Iowa's Spencer Lee reacts after winning his second straight national title. Hawk Central
PITTSBURGH, Penn. — In the Iowa wrestling program’s long and storied history, 55 wrestlers have combined to win 84 individual NCAA titles. Each one has a chapter — for Leslie Beers, the first in 1928; for the sets of brothers, Brands, Banach, Steiner and Williams; for those who led the 23 team champions; and for the Pennsylvania native who’s now halfway to history.
Spencer Lee’s Hawkeye wrestling story is still being written, and Saturday night here at the 2019 NCAA Championships, the Iowa sophomore authored another section with an ending similar to the first. With a sellout crowd inside PPG Paints Arena, Lee defeated Virginia’s Jack Mueller, 5-0, to win his second-consecutive national championship at 125 pounds.
“(Iowa associate head coach) Terry Brands always tells me big-time wrestlers show up at big-time moments,” Lee said afterward. “We preach that at the University of Iowa. Everyone on my team believes that they're a big-time wrestler. That’s the mindset you have to have in this sport.”
Lee’s finals performance was the punctuation mark on his second collegiate season, which ended with a 23-3 overall record. He is now 45-5 in his first two years on the Iowa wrestling team.
In many ways, his first two seasons were a lot alike, and in other ways, they were not.
After Lee’s run through last year’s national tournament — you know: two technical falls, two pins, and a 5-1 finals win over Rutgers’ Nick Suriano — many thought he would demonstrate the same dominance for the rest of his career. This was rooted in the fact that, when he attended nearby Franklin Regional High School, he won three age-level freestyle world titles.
His postseason superiority did many things for the sport. It showed that true freshmen could contend on the biggest stage. This year alone, four true freshmen earned All-American honors at the national tournament.
But it also forced every other 125-pounder around the country to up their game, and the idea of career-long dominance ended with a thud when, in December, Northwestern’s Sebastian Rivera scored three takedowns in a 7-3 finals win over Lee at the Midlands Championships.
Then, in February, Lee faced perhaps the biggest hiccup of his wrestling career. When the Hawkeyes trekked south to Stillwater to wrestle Oklahoma State, Lee was cradled and pinned by Nick Piccininni before a sold-out Gallagher-Iba Arena. Piccininni was another wrestler hoping to match Lee’s level, as he was one of Lee’s causalities during his national title run last season.
That loss allowed doubt to creep into Lee’s mind for perhaps the first time in his wrestling career. He was 9-years-old the last time he was pinned. He was hard on himself afterward, Iowa coach Tom Brands said, to the point that it was having a negative effect.
“You always encourage people when they’re at the low,” Brands said. “We’re dealing with something that’s never happened, and all of a sudden, you’ve got to bring the guy back up. But it’s up to you to pick yourself up.
“Here’s the thing. For some people, criticism is like water off a duck’s back. Some people, it bothers them. Him being the defending national champion — when really, you’re not defending anything; it’s a brand new year — I think that got to him a little bit.”
Iowa coach Tom Brands reacts to Spencer Lee's second straight national title. Hawk Central
With the help of teammates and coaches, Lee found a groove at the conference tournament. He recorded a pin and a major decision before falling to Rivera, 6-4, in sudden victory in the finals. Despite a third loss, optimism had returned, and he came to Pittsburgh this week on a mission to return to the top.
On Thursday, Lee again piled up bonus points, recording a technical fall and major decision to reach the quarterfinals. On Friday, the mastery continued with a pin and an 11-4 win over Piccininni to reach the finals. Rivera had earned the 1-seed but was soundly beaten by Mueller, who reached the final with a 21-0 record, in the other semifinal.
On Saturday night, Lee continued his tear. He scored an early first-period takedown and piled up more than two minutes of riding time for a 2-0 lead. Mueller erased that advantage in the second, but was dinged for a second stall call to give Lee a 3-0 lead. In the third, Lee stymied every Mueller advance and tacked on a second takedown to ice the match.
“I just have to believe in myself,” Lee said. “My teammates, they instilled a lot of power into me, mental power, because they tell me every day that I'm the best wrestler in the world. You've got to believe that.
“I truly believe that you have to believe that, and they tell me that. Sometimes I may not believe it while we're in tough practices. But they keep me uplifted. I think that was the difference for this weekend.”
Lee snuck into the post-match press conference and answered questions about his season. For the week, he outscored his opponents by a combined 55-7, scoring 24.5 of Iowa’s 76 team points, good for fourth place overall. He thanked his coaches and his teammates.
Shortly after, many of them piled into the back of the interview room underneath PPG. They clapped and hollered and cracked a Pokémon joke. Heavyweight Sam Stoll stole the microphone.
“Why are you the baddest man on the planet?” he asked.
“I don't know,” he said through a smile. “I don't have an answer for that. I'll take your word for it, how's that?”
Lee left the podium to celebrate. Many of his teammates patted him on the back and congratulated him. Stoll did one better, picking him up and carrying him out of the media room. Lee smiled the whole way.
“He has ice in his veins,” sophomore Alex Marinelli said afterward. “He shows out when it’s time.”
Added Brands: “You look at the path he took — I mean, he’s a warrior. I don’t know what he said in that press conference, but he needs to give himself a lot of credit.”
It is impossible to ignore what’s in front of Lee now. He is halfway to four NCAA titles. Only four other wrestlers have won four: Oklahoma State’s Pat Smith, Iowa State’s Cael Sanderson, Cornell’s Kyle Dake and Ohio State’s Logan Stieber. It will be a hard thought to ignore as Lee continues his Iowa career.
Someone briefly mentioned it during Saturday night’s post-match press conference. Lee shrugged it off immediately. Perhaps that part of his story will be written two years from now. Perhaps it won’t.
For now, Spencer Lee is a two-time national champion, the 23rd wrestler in Iowa’s long and storied history to win multiple NCAA titles. Only six have ever won three. He hopes to become No. 7 next year.
“I'm focused on what's next,” he said. “Can't worry about being a four-time national champ because you can't win four if you don't win three — and I haven't won three yet.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.