Iowa’s Spencer Lee and Cornell’s Yianni Diakomihalis take aim at rare wrestling history

Cody Goodwin
Des Moines Register

TULSA, Okla. — There have been only four wrestlers who have won four individual NCAA Division I national titles. Earlier this week, Spencer Lee was asked if he knew their names off the top of his head.

“Of course,” he said, then proceeded to list them:

  • Oklahoma State’s Pat Smith, in 1990, 1991, 1992, 1994
  • Iowa State’s Cael Sanderson, in 1999-2002
  • Cornell’s Kyle Dake, in 2010-13
  • Ohio State’s Logan Stieber, in 2012-15

“Come on, man,” Lee finished with a smile, sparking laughter inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena’s media room.

Lee, the Iowa wrestling team’s star 125-pounder, has positioned himself to join that list this week, as he will take aim at his fourth national title at the NCAA Championships, which begin Thursday and will end on Saturday here at the BOK Center.

But the unique thing about Lee’s run at wrestling history is that he is not alone.

Yianni Diakomihalis, Cornell’s 149-pounder, also will attempt to win his fourth NCAA title this week. Should they both prevail, it would mark the first time that two individuals won their fourth Division I titles in the same tournament.

Pretty cool, right?

“We’ve been wrestling in the same tournaments since we were like nine,” Lee said this week. “It’s been cool having the same journey, from little kids all the way until now, and still having success and continuing to enjoy the process.”

Their dueling pursuits have been similar but different. Both were prized recruits, with national and international accolades. Both found immediate success collegiately. Both navigated injuries and the COVID-19 pandemic. Through it all, both continued to win.

Here they are now, both with a chance to rise into rare wrestling air together.

“Any path to greatness is sometimes bumpy in places,” said Iowa coach Tom Brands, a three-time NCAA champion and Olympic gold medalist, “but you go on. You get a lump on your head and you move on.”

Cornell's Yianni Diakomihalis has his hand raised after winning his third NCAA championship on March 19, 2022, in Detroit.

Lee is the 1-seed at 125 pounds this week. The Pennsylvania native is 17-0 overall and 95-5 for his career. He’s won 55 matches in a row dating to the 2019 NCAA Championships. 

Diakomihalis is the 1-seed at 149. The New York native is 16-1 this season and 110-2 for his career. He had won 75 straight matches until he lost his season opener this year, a stunning 9-3 decision to Wisconsin’s Austin Gomez.

Both came up as decorated youth wrestlers, often competing at the same high-level tournaments, but almost always at different weights.

Take, for example, the Super 32 Challenge, one of the toughest high school tournaments in the country. In 2013, Diakomihalis won at 106 pounds and Lee won at 113. The next year, 2014, Lee won again at 113 and Diakomihalis won at 120.

In 2013, they were on opposite sides of the 106-pound bracket at FloNationals. Could’ve met in the finals, but Diakomihalis lost 15-0 to Luke Pletcher, later an Ohio State All-American, in the quarterfinals. Pletcher then beat Lee 3-1 in the finals.

“On one hand, you want to take all those challenges, find the best guys, push yourself in every opportunity you get,” Diakomihalis said this week. “But on the other side, you’re going to look back on your 10-year-old wrestling career and laugh at it.”

Iowa's Spencer Lee, center, is introduced before wrestling at 125 pounds as Iowa head coach Tom Brands, right, looks on during a Big Ten Conference dual against Illinois on Jan. 6 in Iowa City.

They’ve combined for five age-level world championships, though they were never on the same team together. Lee won a Cadet freestyle world title in 2014, then won back-to-back Junior world titles in 2015 and 2016. As Lee dominated on the Junior level, Diakomihalis won a pair of Cadet world titles in 2015 and 2016.

In 2018, both guys won NCAA titles as true freshmen. Lee outscored his five opponents 60-4 to win. Diakomihalis beat two-time NCAA champ Dean Heil in the quarterfinals, four-time All-American Jaydin Eierman in the semifinals, then two-time NCAA finalist Bryce Meredith in the finals to win at 141 … all with a torn ACL.

“My freshman year, I showed up expecting to win,” Diakomihalis said. “I believed in myself, and I really thought I was the best guy in the weight class. It’s the same this year.

“Obviously, I have to go and make it happen, but there was never a time where I felt like I was overcoming the odds. I always believe in myself. I always bet on myself. That’s probably part of the reason why I had success my freshman year.”

Both guys won again in 2019. In 2019-20, both guys set their sights on the 2020 Olympics, winning Senior men’s freestyle national titles that December in Texas.

Lee continued in his role as the leadoff man for Iowa, the wire-to-wire No. 1 team in Division I wrestling that season. He was awarded the Hodge Trophy, college wrestling’s Heisman equivalent. Diakomihalis took an Olympic redshirt. But COVID-19 ultimately wiped out both the 2020 NCAA Championships as well as the Tokyo Games.

The 2021 college wrestling season was a weird one. Ivy League schools chose not to compete as the pandemic continued, and Iowa ultimately won the 2021 NCAA team title, its first since 2010. Lee led the charge, famously winning his third national title with two torn ACLs.

Months later, Lee opted for double knee surgery and missed the 2021-22 season. With Ivy League sports allowed to compete again, Diakomihalis won his third title up at 149 pounds. He parlayed that success into a Senior world team spot and, last September, a silver medal at the world championships in Belgrade, Serbia.

Yianni Diakomihalis of the United States, left, wrestles Beka Lomadze of Georgia during the United World Wrestling men's freestyle World Cup Dec. 10, 2022, at Xtream Arena in Coralville.

That brings us to this season, where the thought of winning four national titles has been a talking point for both guys all season. While they both admit that the shot at history is cool, they’ve mostly shrugged off the idea.

“I’ve definitely thought about it,” Lee said. “It would be the first goal I’ve accomplished. It would mean a lot to me. But I haven’t done it yet. One match at a time. You know how it is, tough tournament, so I need to be ready to go.”

“When you’re a little kid, you’re like, ‘I’m going to win four of this and eight world championships,’” Diakomihalis said. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve kind of cared less about it. Obviously it’s a really big deal for me and the program, but I’m only winning one this weekend. If I don’t win this weekend, it’s not like I lose the other three.

“For me, I’m just showing up to win a national title this weekend. As much as it is a cool accomplishment, I just really haven’t thought about it that way.”

On Wednesday, both wrestlers sat inside the BOK Center and talked about the journey. It’s been a wild ride, longer than either guy had anticipated, but successful all the same.

One reporter asked if they had any advice for younger wrestlers who might want to join them on the list of four-time NCAA champs someday.

“Just keep having fun with it,” Lee said. “Keep enjoying it, have fun, enjoy the process, and if you keep that passion, maybe you’ll eventually be up on this stage one day.”

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