Iowa's Lee chases history in going for his fourth NCAA title
IOWA CITY, Iowa — History is the light at the end of Iowa wrestler Spencer Lee's tunnel vision.
The 125-pounder has a chance to win his fourth national title this weekend at the NCAA championships in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and join an exclusive club with names he can recite in just a few seconds.
Lee's six-year career with the Hawkeyes will end with this tournament, a career that has been built with a singular focus on the next match.
The two-time winner of the Dan Hodge Trophy as the nation's most dominant wrestler knows what he can accomplish in this final tournament.
“Yeah, of course, I’ve definitely thought about it,” Lee said. “It would mean a lot to me. The thing is, I haven’t done it yet.”
Lee would become the first Iowa wrestler to win four national championships. Cornell 149-pounder Yianni Diakomihalis also is pursuing his fourth. If both accomplish the feat, there would be six four-time Division I champions in NCAA history.
Oklahoma State's Pat Smith (1990-92, 1994), Iowa State's Cael Sanderson (1999-2002), Cornell's Kyle Dake (2010-13) and Ohio State's Logan Stieber (2012-15) are the only wrestlers to accomplish the feat.
Challenged to name them during a media availability Monday, Lee quickly went through the list.
Then he smiled.
“Come on, man,” Lee said, jokingly shaking his head at the question.
Lee's appreciation for wrestling history only adds to his status as one of the most respected figures in the sport.
“How he can regurgitate the history of wrestling and past results and his favorite matches, people tune in and listen, and they pay attention,” coach Tom Brands said. “It’s a natural that when the results are there and the mouth starts working, people are interested, colleagues and teammates are interested in what he has to say.”
It has been futile throughout Lee's career for anyone to get him to look beyond his next match, and Brands said that trait has served him well.
“I think Spencer is a cool cucumber,” Brands said. “He’s cool under fire. I think he has a knack for moving on to the next thing the right way. That’s not to say there isn’t frustration, but he handles it well. He can move on quick, and that’s a pretty good ingredient for great athletes, I think.”
Lee has a 95-5 career record — 38 of his wins have ended in the first period, including 11 falls in under one minute — and is on a 55-match winning streak. He is 17-0 this season, with eight wins by fall and four technical falls. Lee won his third Big Ten championship and was named the conference's wrestler of the year for the third time.
Lee won his last national title in 2021 with torn anterior cruciate ligaments in both knees. Surgeries on those knees ended his 2022 season.
Asked how he felt going into the weekend, Lee smiled and said, “I know I feel better for this tournament than I did my last (NCAA) tournament.”
Lee's ability to return to come back from his knee issues surprised no one, least of all Brands.
“That’s how you make opportunities for yourself — you have to overcome a lot,” Brands said. “Any path to greatness is sometimes bumpy in places. You go on. You get a lump on your head, you move on. Spencer Lee has been able to do that with the best of them.”
Lee often led off dual meets for the Hawkeyes, who have 10 national qualifiers and are ranked No. 2 going into the tournament. It’s a role he enjoyed, and it’s been a role that has been important to Iowa — Matt McDonough won national titles in the weight class in 2010 and 2012.
“I think us 125-pounders at Iowa have always had an edge to us,” Lee said. “We always want to be first, because that’s our job. Hopefully, the future 125-pounders at Iowa will be the same way, that it’s their job to get things started, be that ignition for the guys. ... I think being first made me prideful.”
Lee realizes, though, the 125-pound championship match might be scheduled as the finale Saturday.
"You know what? I could be (last)," Lee said. “But I’ve got to get there first. That would be a good problem to have.”