So, I don’t care. Just get my knee healthy.”
As this story unfolds over the next six months, understand two things about how Tom Brands operates:
- His decisions center around what’s best for the individual, not the team;
- The only true freshman Brands has used in the varsity lineup in 11 years was Nathan Burak, but he had a year of Olympic training between high school and college.
Some advantages to red-shirting:
- Lee could still wrestle unattached with plenty of motivation to chase down his fourth world championship (third in juniors) in 2018 in Budapest, Hungary;
- Penn State, which has won six NCAA team titles since Iowa's last in 2010, is going to be an overwhelming favorite with five returning NCAA champs.
So, it’s not a reach to think Lee’s first eligibility would be saved for the 2018-19 season — which, by the way, ends with the NCAA Championships in … Pittsburgh.
Spencer Lee going for his first national title just 20 miles west of his hometown?
Sign all wrestling fans up for that one.
“I don’t want to go there and be like, ‘Take this. This is what you guys get for booing me. Screw you,’” says Lee, who relayed some tweets from Pennsylvanians that shouldn’t be printed. “That’s not how I am.
“There’s no malice. There’s no hard feelings. It just kind of makes me sad, with everything I’ve done for PA.”
Lee’s voice again rises in intensity as he talks about what he feels are outside misconceptions of Hawkeye wrestling. He knows, because he had them, too.
“I always did, because that’s what I was told,” Lee says. “‘These are robots, they fight every practice, they throw you into the wall and punch you.’ Just stupid stuff. Until you get to come here, it’s the complete opposite.
“I didn’t expect the team atmosphere to be what it was. I didn’t expect how close everyone was, and how easy it was to get along with everybody.”
And if Lee needed any validation that Iowa was the right place for a light-weight star, he got some in arriving two days after recent Hawkeye Thomas Gilman stormed through a star-studded field to claim a spot on the U.S. team for the upcoming world championships in Paris.
That makes four straight years of former Hawkeyes to earn the world spot at 57 kilograms (125.5 pounds) — Tony Ramos twice (2014, 2015 worlds), Daniel Dennis (2016 Olympics) and now Gilman.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun being here, battling with the best guys in the country,” says Lee, who projects to being a 125-pounder throughout his college career. “Gilman just came out of college and made a world team. Dennis came out of retirement and made an Olympic team. I think that’s pretty cool to look at.”
Once Lee is healthy, he’ll be able to go head-to-head in the Hawkeye Wrestling Club with the U.S. world team representative at his weight.
Yes, international freestyle goals are the ultimate individual prize for Lee.
But he seems excited for his four- to five-year, folkstyle college career. The thing he’s most excited about are the clean-living, wrestling-crazed recruits Brands is piling up.
On his first night in Iowa City, Lee hung out with four-time Ohio state champion Alex Marinelli.
He’ll be first-year roommates with Washington, Ill., native Jacob Warner (their mutual choice), the top-ranked national recruit at 195 pounds.
Other like-minded guys from his Young Guns Club in western Pennsylvania are already here or coming: Michael Kemerer, Kaleb Young and Max Murin.
“Good, genuine guys,” Lee says. “That’s what we need here.
“I have a twin sister. I trust these guys with my sister. … At the same time, they’re going to put your head through a wall if you’re not working hard. And that’s what I want. That’s what we’re here for. We’re here to get better. This atmosphere is what I was looking for in a college.”
After his wrestling days, Lee wants to go into athletic administration — perhaps becoming an athletic director.
Four days on campus, and already he sounds like a guy ready to lead.
“We’re not going to be robots anymore. We never were; but I don’t want to have that misconception anymore,” Lee says. “I want us to be the Hawkeyes. The grinders on the mat, but the guys off the mat you want to hang out with.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.