Wrestling: While Iowa’s Spencer Lee chases his Olympic dream, expect to see some Aaron Cashman this season
MOUNT VERNON, Ia. — Spencer Lee has long had his eyes on the 2019-20 wrestling season.
Iowa’s venerable 125-pounder has viewed this year as the first true chance to run down a lifelong dream: win the Olympics. He and coach Tom Brands discussed it during the recruiting process, and he’s mentioned it during each of his first two years with the Hawkeyes.
The Pennsylvania native acknowledged it again Wednesday during the Iowa wrestling team’s media day. The Olympic opportunity is as close as it’s ever been, and he’s chasing it with all he’s got.
“My goal has always been to win an Olympic gold medal,” said Lee, a junior and two-time NCAA champion. “National titles are great, and all, but I’d take an Olympic gold medal over any of my national titles any day. That’s not a tough decision.
“That was my goal when I came to Iowa, to be the best I can be. That’s world and Olympic championships. National titles are a great stepping stone to that, but that’s why I came here. These guys can help me do it.”
Lee’s pursuit to reach the 2020 Olympic team is one of the many side stories to monitor when it comes to following Iowa this year. His inclusion in the postseason lineup is crucial for the Hawkeyes’ chances at the 2020 NCAA Championships, as they’re seeking their first team title since 2010 and will seriously contend for the first time since 2015.
So an irregular schedule is on the horizon for Lee. He and Brands were up-front about all of this on Wednesday.
“Spencer Lee’s path to the Olympic games will go through collegiate wrestling,” said Brands, entering his 14th season as Iowa’s head coach. “He has to qualify for the trials … but he will be heavily involved this year. We’re going to need him.
“I know that he'll wrestle internationally, and I know that he will be a big part of our dual meet season, and I know that he will be a big part of our championship season.”
Qualifying for the 2020 Olympic Trials
There are many ways Lee can qualify for the men’s freestyle competition of the 2020 Olympic Trials, set for April 4-5 at Penn State’s Bryce Jordan Center.
Any Senior-level world team member from 2017, 2018 and 2019 automatically qualifies, which means former Iowa star Thomas Gilman is in, since he made the team in both 2017 and 2018. Any 2019 Junior world champ qualifies, which means Iowa State’s David Carr is in, since he won this past summer at 74 kilograms (163 pounds). Any 2019 U23 world champ is in, too.
A few larger tournaments serve as trials qualifiers. The next is the 2019 Bill Farrell International, set for Nov. 15-16 in New York. The highest-placing Senior-level U.S. wrestler at each weight qualifies.
Then come the 2019 U.S. Senior Nationals, set for Dec. 20-22 in Fort Worth, Texas. The top five finishers at each weight qualifies. After that: the 2020 Dave Schultz Memorial, set for January. Again, the highest-placing Senior-level U.S. wrestler at each weight qualifies.
What’s more, all NCAA champions during an Olympic year automatically qualify for the Olympic Trials. The 2020 NCAA Championships are set for March 19-21 in Minneapolis. The weekend after, there’s a Last Chance Qualifier in Millersville, Pennsylvania. The Olympic Trials are the following weekend.
Lee was non-committal about which events he’ll attend, but did allow that he and Brands have discussed some different options. Asked about the U.S. Senior Nationals in December, he said, “Probably. That’s a big one.”
He continued: “We’ll see where I go. We haven’t figured everything out yet. We’ve talked about it. I don’t want to say something and then change my mind. You guys will have to see.”
To be sure: Lee isn’t taking an Olympic redshirt, which allows wrestlers to take a year off from school to train for the Olympic Trials and, if they make it, the Olympic team. Wrestlers have to qualify for an Olympic redshirt.
Lee does thanks to his past age-level world titles, but opted not to take one. His role in Iowa’s postseason lineup is crucial to the Hawkeyes’ title chances, but he and Brands believe the grind of the college season will help prepare him.
“It’s what’s best for me, really,” Lee said. “Obviously, I want to help the team out and win a team national title, but I have to focus on myself first. I think wrestling during the season is a great idea. It helps keep me accountable and in shape and ready to rock and roll.
“The grind is great for me, specifically, because getting ready every week is good mentally. I’m a guy that likes routine and consistency. I don’t want to just go and compete three times a year. That’s not really my thing.”
Added Brands: “His best preparation for what he's trying to accomplish in Tokyo, he knows it's through those seven-minute matches. Not because the styles are similar or not similar … but because there's a certain amount of toughness that goes into an extra minute and riding time and overtime.
“So you've got to be conditioned to wrestle 11-, 12-minute matches, and that helps Spencer Lee.”
Meet Aaron Cashman, the other 125-pounder
All of this means that Lee may miss some competitions from time to time, so prepare to see some Aaron Cashman this season.
A redshirt freshman, Cashman is the only other 125-pounder on Iowa’s roster, but he is credentialed — a 100-plus match winner in high school, a Minnesota state champion and a 2016 Cadet men’s freestyle world-teamer. He spent his senior season at the Olympic Training Center before committing to Iowa after the 2017-18 season.
“With Spencer Lee and the custom schedule that he’s going to wrestle, we wouldn’t be as comfortable if it wasn’t for Aaron Cashman,” Brands said. “He’s not just a body filling a role. He’s capable of filling that role. He’ll be on the mat in some big dual meets for us.”
Cashman came to Iowa, in part, because of Lee — “A huge reason,” he said. He committed just a couple months after Lee won his first national title, anchoring the Hawkeyes’ bonus point-filled performance in Cleveland.
During his short Hawkeye career, Cashman hasn’t seen the mat much. He went 3-2 during his redshirt season, then competed at the UWW Junior men’s freestyle national championships last April, where he went 2-2 at 57 kilos (125.5 pounds).
But he’s flashed some intriguing ability, particularly in last year’s wrestle-off against Lee. He’s got a versatile arsenal and feels more confident after a year in Iowa’s room, much of it spent sparring with Lee. He’s excited for the opportunity when his name is called this season.
“I got the talk from Tom last year,” Cashman said. “I’m going to be in there. Spencer isn’t going to be wrestling every match. Whenever he’s feeling good and wants to wrestle, that’s when he’ll wrestle. When he’s not wrestling, I’m going to be the guy, so I need to be ready to go.
“I’m so pumped. I’m so thankful and blessed for this opportunity to wrestle for the Hawkeyes. I’m super-excited.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.
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