By Taylor McNitt
Even before true freshman Spencer Lee shed the redshirt, Iowa wrestling head coach Tom Brands perfectly described him in three words: boom, boom, boom.
Brands knew Lee’s potential when recruiting him. He was the best pound-for-pound wrestler in the class of 2017, so ditching the redshirt wasn’t a question of “if,” it was a question of “when.”
This in itself was a new leap for Brands; Lee is only the second true freshman to wrestle in Brands’ lineups. Justin Stickley competed earlier in the year as the first true freshman Hawkeye to wrestle since 1993. The similarities — and the differences — between Lee and the Brands brothers influenced Tom Brands’ assessment of the freshman.
“He’s a kid, first of all; I was a kid,” Brands said on Jan. 30. “His reputation is way better than mine was, and he’s a chatterbox, so he’s different that way. Even though we came from different levels coming out of high school; he’s a super recruit, and I wasn’t. You look at his approach to competition, it’s very similar to my brother’s and mine. It’s almost embarrassing when you don’t perform, because I’m supposed to perform this way, because that’s who I am, and I am up for every challenge.”
Getting his hand raised the right way has been the big driver for Lee’s college record so far. He began his Iowa career with a bang, pinning his Michigan State opponent in a time of 46 seconds.
Since then, he’s scored three decisions, two technical falls, and another pin. Five of his seven opponents have been ranked in the top 10.
“It’s always nice; Spencer always starting us off right,” senior Brandon Sorensen said following the meet against Minnesota. “That’s always good momentum carrying out through the rest of the dual.”
That momentum not only drives the team toward success, but it drives Lee’s personal success against mounting competition.
Following his Iowa debút with Michigan State, Lee was ranked ninth nationally. Since then, he has upset then-No. 6 Nick Piccininni, and No. 1 and three-time Big Ten champion Nathan Tomasello the following match. He has since held his position at No. 3.
“There is that rare quality that you want to compete and get challenged every time out; Spencer Lee wants to be challenged,” Brands said.
That desire to be challenged comes with an authentic passion for the sport. For Lee, wrestling isn’t a sport. It is as natural as breathing for the lightweight.
“It’s more of a lifestyle thing,” Brands said. “He’s clean. He’s polite. This kid says he’s not going to drink alcohol because ‘it doesn’t do my wrestling any good.’ He told me once, and this is brilliant, that he doesn’t speed or drive recklessly, and he wears a seat belt all the time, because if he dies, he won’t be able to wrestle anymore.”
That quality sets Lee on the track to the NCAA Championships, where, if he takes first, he will be the second true freshman Hawkeye to claim the title (Lincoln McIlravy did it in 1993) and only the 16th true freshman to ever claim that fame.
“[Beating Tomasello] shows that I’m right there,” Lee said following the Ohio State dual. “I believe in my coaches, they believe in me, and I believe in myself.”