When will Iowa's Spencer Lee return to competition? Tom Brands outlines the fluid situation

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Note to readers: The Oregon State vs. Iowa dual has been moved to 2 p.m. Sunday.

IOWA CITY — Eight months after Iowa’s Spencer Lee uttered the line “excuses are for wusses” that’s now on T-shirts, the wait continues for his official return to the wrestling mat.

And, considering Lee revealed on the night of March 20 in a stunning ESPN interview that he had just seized his third NCAA 125-pound championship without a functional ACL in either knee, that’s pretty understandable.

Lee never had surgery to repair the ACL in his right knee, which he tore (but didn’t publicize) in the 2019 NCAA final against Virginia’s Jack Mueller. And he chose not to repair the one in his left knee, which he tore in the 2021 Big Ten championship match against Purdue’s Devin Schroder.

As top-ranked Iowa gets set to host Oregon State at 2 p.m. Sunday, Lee’s name isn’t on the Hawkeyes’ lineup sheet. For now, freshman Jesse Ybarra holds down that spot.

“Spencer Lee is Spencer Lee. He has a grand total of zero ACLs. And we are patient,” Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands said Tuesday afternoon. “We are very patient.”

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

It’s easy to think that Lee is super-human, that he can come back from anything. He is ranked preseason No. 1 at 125 pounds without much of a thought. But the fifth-year senior, whose goal is to become the fifth four-time NCAA champ on March 17-19 in Detroit, is content to play the long game.

“He’s a professional," Brands said.

Brands did say Tuesday that banged-up 174-pounder Michael Kemerer is likely to make his season debut against Oregon State. That's good news for the Hawkeyes.

But Lee? His situation is a different animal. As Lee said after the NCAA final, he couldn’t sprawl or shoot with the freshly torn ACL in the left knee. Yet he reportedly looked good in pinning Ybarra in 1:46 in the team's intrasquad scrimmage Nov. 5. 

“He’s having fun. He’s driven. He still has the same ingredients that make him great,” Brands said. “I don’t think it’s risky. The medical team says it’s not risky. It’s just a matter of comfort; comfort being at a high level where we make that call.”

Brands also outlined that Lee’s absence from the lineup doesn’t detract from long-term team goals.

“A guy has no ACLs on the basketball court, he’s not going to do you much good. On the football field, he’s not going to do much good, maybe,” Brands said. “In wrestling, if you can cope with that stuff, that doesn’t upset the team dynamic for other weight classes. It comes down to Spencer Lee and what he’s able to do.

“This is a medical call. This is a coaching call. This is a Spencer Lee call. And Spencer Lee’s family. He has a family that is very involved, and we also need to consider that.”

Iowa has sold out it season wrestling tickets in anticipation of an electric home schedule and, yes, because this is Lee’s final year as a Hawkeye one way or another. The fan interest in Lee’s return is high. At the same time, Iowa wrestling die-hards understand that Lee needs to do what’s best for him to be at his best in March.

“It’s not that we have a date that we’re pointing to and we’re holding our cards tight to our chest. This is something that is day-to-day,” Brands said. “You’re talking about a guy that is a pretty good wrestler. He’s not a guy that needs to be on the mat, taxing himself every day. There is a different training regimen for him than maybe there is for (true freshman) Drake Ayala.

“He’s as ready as our fans are to get (back) on the mat. That’s saying something about his readiness.”

Iowa head coach Tom Brands, left, converses with Spencer Lee at the team's intrasquad matches Nov. 5.

Sunday's dual: No. 1 Iowa vs. Oregon State

When, where: 2 p.m. CT, Carver-Hawkeye Arena

How to watch: Big Ten Plus streaming (subscription required)

Expected matchups:

125: Iowa's Jesse Ybarra (4-0) vs. Brandon Taylor (2-1)

133: Iowa's Austin DeSanto (5-0) vs. Devan Turner (3-2)

141: Iowa's Jaydin Eierman (4-0) vs. Grant Willits (4-2)

149: Iowa's Cobe Siebrecht (5-0) vs. Cory Crooks (3-3)

157: Iowa's Kaleb Young (4-1) vs. Hunter Willits (4-2)

165: Iowa's Alex Marinelli (5-0) vs. Matthew Olguin (2-4)

174: Iowa's Michael Kemerer (0-0) vs. Mateo Olmos (2-1)

184: Iowa's Myles Wilson (1-0) or Abe Assad (3-1) vs. Jackson McKinney (2-2)

197: Iowa's Jacob Warner (3-0) or Zach Glazier (3-1) vs. J.J. Dixon (1-5)

Hwt.: Iowa's Tony Cassioppi (0-1) vs. Gary Traub (2-4)