Iowa wrestler Spencer Lee, a three-time NCAA champ, will miss the remainder of the 2021-22 season

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

Spencer Lee made his season debut two weeks ago at the Journeymen Collegiate Wrestling Duals. He went 3-0 and outscored his opponents 31-1. It was his first live matches in nine months. 

They’ll be the only live matches he’ll wrestle this season, according to a top wrestling news site. 

Lee, Iowa’s three-time NCAA champion, announced Saturday evening that he will no longer compete during the 2021-22 wrestling season. He will undergo surgery to fully repair his knees and will be eligible to apply for a medical hardship waiver to return for the 2022-23 season.

"My coaches, medical staff and family believe the best course of action at this time is surgery so that when I return I can compete to my full potential," Lee said in a statement. "I thank you all for your unwavering support."

Lee won his third NCAA championship last season less than two weeks after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He did that while already wrestling with a torn ACL in his right knee. He went 5-0 and outscored his opponents 59-8 to win at 125 pounds, leading the Hawkeyes to the 2021 NCAA team championship.

"After I tore my ACL in the 2019 NCAA finals, there wasn't time to have surgery and still qualify and prepare for the Olympic Trials," Lee continued in his statement, "so I made the decision to pursue the path of rehabilitation.

"My knee came back remarkably fast … that experience showed me I could compete without surgery. It also influenced my decision to forego surgery and choose rehabilitation after injuring my other knee in the 2021 Big Ten Championship finals."

The 23-year-old from Pennsylvania then opted not to get surgery and instead pursue an intense rehab regimen to strengthen the muscles around his knee, as sort of a replacement for his torn knee ligaments.

"Unfortunately, that knee has not responded in the same way," Lee continued. "It was my goal to compete this year, for this team and with my teammates that I care so much about, but when I returned to competition, it became clear I would not be able to perform as I did the prior year due to instability in both knees and extreme soreness during and after competition."

“You make the best decision for the individual and you consult everybody that has a stake in that decision,” Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands said in December. “It’s not like 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 … he still has the same ingredients that make him great. I don’t think it’s risky. The medical team says it’s not risky. It’s just a matter of that comfort while being at a high level.”

Lee participated in Iowa’s intrasquad matches November, pinning Jesse Ybarra in 1 minute, 46 seconds. He made his season debut on Dec. 20-21, at the Journeymen event in Florida. There, he beat Central Michigan’s Brock Bergelin, 17-0; Lehigh’s Jaret Lane, 8-0; and N.C. State’s Jakob Camacho, 6-1. Iowa won all three duals.

“It was fun being back,” Lee said afterward. “We didn’t even know if I was going to wrestle. Basically, they said it was my call (to wrestle in Florida), and I said I’d wrestle all of them.”

“It really stinks not wrestling,” he continued. “It’s a lot different when your team is wrestling and you’re just sitting on the bench the whole time.”

Iowa's Spencer Lee made his '21-22 season debut on Monday at the Journeymen Collegiate Wrestling Duals in Niceville, Fla. Lee went 2-0, beating Central Michigan's Brock Bergelin and Lehigh's Jaret Lane.

Lee, who is also a two-time Hodge Trophy winner and a U.S. Senior men's freestyle national champ, has compiled a career record of 78-5, with 65 bonus-point wins. With his wins in Florida, he’s now won 38 matches in a row dating back to the 2019 NCAA Championships, during which he's outscored his opponents by a staggering 461-41.

A medical hardship waiver is granted to athletes who don’t participate in more than 30% of a team’s total competitions in a season. Athletes also can’t compete after the midway point of the season and must have documentation from a licensed medical professional that their injury prevented them from competing.

The odds are good that Lee would receive a medical hardship and be eligible to compete during the ’22-23 season. Another Hawkeye wrestler, Michael Kemerer, received one after missing the 2018-19 season, due to injury

As for who will replace Lee in Iowa’s lineup this year, Iowa has a few options.

Jesse Ybarra has started at 125 pounds in Lee’s absence, and is 5-1 overall. There’s also true freshman Drake Ayala, a Fort Dodge native who is also 5-1 this season and is competing at the Southern Scuffle this weekend in Tennessee. There’s also Aaron Cashman, who is 7-5 all-time for the Hawkeyes but hasn’t wrestled yet this season.

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