Leistikow: It's go-time for Iowa wrestling's Spencer Lee and his 2020 vision
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Where to begin with Spencer Lee?
Properly framing everything that embodies one of the most dynamic athletes in any sport in University of Iowa history can’t be done in a 1,900-word story, let alone one paragraph.
But let’s peek into the store parking lot, back when Lee was a young boy. He would walk briskly to be the first to return to the family car. His dad would pick up the pace and move ahead. Pretty soon, they were racing across the pavement.
Let’s next hop aboard a flight to a youth wrestling tournament, where we see Larry Lee and his son playing a game of rummy. And just before Spencer is about to lay his last card, Dad puts down his entire hand and goes out.
Spencer threw the cards down as far as he could, an act that was followed by the embarrassing task of collecting them off the airplane floor.
“I was crying on the plane,” Spencer recalls, “and he was laughing.
“I’ve gotten a lot better. I’m 21. I’ve matured. Now, I can lose card games and not freak out.”
Yet that hatred of losing has never gone away. It was that type of inner drive that led Lee at a young age, as he experienced early success on the wrestling mat, to do everything he could to be the best in the world.
The goal? Olympic champion by the year 2020.
Not a medalist. Gold medalist.
Every decision in his life to this point — from as basic as always wearing his seat belt to as big as choosing to leave his native Pennsylvania for a life in Iowa — has all led up to these next few months.
Lee has pictured what’s immediately ahead for a long time.
The Big Ten Conference and NCAA championships in March.
The U.S. Olympic Trials in early April.
The Tokyo Games in early August.
It's all there in front of him. And this is go-time.
“I visualize a lot,” he says. “Winning my third national title. Then making the Olympic team. Then winning the Olympics. That’s it. I don’t care about anything else.”
Don't confuse Lee's singular focus with selfishness.
Lee has often said that Penn State (winner of eight of the past nine NCAA team titles) would have been the easy college decision coming from suburban Pittsburgh, but that Iowa was the right decision.
The same could be said about his choice to wrestle for the Hawkeyes this season, rather than take a year off from school to focus on training — also known as an Olympic redshirt. Many of the nation’s top college wrestlers (Oklahoma State’s Daton Fix, Cornell’s Yianni Diakomihalis and Virginia Tech’s Mekhi Lewis among them) have chosen the redshirt path in 2020.
“I can’t see how it’s not an advantage,” Larry Lee says. “Not having to deal with school and being able to focus on freestyle.
“He’s in French 4 right now, and it’s killing him.”
Yet when the topic came up this past August, going through the grind of a college season — with the demands of academics and travel, not to mention the different discipline of folkstyle and obvious increased injury risks with constant competition — was the right decision for Spencer Lee.
His father recalls a very short conversation about the matter.
“He said, ‘If I’m sitting in the stands (at the NCAA Championships), watching my brothers, and we lose by 12 or 20 points in the team race and I know I could have made the difference, I couldn’t live with myself,’” Larry Lee says. “‘So I’m going to win an NCAA title and make the Olympic team. I’m going to do both.’
“His mind was made up.”
(The hatred of losing extends to his team, too.)
When Lee was being recruited by another marquee program that his father wants to keep anonymous, those coaches told Lee that Iowa was on the decline, was becoming “irrelevant” in wrestling. Why would he want to go there?
“That really bugged him,” Larry Lee says. “And when he committed, he said, ‘I’m going to help Iowa get back to the top.'"
Hence, no Olympic redshirt.
And all of his 2020 goals remain intact, including bringing the top-ranked Hawkeyes their first team championship in 10 years.
Another previously untold story about Lee emphasizes that desire. After he won each of his first two 125-pound national titles at Iowa, he was eligible for a champion’s stipend — think of it as a bowl gift in football — with which he had the option of buying a national championship ring.
Both times, Lee declined.
“I said I want a team ring,” he said, “I don’t want an individual ring.
“Walking around at 65 or 70 years old, one of those old dudes wearing their own national champ rings, I feel like that’s tooting your horn and I don’t care about that.
“I want to celebrate with my teammates or my family. I’ll go jump in my mom and dad’s arms or what-not. But in the middle of the mat, I won’t do anything that is derogatory toward my opponent. It’s the same thing with my ring. I refuse to wear a national champ ring that is my own. I want a ring that my team has earned.”
What’s been different?
Lee arrived at Iowa as a generational talent. A three-time age-group world champion. The top recruit in the era of head coach Tom Brands. Yet even as he went on to claim thrilling back-to-back NCAA championships, both times as a No. 3 seed, it was hardly a clean and steady rise to the top.
He suffered two losses as a freshman, less than a year after tearing his ACL. He lost three more times in a sophomore season, in which he was battling more ailments than he will ever acknowledge. But he still found a way to buckle down when it mattered most, winning five straight matches at nationals each time.
This year, he’s been unstoppable.
Terry Brands, Iowa’s associate head coach who was instrumental in landing Lee out of Franklin Regional High School, peels back the curtain as to why: In the past, he says, Lee was prone to getting rattled by outside stresses.
“For him, he’s got to make the competition important. That’s where the growth has been,” Brands says. “All the competitions this season have been important — that’s been the struggle, is to get him to realize that.
“Doesn’t matter what you did in high school. Doesn’t matter how many world junior titles you’ve won. Doesn’t matter if you beat that guy 15-0 when you were in junior high. Nobody cares. And nobody cares if you beat him 15-0 last time. It’s the next match.”
Lee's record is 15-0 to start his junior season, with only the postseason to go. He’s averaging 5.0 team points per bout, equivalent to a technical fall. That total would rank first in the country if he had wrestled enough matches to qualify, which he is close to doing (Penn State’s Mark Hall is averaging 4.85). Only three of Lee’s matches have gone the full seven minutes. His closest match was 8-1. He’s outscored opponents 183-13.
But as dominant as he has been, there are constant reminders of past losses. And … well, you know how those go over with Lee.
Larry Lee tells the story of his son recently bringing his girlfriend to the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex. She was looking at the massive display of Iowa's Big Ten champions and noticed what she thought was an omission. Where was Lee's name?
"Uh," he politely told her, “I haven’t won that yet.”
As hard as it is to believe, Lee is a zero-time Big Ten champ. He will take a third swing at it next weekend (March 7-8) on Rutgers’ campus. Lee lost in the semifinals as a freshman to Ohio State's Nathan Tomasello. As a sophomore, he lost a somewhat controversial 125-pound title match to Northwestern’s Sebastian Rivera after he led 3-0 with just over a minute to go.
Paul Glynn, a respected backup 133-pounder for Iowa and oftentimes Lee’s workout partner, had tears in his eyes after that loss. He quickly and passionately gave Lee a message of support.
“I was pretty crushed for him. I know how good Spencer Lee is; I wrestle him every week,” Glynn says. “I told him: ‘I know it sucks, but nationals is when it counts, and you’re going to go out and win that.’”
Glynn's instant analysis was spot-on. And Lee has been unbeatable ever since.
Here’s what makes Lee ready for a gold rush.
Jody Strittmatter begins the conversation with Lee’s parents, Larry and Cathy, and how they raised their only son (who has a twin sister, Gaby) to be more than a wrestler.
Strittmatter, a salt-of-the-earth former Hawkeye wrestler who operates the Pennsylvania-based Young Guns Wrestling Club where Lee trained, witnessed for years how Lee treats people with respect and humility. Tom Brands recently told an amusing story about how some Hawkeye donors once mistook Lee for a bellhop for how hospitable he was at a function, only later to be shocked upon realizing that they had been helped by the Spencer Lee.
“You get that a lot about this guy,” Brands says, mentioning out-of-the-blue emails he'll get from professors praising Lee's politeness and positive influence.
Strittmatter believes those qualities go hand-in-hand with Lee's wrestling.
He's not just good at one thing. He’s good at everything.
“He’s fast, he’s strong, he’s explosive, he’s flexible, he’s tough on his feet, he’s good on the mat,” Strittmatter says. “He’s very, very well-rounded, just like in life.”
And that life, as mentioned, has been largely centered on what happens in these next five weeks.
Only six freestyle wrestlers make the U.S. Olympic team. Lee will be going for the spot at 57 kilograms (125.66 pounds). Among his competitors at the April 4-5 Olympic Trials in State College, Pennsylvania, will be Fix, Tomasello and … former Hawkeye Thomas Gilman.
The challenge is steep, but it's one that Lee has been built for.
Strittmatter sees it all the time with aspiring wrestlers in his sprawling club, which has six locations. Most of them want to be the best, he says, “until it starts to get hard. Until it gets to difficult decisions. Girls and partying get in the way.
"Nothing has ever altered Spencer’s dream. He has stuck to his guns with what he wants to do in life, and he’s not going to let anyone or anything get in the way.
“He does things right. When you do that over a long period of time, things work out.”
So, when Lee competed at the U.S. Senior Nationals in December, he had long been ready. He tore through a field that had multiple NCAA champions and world medalists, outscoring his five opponents by a combined 52-6.
Yet, he says, he was wrestling conservatively in the Fort Worth, Texas-based Olympic Trials qualifier.
"I feel like I’m better than what I’ve shown in my career here," Lee says. "I think that showed a little bit at the (qualifier) — I feel like I held back there a lot. Wrestling smart, not really trying to go out too crazy.
"I feel like I’ve got a lot of room to improve and a lot of things to show. I guess we’ll see."
We'll see. Soon.
And if Lee's best is truly yet to come? Look out, world.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.