Iowa wrestlers, now fully off the COVID-19 pause, are ready to take down the 2021 postseason

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

The state of Iowa experienced record-breaking cold temperatures last month, right around the same time the Iowa Hawkeye wrestling team had paused all in-person team-related activities because of positive COVID-19 cases within the program.

That meant some of the wrestlers had to, uh … run in that freezing cold weather.


“It was like negative-15, so I wore four layers,” Alex Marinelli, the Hawkeyes’ starting 165-pounder, said. “I was sweating, but my hands and feet were freezing. Still got a couple of miles in and blew my lungs out.”

The tactics reminded Iowa coach Tom Brands of his own competitive career.

“You would do things that were seemingly insane just to keep your edge any way possible,” Brands added. “That’s what these guys have been able to do.”

More accurately, that’s what the Iowa wrestlers needed to do.

The program-wide pause ultimately wiped out the Hawkeyes’ final three regular-season duals — against No. 3 Penn State, No. 18 Northwestern and Wisconsin. Those below-freezing runs became preparation for the Big Ten Championships, set for this weekend at Penn State.

► RELATED: How Iowa's pause impacts the 2021 college wrestling postseason

The running in frigid weather is a colorful highlight of how the Hawkeyes spent their pause. But by the time they hit the mats on Saturday, it will have been 27 days since their last competition.

As such, the pause was a crucial time for Iowa.

“Everybody holds each other accountable,” said Spencer Lee, Iowa’s two-time national champ at 125 pounds. “Most of us did our own thing. I’m not saying we avoided each other, but we did the best we could by the protocol to stay isolated.

“We lost (last year’s national tournament to the COVID-19 pandemic). I don’t think any of us wants to do anything that could possibly affect this year. We all knew what we had to do and did what we had to do to get back to competition.”

Lee and his teammates drew on the experience from a year ago this month, when the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the 2020 NCAA Championships a week before they were set to begin. They were kept out of the room for months last spring.

Exactly 238 days passed between last year’s conference tournament and Iowa’s next competition, at the Hawkeye Wrestling Club Showdown Open on Nov. 1. That night, Lee, Jaydin Eierman and others notched big wins.

Two weeks later, a handful of Hawkeye wrestlers competed again at the U23 and Junior freestyle national championships in Omaha. Five reached the finals, and eight more earned spots on the podium.

That helped Iowa navigate this latest wrestling stoppage.

“April and May were crucial with communication from the coaching staff about patience and controlling the things you can control,” Brands said. “But you still have to be diligent and focused and have a good attitude and a good work ethic.

“They’ve done that in a consistent manner. When that’s prevalent in your locker room, good things happen. A crisis jumps out and you handle it doggone well.”

That gives Brands and his team confidence heading into this weekend. All 10 of Iowa’s starters are ranked in the top-15 at their respective weights in Trackwrestling’s latest Division I poll, and nine of the 10 are ranked fifth or better. 

The Big Ten Championships, which will be held without fans at Penn State’s Bryce Jordan Center, is the qualifier to reach the NCAA Championships, set for March 18-20 in St. Louis. The Hawkeyes won last year’s conference tournament by 25.5 points, and were positioned to win their first national team title since 2010.

Iowa's Spencer Lee, pictured here pinning Nebraska's Liam Cronin on Jan. 15, is ranked No. 1 nationally at 125 pounds.

The pandemic upended those plans a year ago this month. Iowa is hopeful it will have the opportunity to compete both over the next few weeks, and, ideally, end its championship drought.

That was on their minds during those bitter runs last month, and will continue to be as they continue to navigate the competitive challenges that await this month.

“When you’re doing that, you’re thinking, ‘I don’t know how many other sports would go this extra mile and go run in negative-degree weather,’” Marinelli said. “I don’t know who would do that, honestly, but we do because we want to be national champs.

“We don’t want to miss a beat. We want to go the extra mile … we’re number one in the country for a reason. We have to prove that this weekend, and then a few weeks later, we have to do it again.”

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