Iowa's Spencer Lee ready for challenge at 125 after burning redshirt

By Taylor Miller, USA Wrestling | Jan. 11, 2018, 8:09 p.m. (ET)

It was something that many in the college wrestling world were waiting for. On Jan. 5, a Friday night, Iowa head coach Tom Brands unleashed Spencer Lee into the historic Carver-Hawkeye Arena to do battle, burning his redshirt.

Rewind to a year ago when Lee, a 2014 Cadet World champion and two-time Junior World champion, found out he had a torn ACL, just weeks prior to the Pennsylvania state tournament, where he looked to make history as an undefeated four-time state champion.

“At first, I didn’t know it was torn, so I kept wrestling,” Lee said. “I went to the doctor, got an MRI and found out it was torn. He told me I had a decision to make, I could get surgery now and end my season or I could compete for the rest of the postseason and wear a brace. He went out and grabbed a brace, threw it at me and said, ‘Your choice. Your knee is probably strong enough to wrestle on and I don’t think you want to live with any regrets.’ He was 100 percent right. I looked at my dad and said, ‘let’s do this.’”

With minimal time on the mat, Lee spent the next two months in physical therapy and making sure his knee stayed strong.

Despite the injury, Lee, a senior at Franklin Regional, advanced to the 126-pound state finals, where he took on Austin DeSanto of Exeter Township High School in Berks County, Pa. DeSanto, who trailed in the final minute, snagged two takedowns in the final 30 seconds for a 6-5 win, ending Lee’s quest of becoming just the 13th four-time Pennsylvania state champion.

“I chose to wrestle,” Lee said. “I told my dad if I’m in the middle of a match and you see my knee give out, you will not forfeit me. I told him I would rather lose that match like a man. Luckily it didn’t have to come down to that.”

Lee had surgery just days after the tournament and began the rehab process.

“You have to get up and move forward, and that’s what I chose to do,” he said. “I went to physical therapy three times a week, and I went to my high school practices and helped coach my teammates over the summer a little bit. I just stayed the course until I was able to do more and more on my own and start training again.”

Lee made the move to Iowa City, Iowa, to start his college wrestling career as a Hawkeye. The initial plan was for Lee to take a redshirt year, but things changed as the 2017-18 season got started.

“That process was a long process with my coaches,” Lee said. “We took it day-by-day. That’s really all it was. I didn’t really care whether I redshirted or not. Obviously I’m not the kind of person who wants to sit around and watch, so I was OK with getting it pulled. It was all day-to-day. It was all about keeping my knee healthy, training, getting back on the mat and now I’m here.”

Lee’s collegiate debut as an unattached wrestler came in early-December, when he entered the UNI Open in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The new Hawkeye bulldozed his way to a first-place finish at 125 pounds, recording a technical fall and two pins.

He followed up just weeks later at the 55th Annual Midlands Championships in Evanston, Ill., where he advanced to the semifinals before falling to tenth-ranked Ronnie Bresser of Oregon State. Lee ended the tournament with a sixth-place finish, medical forfeiting his two matches on the back side.

En route to the semis, he registered a pin as well as a pair of tech falls against ranked opponents, No. 15 Travis Piotrowski of Illinois and No. 7 Sean Russell of Edinboro.

“Going to Midlands was about getting my feet wet at a big-time tournament and to see how I do,” Lee said. “I’m not 100 percent happy with my performance, but you just have to move on and work on getting better. That’s been the focus since that tournament.”

While at the tournament, it was hinted that he would make his varsity debut.

“At one point during Midlands, Coach Brands said, ‘hey you’re wrestling Friday.’ I couldn’t tell if he was serious, so I just said, ‘yes sir!’ It’s not like I didn’t know that it was a possibility. It’s been in the conversation for a while,” Lee said.

Sure enough, that day came in the Hawkeyes dual against Michigan State last weekend.

Lee suited up in the classic black and gold Iowa singlet for the first time, taking on Ryvon Foley. A rowdy Hawkeye fan base rooted him on to victory, which took the form of a fall in 46 seconds.

“It was everything I dreamed it to be,” Lee said. “It was a lot of fun. I really liked putting the Iowa singlet on, competing with my teammates and finally running into Carver with the world’s best fans. Like the coaches say, it’s an entertainment business, so I just went out there to entertain.”

His official introduction to college wrestling was an impressive one and earned him the No. 11 spot in Flowrestling’s rankings.

This weekend, he’ll have a chance to wrestle All-American and sixth-ranked Nick Piccininni in one of the most historic college wrestling rivalries, when the No. 7 Hawkeyes host the No. 3 Oklahoma State Cowboys in Iowa City.

“I’ve always watched dual meets between these two big programs,” Lee said. “I’m excited to run out into Carver again and compete against a team that is strong and has been for a long time. This is something I’ve been doing my entire life. It’s nothing different, whether it’s in front of 20 fans or 15,000. You just have to do what you’ve done your whole life. Just go out there and wrestle.”

Lee likely won’t have an easy road from this point moving into NCAAs as 125 pounds has several title contenders and three of the top-five wrestlers at the weight coming from the Big Ten.

When asked about the depth at 125 pounds, Lee made a pretty clear statement.

“I love wrestling against the best guys in the country and the best guys in the world. That’s what every competitor should want.”