Leistikow: As much as 4th NCAA title, Iowa's Spencer Lee wants to feel good again

Chad Leistikow
Des Moines Register

IOWA CITY − When it comes to the latest chapter of Spencer Lee adversity, two obvious questions come to mind. When is he going to be back on the mat? And how realistic is it that he can return from two knee surgeries in January and win his fourth NCAA wrestling championship?

The answers to both questions remain to be seen, of course, but those questions also miss the real story surrounding Lee’s sixth and final season with the Hawkeyes.

The real story is that Lee just wants to someday get back to how he felt during his sophomore year of high school, the last time he was truly healthy.

The real story is that Lee has been through injury hell in his five years at Iowa. Even though we’re just 4½ months away from the NCAA Championships in Tulsa, this final Hawkeye wrestling season is as much about trying to feel good on the mat again as it is becoming the first four-time NCAA champ in this storied program’s history.

Because once he's feeling good and on the mat … there's nobody better.

“Normalcy is definitely the goal,” Lee said at Thursday’s Iowa wrestling media day in his first interviews in almost 10 months. “That’s the priority in my life, to get back into the swing of things and a routine that’s not based around pain and swelling.”

Long ago, Lee wrote down all his goals: Four-time Pennsylvania state champion. Four-time NCAA champion. Nine-time world champion. Three-time Olympic champion.

The reality is, he’s been injured every summer since tearing his ACL a few weeks before the Pennsylvania state meet as a high school senior. He hasn’t wrestled internationally since he was winning third age-group world championship in 2016 at age 17.

He’s 24 years old now, the self-proclaimed old man of the Iowa wrestling room.

Despite six straight years of injury adversity, Spencer Lee has done his best to keep a positive, determined approach.

“It is frustrating,” Lee said, “because I feel like I lost six years of my (freestyle) career.

“The hardest thing is for me to watch the world championships every year or the Olympics. … We’re so successful (in the U.S.), and I’m just sitting back with double knee surgery and double braces and I’m like, ‘Wow, this stinks.’ I wish I could at least have the opportunity to try."

While at Iowa, the one glimpse Lee has had of freestyle normalcy was the U.S. Senior Nationals in December of 2019, his junior season. He absolutely tore through the field, winning five matches by a combined 52-6 score to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials. But then the COVID-19 pandemic sacked wrestling and pushed the Olympics back to 2021. And in a cruel twist, in March of 2021, tore another ACL and revealed a few weeks later after winning his third NCAA title that he had done so with no ACLs.

Just incredibly bad luck again, and that 2021 tear essentially wiped out two straight summers of competition. His attempt to compete in 2022 without repairing either knee lasted only three collegiate matches before it became apparent that the growing pain in both knees was too ridiculous to continue.

Yet amazingly, Lee keeps a positive attitude. And it’s real, not contrived. Coaches and teammates marvel at his mental toughness, his ability to come back and fight through adversity. They just know that no matter how many gut-punches Spencer Lee takes, he always fights back.

“There's probably a little bit of fear built into this guy where he doesn't want to give the naysayers any foothold,” Iowa head coach Tom Brands said. “He wants to prove them wrong. You know what, for his opponents, payback is a bitch.”

In other words, Lee is tired of being on the sidelines. But how long will the wait be to see him again?

To repair both knees, orthopedic surgeon Robby Westermann took quadriceps tendons from Lee’s legs to create new ACLs. The road back has been filled with physical therapy (a “necessary evil” to stay healthy, Lee said) and grueling rehab.

Understandably, there’s not a publicized return date at this point. But everyone believes Lee will wrestle for the Hawkeyes this season, sooner rather than later.

“I’ll be on the mat eventually. I don’t know when it’s going to be,” Lee said. “We’re going to make a decision based on what’s best for me and the team.”

Lee has bought a three-bedroom condo in Iowa City. He plans on staying here and training here for a long time. He said the plan is still to wrestle “another 10 years” after college. Ideally, if he has a healthy college season, he could compete for a spot on the U.S. world team. A year later, the 2024 Paris Olympics would be another checkpoint in his life.

“My career is mainly focused on freestyle. People forget that,” Lee said. “I’ve even had people ask me, ‘What are you going to do after college?’ To me, it’s like I can’t even believe you asked me that.”

But Lee knows to be ready for a possible return to the world stage for the first time in seven years, he’s got a chance at college history.

Only four men have won four NCAA titles: Oklahoma State’s Pat Smith (1990-92, ’94), Iowa State’s Cael Sanderson (1999-2002), Cornell’s Kyle Dake (2010-13) and Ohio State’s Logan Stieber (2012-15). None of them had to do it over a six-year span that included a global pandemic; and nobody’s ever done it after double ACL surgeries.

The 125-pound weight class has formidable contenders, including previous NCAA finalists in Princeton’s Pat Glory and Arizona State’s Brandon Courtney (who Lee beat, 7-0, for the 2021 title before his famous “excuses are for wusses” post-match interview).

Iowa associate head coach Terry Brands, who works with the lightweights, emphasized Lee’s need to stay focused on each daily task to get healthy, because winning a fourth NCAA title “is going to be extremely difficult. There are going to be people coming for his frickin’ head, and he has to understand that.”

As one of the program's seven three-time NCAA champs and with a dominant style, Lee is already an Iowa wrestling legend.

If he can accomplish what he’s trying to accomplish this season, that would put him into a stratospheric level among Hawkeye greats in any sport. No question.

But … he isn’t 100% healthy. He doesn’t think he ever will be, given the toll that surgeries and constant rehab have taken on his 125-pound body. That's unfortunate, when greatness is bottled up like this.

So, Iowa’s passionate fans – who sold out season tickets once again for a team ranked No. 2 in the preseason rankings – should understand what he’s gone through and what he will go through this season just to compete again for the Hawkeyes. Patience will be required for his return, and every minute he can take the mat should be savored.

The biggest priority: Just to see Lee healthy again. At media day, he said the best he’s felt at Iowa was when he steamrolled through the field at the 2018 NCAA tournament as a true freshman – technical fall, technical fall, pin, pin, decision.

But here’s the thing about that: That dominant stretch came nearly a year after ACL surgery. He took off the knee brace for that NCAA Championships in Cleveland. The word is that whenever he’s ready to come back, he won't be wearing knee braces again.

“I know what to expect,” Lee said. “I know how to wrestle. It’s nothing I haven’t done before.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.