Iowa’s Lee chases history to win his fourth NCAA title

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — History is the light at the end of the tunnel vision for Iowa wrestler Spencer Lee.

The 125-pounder has a chance to win his fourth national title this weekend at the NCAA Championships in Tulsa, Okla., 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 an extreme focus on the next game.

The two-time Dan Hodge Trophy winner as the nation’s most dominant wrestler knows what he can accomplish in this final tournament.

“Yeah sure, I’ve definitely thought about it,” Lee said. “It would mean a lot to me. The thing is, I haven’t yet.

Lee became the first wrestler from Iowa to win four national championships. Cornell 149-pounder Yanni Diakomihalis is also chasing his fourth. If both accomplish the feat, there will be six four-time Division I champions in NCAA history.

Oklahoma State’s Pat Smith (1990-92, 1994), Iowa State’s Kyle Sanderson (1999-2002), Cornell’s Kyle Dake (2010-13) and Ohio State’s Logan Stieber (2012-15) are the others.

Challenged to name them during a media availability Monday, Lee quickly ran 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 rehash wrestling history and past results and his favorite matches, people tune in and listen and pay attention,” trainer Tom Brands said. “It’s only natural that when the results are in and the word gets going, people are interested, colleagues and teammates are interested in what he has to say.”

It’s been a no-brainer throughout Lee’s career for anyone to make him look beyond his next game, and Brands said that trait has served him well.

“I think Spencer is a great cucumber,” Brands said. “He’s cool under fire. I think he has a knack for moving on to the next thing in the right way. That’s not to say he doesn’t have frustration, but he handles it well. It can go fast, and I think that’s a pretty good ingredient for great athletes.”

Lee has a career record of 95-5 – 38 of his wins have come in the first period, including 11 falls under one minute – and is on a 55-match winning streak. He is 17-0 this season, with eight wins by fall and four TKOs. 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 ACLs in both knees. Surgeries on those knees ended his 2022 season.

Asked how he felt heading into the weekend, Lee smiled and said, “I know I feel better about this tournament than I did my last (NCAA) tournament.”

Lee’s ability to bounce back from the knee issues surprised no one, least of all Brands.

“That’s how you create opportunities for yourself — you have to overcome a lot,” Brands said. “Every road to greatness is sometimes bumpy in places. You go on. You get a lump on the head, you move on. Spencer Lee has managed to do this with the best of them.

Lee often led dual meets for the Hawkeyes, who have 10 national qualifiers and are ranked No. 2 entering the tournament. It’s a role he’s relished, and it’s been a role that’s been important to Iowa — Matt McDonagh won national titles at the weight class in 2010 and 2012.

“I think with the 125-pounders in Iowa, we’ve always had an edge,” Lee said. “We always want to be first because that’s our job. Hopefully, Iowa’s future 125-pounders will be the same way, that their job is to get things going, to be that spark for the guys. … I think being first made me proud.”

However, Lee realizes that the 125-pound championship match could be scheduled as Saturday’s final.

“You know what? I could have been (last),” Lee said. “But I have to go there first. That would be a good problem to have.”


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