Inside Iowa phenom wrestler Spencer Lee's endless chase for Olympic greatness

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

Forty-four days before the 2018 NCAA Championships, Spencer Lee sits in an office on the second floor of Carver-Hawkeye Arena. He is three days removed from another masterful wrestling performance, a 15-0 technical fall over Michigan’s Drew Mattin.

But today, he is talking bigger. Much bigger.

“There’s nothing bigger than the Olympics,” Lee says. “Those are the things that people are going to remember.”

Spencer Lee has been a phenom for years, and he's backing up the hype at Iowa.

In 30 minutes, Lee will wander down to the Iowa wrestling room and resume his chase for greatness. He’s talked about winning the Olympics since middle school. He taped pictures of gold medals to his bedroom door and to the ceiling above his bed, so as to always keep his goal in front of him. 

He twists and turns in the chair. He’s only 19, but since joining Iowa’s starting lineup last month, he’s become the face of the program: the No. 3-ranked 125-pounder in the country, a true freshman tearing up returning All-Americans. His credentials presented unbelievable hype — a three-time Pennsylvania state champion, a three-time age-level world champion — and so far, he’s lived up to it all. He's a bona fide national-title contender eight months removed from his high school graduation.

Lee has not shied from these aspirations. The conversations during his recruitment centered on winning world and Olympic titles, “because the NCAA titles are a given,” says Royce Alger, a former Iowa wrestler. He and legendary coach Dan Gable had similar talks with Tom and Terry Brands in the late 1980s.

They both understand what Lee is after.

“He told me once — and this is brilliant — that he doesn’t speed or drive reckless, and he wears his seat belt all the time," Iowa coach Tom Brands said, "because if he dies, he won’t be able to wrestle anymore."

Back in the office, Lee does his best to explain how he operates. It is almost a cliché to say an Iowa wrestler wants to win the Olympics. But Lee is different. The stories of his competitive drive are both astounding and, at times, comical.

But he says all of this with an intensity that makes you believe nothing can stop him.

The beginning 

The wrestling obsession began at age 6. Lee came home from school one day and asked his dad if he could wrestle. His friends were doing it, he pleaded. His parents, Larry and Cathy, said sure. Lee went 26-1 that first year. He was a natural.

A year later, on Oct. 14, 2005, Lee and his twin sister, Gabrielle, celebrated their seventh birthdays at their western Pennsylvania home. Larry and Cathy orchestrated a typical elementary-school party — friends, family, cake, ice cream. But Larry could tell something was wrong, and when he asked, his son did not waver.

“I want to go to a wrestling tournament.”

Larry got online and found an event in Strongsville, Ohio, two hours away. He and Lee drove out the next morning. Lee was paired with a group of 9-year-olds, and they all took turns pummeling him. He lost three times by technical fall. After the third, Lee disappeared underneath the bleachers and cried.

“I went and threw my arm around him and said, ‘Spencer, I don’t believe in quitting, but we haven’t been on the mat, we haven’t trained. We’re really in over our head. I think we should just leave,’” Larry recalls. “He goes, ‘But I have one more match.’

“I said, ‘Spencer, I just watched the guy that just beat you get beat by the guy we’re about to wrestle. Let’s go home. Let’s get back on the mat and practice, and we’ll wrestle these guys in the future.’

"He said, ‘No, I have one more match.’”

Lee wrestled his final match, fought hard and lost again. On the drive home, he sat in the backseat and played Pokémon on his Game Boy while Larry called Cathy and explained about how he was a terrible father for letting his son get beat up so badly. 

Later that night, around one in the morning, Lee woke up his dad, guided Larry into his bedroom and asked him to get on his hands and knees in a wrestling’s bottom position. He wanted to show him what he did wrong that day.

“This is at 7 years old,” Larry says now. “I knew then that he had the bug.

“I went back to my room, smiled at Cathy and said, ‘You know, I think there’s going to be a lot of wrestling in our future.’”

A hatred of losing

Larry learned early on that his son hated to lose. When leaving a store, Larry saw that Lee always walked a step or two ahead so he could reach the car first. Larry tapped into that drive by walking faster, forcing Lee to also walk faster. A couple of times, Larry says, they sprinted through the parking lot.

Part of Lee’s internal drive may be genetic. Lee's parents met at a judo practice in Japan. Cathy, a silver medalist at the 1991 Pan-American Games, walked up to Larry, a former coach for the U.S. National Judo Team, and asked if he wanted to fight. Larry, at 5-foot-6, was hesitant, but Cathy, at 4-11, picked him up and threw him on his head. They got married a month later.

In May 1987, Larry and Cathy packed their lives into a car and drove to Colorado. Cathy worked two jobs, while Larry earned his master’s from the University of Denver (he now works as the vice president for facilities and operations at Coe College in Cedar Rapids). They instilled that same work ethic in Lee and Gabrielle, who were born in 1998.

As they grew older, Lee was driven by winning. Gabrielle, now a student at Coe, liked participating. Gabrielle used to swim, and Larry and Cathy brought Lee to her meets for support. After one competition, Lee asked Gabrielle for her time. She didn’t know. Her brother pressed. What was the winning time? She didn’t know that, either.

Larry begins to laugh as he recounts this story.

“So he goes, ‘Gaby, if you don’t know what the time is that won the race, and you don’t know your time, how do you know what time you have to make up so you can win?’” Larry says. “She said, ‘Spence, I swim for fun. I don’t care about winning or losing,’ and Spencer goes, ‘Gaby, they keep score for a reason!’ 

“Cathy and I are in the front seat just smiling. He just could not comprehend her mindset that it was just for fun. His mindset is, 'No, you have to win.'”

Larry convinced Lee to play many sports growing up. He played on travel soccer teams. In fifth grade, Lee says he weighed 100 pounds — “and I didn’t grow again,” he deadpans — which made him formidable in pee-wee football. He tried cross country in seventh grade. During a big race, he placed 66th out of 350 kids, but ran off afterward, upset. Larry chased him down and found him sitting next to a tree.

“I sit down and say, ‘Spence, Coach says you did a good job,’” Larry recalls. “He goes, ‘Did a good job? Are you kidding me?’ I’m like, ‘66th is good here.’

“He goes, ‘Dad, I just got beat 65 times in one day. I haven’t lost 65 wrestling matches in my life!’ That's his mindset.”

The next year, Larry was driving Lee home from wrestling practice when Lee announced his plans to be a three-sport athlete moving forward. A surprised-yet-excited Larry asked which three sports he was going to do.

“He goes, ‘Folkstyle, Freestyle and Greco,’” Larry says. “After that, I saw everything else go by the wayside.”

Iowa's Spencer Lee loosens up before wrestling Oklahoma State's Nick Piccininni at 125 pounds at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Sunday, Jan. 14, 2018. Lee won by decision, 10-5.

Making his move

After Lee recorded his fifth technical fall of this season, a 15-0 drubbing of Minnesota’s Ethan Lizak, a returning NCAA finalist, he wore a pink Young Guns T-shirt. He talked of how he watched old matches of former Hawkeye greats with Jody Strittmatter, a former Iowa wrestler who was Lee’s club coach at Young Guns in Pennsylvania.

There’s a story behind his joining Young Guns, one of the nation’s most-successful wrestling clubs. After Lee’s rough showing in Strongsville, he went home to train and parlayed that into a third-place showing in the 8-and-under division at the prestigious Tulsa Nationals. Upon their return home, Larry sought a stronger club at which Lee could train. He called Strittmatter and asked if Lee could tag along and wrestle at a big dual tournament.

“We would love to have Spencer,” Larry recalls Strittmatter saying, “but I can’t do it. I want to reward the kids who are here at Young Guns. I want to develop these kids. It’s not about winning. Even though Spencer might be better, I’m not going to take him over a kid who’s been here working hard every day. I’m going to reward my kids.”

“They turned me down,” Larry continues, “but for the right reasons, and that’s why Spencer joined Young Guns the next year.”

At Young Guns, Lee had a coach who understood work ethic. Strittmatter grew up on a dairy farm in rural Pennsylvania and saw his dad wake up every morning to work. He won a state title in high school, two Division II national titles at Pitt-Johnstown in 1998 and 1999 and was an NCAA finalist at Iowa in 2001.

Strittmatter still thinks about his 13-10 finals loss that year to Fresno State’s Stephen Abas. It’s what drove him into coaching. He and former Iowa teammate Eric Juergens started a wrestling club in Michigan after graduating from Iowa. Their first practice was held in a karate studio, and 10 kids showed up. By the time Strittmatter left a year later, they had numerous sites, with as many as 50 kids at each.

In Pennsylvania, Strittmatter helped produce many of the country’s best Division I wrestlers. The list includes Penn State’s Jason Nolf and Vincenzo Joseph, two defending NCAA champs; Bucknell’s Tyler Smith, a returning All-American; Ohio State’s Luke Pletcher, who’s ranked second nationally at 133 pounds; as well as Iowa’s Michael Kemerer, Max Murin and, of course, Lee. Iron sharpened iron in that practice room.

Looking back, Strittmatter says he could’ve used Lee in that dual tournament. He remembers Lee as a fearless middle-schooler who wrestled high-school kids at practice — and not just compete with them, but score in bunches.

“And not just any high school kids,” Strittmatter continues. “We’re talking some of the best in the country. He would be scoring like crazy on some of the best kids in the country who are five, six, seven years older than him."

The trajectory of Lee’s future changed in seventh grade, when he and Strittmatter went to a camp at Pitt-Johnstown. He met Nick Roberts, a former Young Guns wrestler who wrestled at Ohio State but transferred to Pitt-Johnstown, where he won a Division II national title in 2016. (Roberts died last year of an accidental fentanyl overdose.)

One day during the camp, Roberts wore his Team USA singlet and showed a video of him competing at the Junior World Championships in 2010 in Budapest, Hungary. When his bronze-medal match aired, Lee says Roberts’ face went pale, and he left the room.

“Jody was like, ‘He still won’t watch the match because he’s so disappointed in himself,’” Lee recalls. “Jody said then, ‘I’ve never had a world champ from Young Guns.’”

That conversation had a profound impact on Lee. The same mind that found frustration in a 66th-place finish in a cross-country race now saw an avenue to be on top of the world. He was eligible to make the Cadet World Team next season as an eighth grader. Lee called his dad after practice that day and informed him of his plans to not only make the team, but to win the tournament.

Let’s do it, Larry said.

A (teenage) world champion

Motivation sounds like a silver medal clanking off the back of a door. In eighth grade, Lee asked his dad to sign him up for the 2012 Super 32 Challenge, arguably the toughest preseason prep wrestling tournament in the country. Larry pulled up the website and saw there was a middle-school division.

No, Lee said. He wanted to wrestle against high-schoolers.

Larry was hesitant, but Strittmatter expressed confidence in his pupil. Lee scored two pins and reached the finals at 106 pounds, where he met Nick Suriano, then a freshman from New Jersey who now wrestles at Rutgers and is ranked No. 1 at 125 by Trackwrestling. Lee, with a wicked shiner on his left eye, scored a quick takedown in the first period, but gave one up in the final seconds to lose 4-3.

Lee threw his silver medal in the trash can. Larry fished it out and brought it home, but Lee refused to look at it. A week later, Lee hung it on the back of his bedroom door so he could see it when he left and hear it when he returned.

The sound of second place pushed him through that season, and he made the Cadet freestyle world team in the summer of 2013. He competed at 110 pounds and went 2-2. The results left him shocked, frustrated, upset — but also encouraged.

“I had never lost a freestyle match,” Lee says. “I’ve been wrestling since I was 8, and I lost two within an hour and a half. I was in disbelief. My dad was like, ‘This is a different level.’

“But that’s when I knew that I could do this. I just really need to dedicate myself.”

He became consumed by the next match, the next practice, the next takedown, the next push-up. He ran three miles before school a few times a week. Larry sometimes called Strittmatter when Lee returned home from practices because Lee was in a bad mood.

This often confused Strittmatter because, most nights, he didn’t remember Lee surrendering a point.

“Some people think it comes really easy to Spencer, but it really doesn’t,” Strittmatter continues. “He would get a Friday workout in, then spend the night at my house, wake up Saturday and get a couple of workouts in then, too. He was always willing to do the extra work.”

The rest, Lee says, is history.

He went back to the Super 32 Challenge as a freshman and beat Suriano in the finals — he put his silver medal from the year before back in a drawer. He went undefeated as a freshman for Franklin Regional High School and won the first of his three state titles. He made the world team again and went tech, tech, pin, tech on his way to gold.

Spencer Lee was a world champion before he could drive.

Lee won three state titles at Franklin Regional and was seconds away from a fourth despite having a torn ACL. He has three age-level world titles under his belt, including one that he won with a torn labrum. He was the nation's top recruit and the headliner for the Hawkeyes' top-ranked 2017 recruiting class.

“He knows exactly what he wants to do," Strittmatter says, "and he’s going to do everything in his power to do it.”

Iowa's Spencer Lee defeats Michigan's Drew Mattin at 125 pounds during the Hawkeyes regular-season meet against Michigan at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Saturday, January 27, 2018. Lee won his match with a 15-0 technical fall whereas Iowa would ultimately lose to the Wolverines 17-19 in team points. (Ben Roberts/Freelance)

'You get what you earn'

Lee's ability turned him into a wrestling celebrity. In 2016, the Cadet and Junior world team members all spent a week in Colorado Springs at the Olympic Training Center. Jacob Warner, who won bronze that summer on the Cadet team, remembers being starstruck when he first met Lee.

They’re now roommates in Iowa’s Hillcrest dorm, and Warner's discovered Lee is, well, a self-described nerd. He’s big into Pokémon, for example. During a big tournament back in high school, Warner says Cathy jokingly-but-kind-of-seriously asked him to help ween Lee off the game.

“Sometimes people look at him and kind of scoff at him, like he might be a little bit overboard,” Brands says. “This guy here (Brands takes both of his thumbs and points directly at his chest) likes that. There’s a lot of different personalities and things that make people tick.”

His reasons are his own, but it’s hard not to see the parallels between his favorite sport and Nintendo’s second-most popular video game franchise as a reason why he’s drawn to both. Improvement and strength are gained through constant training and battling. Lee wants to be the very best, like no one ever was.

Lee was up-close to his dream in 2016. When Dan Dennis, a former Iowa wrestler, made the Olympic team that year, he chose Lee as his personal practice partner. They first met in 2015, Dennis’s first year back in competition, at the Olympic Training Center, where a young, 110-pound Lee turned an older, 135-pound Dennis in a gut wrench.

While in Rio, Lee made the most of his time. When he wasn’t helping Dennis prepare for competition, his eyes were glued to guys such as Kyle Snyder and Jordan Burroughs, two members of Team USA who have combined for six world titles and two Olympic golds.

“The kid is always trying to get better at wrestling,” says Dennis, now 31. “He was a constant sponge. We’d come back after practice, and he’s sitting there reading a book or playing Pokémon until the next practice.

“He’s a kid that says ‘darn’ instead of ‘damn.’ I’m pretty sure he’s read Harry Potter a couple of times, all of the books. He’s a geek, man. He’s a geek in the absolute best way.”

Warner is convinced Lee sits in bed and watches wrestling matches when he isn’t playing video games or doing homework. But that kind of tunnel vision has been key to Lee’s success. It’s why he hangs silver medals on the back of his door and why he tapes pictures of Olympic gold to his ceiling.

After his third world title, a Pennsylvania media company made a movie about Lee. It opens with Lee offering a motivational speech that doubles as a window into why he works as hard as he does, why he doesn’t want to turn pale and leave the room while watching his world championship highlights with campers — why, even after getting pummeled a day after his seventh birthday, he still went out and wrestled one more match.

“You get what you earn,” Lee begins. “(Iowa assistant coach) Terry (Brands) always says that. When I was younger, he told me that if you dedicate yourself to something and you put everything you have into it, and you still fail — if you can look in the mirror and tell yourself, ‘I did everything I could to the best of my ability,’ and you still didn’t win, you have nothing to regret.

“But if you can look in that mirror, and you say to yourself, ‘I could’ve done this. I should’ve done this. I would’ve done this, but I didn’t,’ you’ll have something to regret for the rest of your life.”

Iowa's Spencer Lee and head coach Tom Brands stand together during team introductions before their dual against Michigan State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Friday, Jan. 5, 2018.

The wait is over

Former Hawkeye wrestler Alger saw the future of the Iowa wrestling program ahead of the Olympic Trials in April 2016. Before the competition, he watched Lee and Tom Brands scrap inside the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex. He cracks with laughter as he tells this story.

“Lee hits him in that fireman’s (carry takedown technique) and puts Tom on his side,” Alger says. “Tom’s like me. He doesn’t want to give up anything, and I know how strong he is, but he’s on his side and I see his face start turning red. Tom comes up to me afterwards and I say, 'Tom, that’s no joke.'

“And Tom goes, ‘No s---, it’s no joke. I had to fight my a-- off.’

"I’m like, Tom, we have to get him.' He said, ‘No s--- we have to get him.’”

Ten days after the Trials, Lee committed to Iowa. And this year, just after 7 p.m. Jan. 5, he walked out to the center mat inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena, with Queen’s “We Will Rock You” thumping. That night, 11 months removed from a torn ACL, the Hawkeyes hosted Michigan State, and Lee made his long-awaited varsity debut.

Lee shot in on Rayvon Foley's right leg while holding Foley's right arm and dumped him to his back. It was the same fireman's carry technique he wowed Brands with in 2016. he secured a pin in 46 seconds, and none of the 8,486 in attendance felt like they had been cheated.

Spencer Lee stood back up, nodded to the crowd and then walked back to the center circle and held his hand out as Foley slowly got back to his feet.

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.

Iowa's Spencer Lee shakes hands with Michigan State's Rayvon Foley after his pin at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Friday, Jan. 5, 2018.