Iowa's Spencer Lee wins AAU James E. Sullivan Award for nation's top amateur athlete

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

Spencer Lee added another big-time trophy to his collection Wednesday evening.

The Iowa wrestler was named a co-winner of the 90th AAU James E. Sullivan Award, given annually to the nation’s best amateur athlete. Lee shares the award with Oregon women's basketball star Sabrina Ionescu.

"I am incredibly humbled," Lee said during the virtual presentation Wednesday night. "It was an honor to be nominated and reach the finals, so to be selected among this incredible group of individuals is pretty special.

"It is really special to be able to represent the University of Iowa. I am happy to share this award with Sabrina. All of the finalists are deserving. I am very surprised and very thankful."

Lee is just the fifth wrestler to ever win the award, and the second in the last two years. Former Ohio State star Kyle Snyder was honored in 2018. Other wrestlers to win the award were Rulon Gardner (2000), Bruce Baumgartner (1995) and John Smith (1990).

This is just the third time ever the award has gone to co-winners, the other two coming in 2015 and 1999. Lee and Ionescu were chosen from a field of 10 finalists:

  • Evita Griskenas, Rhythmic Gymnastics, USA Rhythmic Gymnastics
  • Grant Holloway, Track and Field, University of Florida
  • Markus Howard, Men’s Basketball, Marquette University 
  • Trevor Lawrence, Football, Clemson University
  • Dana Rettke, Women’s Volleyball, University of Wisconsin
  • Kyla Ross, Gymnastics, University of California Los Angeles
  • Megan Taylor, Women’s Lacrosse, University of Maryland
  • Abbey Weitzeil, Women’s Swimming, University of California Berkeley

Earlier this year, Lee was named the Big Ten Wrestler of the Year, Intermat’s Wrestler of the Year, Flowrestling’s Wrestler of the Year and the NCAA’s Most Dominant Wrestler. The junior was also the recipient of the 2020 Hodge Trophy, college wrestling’s Heisman Trophy. He is just the third Hawkeye to win the prestigious honor.

Lee, already a two-time NCAA champion at 125 pounds, had positioned himself to win a third during the 2019-20 season. He went 18-0 and outscored his opponents 234-18. He won a Big Ten title and earned the No. 1 seed at the 2020 NCAA Championships, which were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Iowa's Spencer Lee is introduced before his match at 125 during a NCAA Cy-Hawk series wrestling dual on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.

Additionally, the Pennsylvania native won the U.S. senior men’s freestyle national championships at 57 kilograms (125 pounds) to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Trials, which were also postponed due to COVID-19. Lee went 5-0 with a 52-6 scoring advantage to win a weight that featured six NCAA champs, a Junior world silver medalist and a U23 world-teamer, in addition to dozens of past All-Americans.

Ionescu was an All-American guard for the Oregon women's basketball team and was the 2020 Associated Press Women's Basketball Player of the Year. She averaged 17.5 points, 9.1 assists and 8.6 rebounds per game. She was recently selected by the New York Liberty as the first overall pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft.

The AAU James E. Sullivan Award has been given out annually since 1930. The Sullivan Awards are held annually at the New York Athletic Club. This is the first year they were held virtually due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Golfer Bobby Jones was the first winner of the award. Other notable athletes to win the award include Peyton Manning (1997), Michael Phelps (2003) and Shawn Johnson-East (2008). Last year’s winner was Stanford volleyball player Kathryn Plummer.

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

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