Leistikow: Iowa wrestling's Spencer Lee on his decision to have 2 knee surgeries, sit out rest of season
To the outside world, Spencer Lee is an unstoppable force. He doesn’t need ACLs to win, after all. He proved that on the biggest of college wrestling stages in March.
That’s pretty much how Lee thinks about himself, too. Not in an arrogant way. But in a way that he believes he can overcome any odds and accomplish anything no matter the level of adversity.
That’s why the decision he announced Saturday — that he would have season-ending surgeries on both knees — was such a difficult conclusion to reach.
Lee can be intentionally selective with media interviews, especially when it comes to talking about his injuries. That’s understandable for a generational talent who was a three-time age-group world champion and constantly scrutinized even before joining the Iowa wrestling program with enormous expectations in June of 2017.
But on Saturday night, Lee let down his guard and opened up in an exclusive and revealing interview with the Des Moines Register. The three-time NCAA champion at 125 pounds spoke about the pain he’s experienced, what he endured just to practice (let alone compete) over the past nine months and the chain of events that led to the decision to have reconstructive ACL surgery on both knees.
Before we dig into the key points of the conversation, though, there’s one quote that Iowa wrestling fans probably want to hear first from the fifth-year Hawkeye senior.
“I’m prepared to do whatever it takes to get back and compete in a Hawkeye singlet and chase my dreams,” Lee said. “This is a step toward that.”
How one painful knee eventually turned into two
Lee made famous the phrase, “Excuses are for wusses,” after winning five matches in three days at the NCAA Championships in March despite tearing the ACL in his left knee 10 days earlier. Lee said he was in intense pain during those 10 days as he tried to prepare to compete — that the only way he got through each day mentally was to laugh it off. Because what else could he do? He told teammates in jest, “I’d rather be me than you guys. I’ll find a way to get this done.”
And as we know now (and didn’t then), Lee had re-torn his right ACL in the 2019 NCAA championship match against Jack Mueller. Lee said it happened when Mueller tripped him back to the mat in the second period. Watching it again, Lee can’t even be seen wincing. He put his head down that Saturday night and found a way to beat Mueller, 5-0, to earn his second NCAA title in an adversity-filled season.
That background is important because Lee didn’t think he would need to repair his newly torn ACL (the left), because he came back strong after not repairing the right one injured against Mueller. Lee told himself that he would do whatever it took to strengthen the left knee, just like he did with the right.
As part of his recovery, Lee would go to Carver-Hawkeye Arena three times a day — at 7 a.m., 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. — to ice the left knee. He would use electric stimulation to “fire my quads and keep my legs strong.” His practices were half the length of everyone else’s. One of Lee’s favorite training activities is running, but he could no longer run. All of his conditioning was done on a stationary bike.
He did all of that just to get "at the most," in his estimation, 7-10 minutes of live wrestling each week in the Hawkeye wrestling room.
"I put my head down and did it for five or six months. I said, ‘I can do this,’” Lee said. “I wrestled better than ever in practice."
But eventually, the strain on the “good” knee (the right) was causing layers of problems. Now, instead of one knee hurting, there were two. That was difficult internally, but Lee was determined to push himself so he could learn how to wrestle through the pain.
“I probably shouldn’t have been on the mat,” Lee said. “I told myself, ‘The more I wrestle, the better I’ll get.’
“I would never get deterred. The reason why (coaches and trainers) were so confident about not having surgery was even if my knee gave out and I was done for the practice and had to go on the bike or go ice. I would just smile and say, ‘It doesn’t matter. I’m good. I’ll be fine in the morning.’ That’s how it was.”
Eventually, Iowa head coach Tom Brands intervened
Brands scaled Lee’s training back after the practice injuries became more frequent. Lee joked that Brands put him on "the old man plan."
Still, Lee was determined to test his limits. He traveled with the Hawkeyes for a two-day, three-dual event Dec. 20-21 in Niceville, Florida — his first outside competition since the 2021 NCAA Championships. He wrestled three matches and won by scores of 17-0, 8-0 and 6-1.
“My knees were swollen and hurting and beat to hell two days before I competed,” Lee said Saturday night. “But the decision was mine to compete.”
Why go through with it?
“I will die on that mat. That’s how my brain works,” he said. “You’d have to tell me, 'You can’t wrestle anymore.'”
After the Florida matches, though, Lee experienced more setbacks that had become all too common. He began to wonder how long he could continue the immense amount of icing, the electrodes, the lack of regular wrestling and the increasing pain and frequent swelling in both knees.
“I’m like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this for another five years,’” Lee said.
So, after consulting with his family, his coaches and medical professionals, the decision for surgery on both knees was made.
Lee stressed that he wanted fans to know that he tried his best to be his best, "and I am sorry I couldn’t compete this season."
He’ll easily meet the qualifications for a medical-hardship waiver. Once approved, he would be able to return for a sixth season at Iowa. (He won NCAA titles in 2018, 2019 and 2021; the 2020 championships were canceled due to COVID-19.) And he will.
“My goal was four national titles, not three,” Lee said. “That’s the goal, that’s the plan. First thing first is to get the knees fixed.”
In a matter of hours Friday, Lee’s ACL count will go from zero to two
Orthopedic surgeon Robby Westermann will perform the operations at the University of Iowa.
“He’s got a plan. He’s had a plan. He’s ready to rock and roll,” Lee said. “We trust him.”
Brands was telling Lee recently that “as soon as the last stitch is in the knee, it’s healing.”
And then the clock for his wrestling return can begin. After Lee's first ACL surgery (on his right knee) as a high school senior, he missed about nine months of competition. He has since assembled a collegiate record of 78-5, with 65 bonus-point wins, and has won 38 matches in a row (dating to 2019) by a combined score of 461-41.
Following the double-knee operation, Lee will use a wheelchair for a few weeks.
“Then we’re going to be walking and rehabbing every single day,” Lee said, his voice picking up excitement. “Next thing you know, we’ll be on the mat. Next thing you know, you guys will be interviewing me on media day again.”
And then the stories will be written about Lee’s hope to gear up for the 2023 NCAA Championships in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and become one of the handful of “four-timers” in college wrestling.
As our conversation wound down, the topic of the 2024 Olympic Games came up. Another good reason to get surgery now, right?
That he would have a better chance to pursue his dream of Olympic gold with two ACLs vs. zero?
“Yeah,” Lee conceded, then added with a laugh: “But I think I could still do it hurt.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.