Leistikow: Past rivals Spencer Lee, Austin DeSanto find fast-paced harmony in Iowa wrestling
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Not long after one of the few wrestling losses of his life, a heartbroken Spencer Lee didn’t feel like talking to anyone. But, just before walking to the 2017 Pennsylvania state championships awards stand to accept a second-place medal he didn’t want, Lee found a few words for the young man who had just beaten him.
“You should be a Hawkeye,” the three-time age-level world champion told Austin DeSanto.
Iowa-bound Lee knew DeSanto was already headed to in-state Drexel. But the remark was meant as a respectful gesture that DeSanto’s hard-charging, relentless style would be a perfect fit inside Tom Brands’ wrestling room.
It was one of their first interactions off the mat. Unbeknownst to each other in that moment, they were on the path to becoming future teammates — and good friends.
Young Pennsylvanians linked by wrestling history have become dynamic difference-makers together inside the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex in Iowa City.
Lee, for his technical mastery at 125 pounds.
DeSanto, for his takedown tenacity at 133.
Both are national title contenders as true sophomores. And they just might be the two highest-octane lightweights in Iowa City since a couple of guys named Terry and Tom Brands.
In a joint interview this week with the Des Moines Register, first-year Hawkeye teammates Lee and DeSanto were engaging and insightful, providing a window into their unique backstory and how, together, they’re helping to elevate Iowa wrestling.
Their friendship was built on respect.
In late March of 2017, two weeks after the 6-5 upset that rocked the wrestling world, Lee was in DeSanto’s corner at the Pittsburgh Wrestling Classic — an all-star event pitting the best high schoolers in Pennsylvania against the best of the rest of the USA.
Instead of scorning the rival that cost him a coveted fourth state title, Lee embraced getting closer to him. Lee was impressed that DeSanto that season had chosen to drop down a weight class, just so he could face the world-renowned Lee, rather than take an easier path to a state championship.
“It’s like I knew him before I knew him. Because I knew what he was about,” Lee said. “I knew he was just like me. We’re weird, we’re unique. We don’t think the same … as other athletes.”
DeSanto replaced originally chosen Lee, who was wrestling through a torn ACL and mononucleosis in the state final, as Pennsylvania’s 126-pound all-star. He was pitted against four-time California state champion Justin Mejia.
DeSanto was worried if he could even hang with Mejia.
He nervously turned to Lee for advice.
“I said, ‘Dude, you got this. You’re going to score a ton of points. You’re going to make this crowd loud, and it’s going to be awesome. I can’t wait to watch you,’” Lee recalled. “He slapped my hand super hard like he does now, and he ran out there and put on a pretty good show.”
In an eye-popping performance that earned him outstanding Pennsylvania wrestler honors, DeSanto dominated Mejia (a one-time Iowa commit) by a score of 18-5 as Lee cheered him on.
“It’s pretty cool,” DeSanto said. “You compete against a guy, and then he’s right in your corner wanting you to kick some guy’s butt.”
Then, as planned, they went their separate ways.
At Iowa, Lee continued his meticulous rehab from knee surgery and stormed to an NCAA title at 125 pounds as a true freshman.
At Drexel, DeSanto flashed an in-your-face style that included 11 technical falls and a 29-7 record. But after failing to place at the NCAAs at 133 pounds, he wanted more and elected to transfer.
Penn State and Rutgers were hot on DeSanto’s trail. But Iowa had the ultimate recruiting weapon in Lee, who was essential in persuading his former counterpart to join him in the Hawkeyes’ fight.
“He keeps an ungodly pace, and that’s what we love about him,” Lee said. “I just knew that (Iowa) was the best place for him.”
Tom Brands, Iowa’s 13th-year head coach, makes no bones about his program being intense with high expectations. But there’s also a loose, family-style culture that isn’t afraid to have (clean) fun.
“Spencer Lee was able to articulate what that ingredient was, and how it fit Austin DeSanto perfectly,” Brands said. “It’s not for everybody. But for Austin DeSanto, we knew it would work.”
The grins appeared before the question was finished.
Have you two seen videos of Tom and Terry Brands from their wrestling days?
Tom won three NCAA titles (1990, '91, '92) and an Olympic gold medal (1996). Terry won two NCAA titles (1990, ’92), two world titles and an Olympic bronze (2000). At Iowa, they combined to win 295 matches with a ferocious demeanor.
One of the classic, grainy videos Lee and DeSanto couldn’t stop talking about was when two-time NCAA champion Jeff Prescott of Penn State moved up a weight to see if he could handle Terry Brands.
Spoiler alert: He couldn't.
“I like to call that video, ‘How to break a two-time NCAA champ,’” DeSanto said.
“He’s not wrong,” Spencer laughed.
Terry was so punishing in a 20-5 technical fall that Prescott could hardly get back to the center of the mat.
“That’s the way to do it,” DeSanto said. “If you want to break someone, watch that video and try to recreate that as best you can.”
In their own styles, Lee and DeSanto are trying to emulate the Brandses' legendary pace.
Lee (36-3 at Iowa) has proven to be a generational force. Ten of his 13 college pins have come in the first period; 12 of his 14 technical falls have been by shutout. And while still raw, DeSanto (14-1 in his first Iowa season with a No. 3 national ranking) has match wins of 22-6, 19-8, 22-4 and 25-10 to his name.
While the sophomores are nowhere near as accomplished as their coaches, there’s a sense they one day could be.
“They’re way better than we were,” Terry Brands said, flat out. “Spencer’s potential is off the charts, as is Austin’s. They’re kind of coming at you from different (angles).
“Spencer’s a guy who won everything as a kid. DeSanto didn’t win a state title until their senior year. The common denominator is their love of victory.”
Lee’s influence was obvious on the wrestling room last season. Teammates credited his go-for-the-kill mentality in leading Iowa to a third-place NCAA finish and a tournament-high 30½ bonus points.
DeSanto’s added another element. He’s so eager to train, he’ll sometimes beat the early-rising Brandses to the office.
“He comes to Iowa City, suddenly he’s got a half-dozen people that’ll run with him in the morning before the sun comes up,” Brands said.
DeSanto justifiably feels proud when he sees teammates trying to copy his take-them-down, let-them-up, pounce-again attacks.
"That’s a pretty cool feeling," DeSanto said, "when you see guys cutting a guy and their hands are right on them, doing the same stuff you do."
Lee and DeSanto were born four days apart in October 1998.
Most second-year Iowa wrestlers would still be navigating their redshirt freshman seasons. It's easy to forget they’re just 20 years old, and that they're still learning how to handle college wrestling.
The way Tom Brands puts it, Lee needs to treat every July like an Olympics year, not like the dog days of summer. He doesn't want Lee thinking he can just flip a switch when the big meets arrive. That, plus some previously undisclosed issues, led to Lee's 7-3 December loss to Northwestern’s Sebastian Rivera.
“The thing is, he understands it’s about getting better,” Brands said. “He had a rough go at the beginning of the year. He was sick, he was hurt, he was banged up, beat up. We don’t talk about that a lot in our program. I don’t make that known. It's nobody's business.”
With DeSanto, coaches are trying to tame his excitable post-match antics that have cost the team three points. Though most Hawkeye fans (not-so-secretly) embrace DeSanto's brash behavior — like taunting the Nebraska bench, which drew him a one-match suspension, after his last outing — Brands acknowledged, “There’s got to be a shut-off when the final whistle blows; or any whistle blows.”
In both areas, Lee and DeSanto have become the perfect complement for one another.
DeSanto sets an example with his nonstop intensity; Lee does the same with his calm, measured demeanor.
“Let me put it this way," Lee interjected. "We’re both guys who aren’t satisfied where we’re at. And we’re working to improve every day, every practice, to be the best we can be.”
And now the road leads back to Pennsylvania.
This year’s NCAA Championships are March 21-23 in Pittsburgh, near where Lee grew up. DeSanto was home-schooled in Exeter, about four hours away, and is excited to see his family again; he's only been back once since arriving in August.
But they don't see this as a heartwarming homecoming.
"It’s different," Lee said. "Iowa City’s home now."
DeSanto cut in.
"Like Spencer is saying, this place is my home," he said. "It’s not like I’m going home."
The biggest stuff is coming up. After Friday's home finale against Indiana, all that's left are Sunday road duals at Wisconsin (Feb. 17) and Oklahoma State (Feb. 24), then the Big Ten and NCAA championships.
What a story it would be if Lee and DeSanto charged to national titles in front of the Pennsylvania fans.
It won't be easy. Lee will have to avenge a loss; DeSanto will have to overcome a loaded weight class. But, the former rivals draw confidence in knowing that they're better together.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.