'Excuses are for wusses': Iowa's Spencer Lee wins his third consecutive national title on torn ACL

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Back in 2019, when Spencer Lee won his second NCAA title at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, former Iowa heavyweight Sam Stoll grabbed the microphone during the post-match press conference and asked one question:

"Spencer Lee, why are you the baddest man on the planet?"

Lee laughed.

"I don't know," he responded. "I don't have an answer for that. I'll take your word for it. How's that?"

The legend has only grown since then, and on Saturday night here at the Enterprise Center, Lee authored perhaps the most impressive chapter of his spectacular college career thus far.

Iowa's star lightweight collected his third consecutive individual NCAA title, defeating Arizona State's Brandon Courtney, 7-0, in the finals at 125 pounds. Afterward, Lee said he wrestled this week with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

"Eight days ago, I tore my ACL in my other knee, so I'm wrestling with no ACLs," Lee said during his post-match interview with ESPN. "Whatever, man. I didn't want to tell anybody, because excuses are for wusses.

"That was a tough tournament for me. I could barely wrestle. I could barely shoot. I can't sprawl … but there was no doubt. My teammates told me, 'No one can do this but you,' and I believed them."

Makes what he did this week all the more crazy.

Lee put forth another masterclass in domination en route to first. He outscored his five opponents 59-8, winning once by technical fall and three more times by major decision just to reach the final. He's now won 35 matches in a row dating back to the 2019 NCAA Championships, during which he's outscored his opponents by a whopping 430-40.

After a scoreless first period against Courtney, Lee put up four points in the second on an escape, a takedown and Courtney's third caution call. Lee added another takedown midway through the third period, and another point for riding time.

"Unofficially, you're probably looking at a two-time Hodge Trophy winner," Iowa coach Tom Brands said. "When it's time to show up, he's for real."

It was Lee's addition to the program that gave birth to the moment that ultimately unfolded on Saturday night. The Hawkeyes won the national team championship this week, scoring 129 points to defeat Penn State (113.5) and Oklahoma State (99.5). It is the 24th national team title in program history, and the first since 2010.

The effort was fueled by seven Iowa wrestlers earning All-American honors. Three made the finals, in Lee, Jaydin Eierman (141) and Michael Kemerer (174), but only Lee won a title. His finals match against Courtney was the last of the 10 championship bouts, meaning Iowa celebrated its team championship after Lee's miraculous victory.

"This interview is certainly more enjoyable with him winning," Brands continued. "You can never overstate his importance. He's a sparkplug and igniter, but it's way, way more than that. Deeper than that.

"Spencer Lee healed a lot of hearts on our team just by winning a wrestling match."

Lee's knee injuries date back to his senior year of high school. He wrestled his senior season at Franklin Regional in Pennsylvania after tearing his right ACL. He told ESPN that he re-injured his other ACL in that 2019 NCAA final, when he beat Virginia's Jack Mueller, 5-0. He has spent much of his college career with a brace on his right knee.

"Two national titles without ACLs," Lee said. "Been a lot of fun."

Lee's latest knee injury came actually during the finals of the Big Ten Championships. His father, Larry, told the Register that Lee tore it within the first 30 seconds of the match. He went on to win by a 21-3 technical fall over Purdue's Devin Schroder.

The days after his latest knee injury were filled with a lot of unknowns. He didn't wrestle much, he said, and limited his workouts to just three total hours each day. He said doctors were surprised that he even attempted certain workouts.

While at the tournament this week, Lee said he and Brands discussed possibly medically forfeiting from the tournament more than once because of the persistent pain.

"It was hard," Lee said. "But I said, 'If I'm going to lose, I'm going to lose my way.' That's it. It doesn't matter. If I lost, I probably wouldn't have said anything because that's just how I am. You have to win no matter what. That's what defines a champion.

"I'm kind of upset I told the world. I don't make excuses, man."

One of Lee's goals was to become Iowa's first four-time NCAA champion. Only four other wrestlers in NCAA history have won four: Oklahoma State's Pat Smith, Iowa State's Cael Sanderson, Cornell's Kyle Dake and Ohio State's Logan Stieber. Lee could become No. 5 next season — presumably, of course, after an offseason of healing.

But that may not happen anytime soon.

The 10 champions at this week's NCAA Championships automatically qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials, set for April 2-3 in Texas. It has always been Lee's dream to not only make the U.S. men's freestyle Olympic team, but to win gold as well.

Lee established himself as one of the country's top Olympic contenders back in December 2019, when he won a U.S. Senior men's freestyle national title at 57 kilograms (125 pounds). Despite his injuries, he wants to still try and make the team.

"Right now, we're taking it day by day," Lee said. "But that's my goal, man. I'll go down swinging if I have to. How's that?"

Iowa's Spencer Lee, left, takes on Arizona State's Brandon Courtney during their 125-pound match in the finals of the NCAA wrestling championships Saturday, March 20, 2021, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

That was his mindset his senior year of high school at Franklin Regional, and he ultimately lost to Austin DeSanto, who's now his college teammate, in the state finals. It was the only loss of his high school career. He told his father, Larry, afterward that he wouldn't change a thing.

"He said, 'Dad, all I need you to do is support me, because we are not going to lose the team national title because I didn't wrestle,'" Larry Lee told the Register. "He said, 'That will not happen. I'm wrestling.'

"It's been a stressful two weeks. The first time he went on the mat at NCAAs was the first time he was on the mat since that Big Ten final. You just don't know how it's going to go."

Here Spencer Lee is again, powering through one of the world's toughest wrestling tournaments with a severe knee injury to win his third national title.

How's that?

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

2021 NCAA Wrestling Championships

Final Team Scores

  1. Iowa, 129
  2. Penn State, 113.5
  3. Oklahoma State, 99.5
  4. Arizona State, 74
  5. Michigan, 69
  6. North Carolina State, 68
  7. Missouri, 64
  8. Minnesota, 64
  9. Ohio State, 46.5
  10. Northwestern, 45
  • 13. Iowa State, 37.5
  • 19. Northern Iowa, 24.5

Finals Results

  • 125: No. 1 Spencer Lee (Iowa) dec. No. 3 Brandon Courtney (Arizona St.), 7-0
  • 133: No. 2 Roman Bravo-Young (Penn St.) dec. No. 1 Daton Fix (Oklahoma St.), 4-2 (SV1)
  • 141: No. 2 Nick Lee (Penn St.) dec. No. 1 Jaydin Eierman (Iowa), 4-2 (SV1)
  • 149: No. 2 Austin O'Connor (North Carolina) dec. No. 1 Sammy Sasso (Ohio St.), 3-2
  • 157: No. 3 David Carr (Iowa State) dec. No. 4 Jesse Dellavecchia (Rider), 4-0
  • 165: No. 8 Shane Griffith (Stanford) dec. No. 3 Jake Wentzel (Pittsburgh), 6-2
  • 174: No. 3 Carter Starocci (Penn St.) dec. No. 1 Michael Kemerer (Iowa), 3-1 (SV1)
  • 184: No. 1 Aaron Brooks (Penn St.) dec. No. 2 Trent Hidlay (NC State), 3-2
  • 197: No. 4 AJ Ferrari (Oklahoma St.) dec. No. 6 Nino Bonaccorsi (Pittsburgh), 4-2
  • 285: No. 1 Gable Steveson (Minnesota) dec. No. 2 Mason Parris (Michigan), 8-4