By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The unusual circumstances left much to be desired, but Spencer Lee got what he so richly deserved on Monday when it was announced that he was the winner of the prestigious Hodge Trophy.
The annual award goes to the nation’s most dominant college wrestler, and that certainly describes Lee’s performance from this past season as a junior.
The Pennsylvania native dominated the 125-pound weight class and was considered a near lock to win a third consecutive national title at that weight.
Lee outscored his opponents 234-18 and recorded bonus points in 17 of 18 wins. He also recorded four first-period falls and nine technical falls, and averaged 5.0 team points per match.
Lee finished 18-0 for the season and was nearly three-fourths of the way to becoming Iowa’s first four-time national champion, but that dream was crushed due to the spread of Covid-19, which has caused the sports world to shut down.
Iowa was also considered the heavy favorite to win its first national team title since 2010, but now fans are left to wonder what would’ve happened.
“It’s disappointing,” Lee said Monday on a teleconference. “We all knew this was a big year for us because it was the next one, right. But we were favored going in and there’s a lot of disappointment with everyone on the team. We had only senior, who was Pat Lugo, in the starting lineup, and we had 11 others (seniors) who didn’t start and they wanted team rings. That was the hardest thing for me, to look at them and know that it’s pretty unlikely they’re going to get team rings.
“So it was disappointing. But everyone found a way to move on and find positivity in everything. Throughput these tough times in the world positivity is hard to find and we’ve just got to keep looking for it and be positive.”
Lee spoke with reporters for nearly 30 minutes about a number of topics, including what he is now doing to stay in shape and to pass the time.
The Iowa wrestlers usually work out together at least twice a day, but now they can’t even get into Carver-Hawkeye Arena because any use of school facilities is prohibited.
Students are also taking classes online for the remainder of the spring semester, so these are strange times for Lee, and for his teammates.
Lee said he runs a lot, reads a lot of books, including 12 in the past two or three weeks, and uses mental imagery to help keep his wrestling mind sharp.
He used the word disappointing over and over during Monday’s teleconference when describing his feelings.
Lee could’ve taken an Olympic redshirt this season and saved a year of college eligibility, but he chose to compete for the Hawkeyes because he had individual and team goals that he wanted to achieve.
“I had an Olympic redshirt and a redshirt, and for me to lose 25 percent of my season when I had two basically free years, it’s kind of disappointing.” Lee said. “It’s hard to swallow when you try to do the right thing and you get punished for it.”
The 2020 Summer Olympics have been postponed until 2021 and will take place on the same days as previously scheduled for this year.
So Lee would have the option of taking an Olympic redshirt next season, but that doesn’t appear to be in his plans.
“I’ll do the same thing,” Lee said. “I probably won’t take an Olympic redshirt and help my team try to win a national title again. It’s the best thing for me as an athlete, as a competitor.”
Iowa coach Tom Brands said recently that he wants the NCAA to officially recognize the top eight seeds at each weight as All-Americans in order to gain closure.
Lee understands why Brands made that request, but Lee doesn’t agree with getting recognition without earning it.
“As much as that sounds good, I’m just not a fan of it,” Lee said. “Even if they announced me as national champ, I would never accept it because I didn’t earn it. And the last two years I was the three seed, so I would never accept that.”
That comment helps to describe what pushes Lee on a daily basis. He thrives on competition and on the pursuit of excellence, and wants to earn everything that he gets.
It probably is no coincidence that Iowa’s return to dominance in wrestling has happened with Lee leading the way by example.
Lee doesn’t make bold statements or act like he’s anything special. He just competes with the sole purpose of dominating his opponent.
He knows that if the takes care of his business that the team will ultimately benefit from it.
Lee’s impact with the Iowa wrestling team is similar to how former All-America defensive back Bob Sanders helped change the culture and tempo within the Iowa football team when he arrived on campus 20 years ago.
Iowa won three, seven, 11 and 10 games, respectively, during Sanders’ four seasons in the program from 2000-03.
Great athletes help to attract other great athletes, and that’s what Lee is doing for Hawkeye wrestling right now.
The fact that Lee is from Pennsylvania and turned down a chance to join Cael Sanderson's dynasty at Penn State makes his story even more intriguing. Lee felt that Iowa was a better fit for him, and he was willing to act on those feelings despite how it would be received in his home state.
That took courage, and some nerve.
But it's hard to argue with the results.
Lee's dominance is inspiring in how it helps to motivate his teammates to work even harder, and to believe in themselves.
And while Lee understands why the 2020 National Championships were cancelled due to a global pandemic, it still is upsetting to have worked so hard to achieve a goal, only to have it taken away by something completely out of your control.
“I’m kind at this state where I’m not sure what to do right now,” Lee said. “I’m kind of just going day by day and what’s the best thing for me. It’s a little hard to swallow. This was supposed to be a big year for me in my mine, a three-time national champ.
“I was hoping to make the Olympic team and try and win an Olympic Gold Medal, and win the Hodge. There were just a lot of things, but I got one of them, I guess, and that’ something to be positive about.”
Lee dominated the voting for the Hodge Trophy just like he did his competition on the mat, earning 52 of a possible 57 first-place votes.
“It entails what we preach, right,” Lee said. “I won in pretty majority fashion, dominance, I guess you could say. And that was cool.”
Lee is the third Iowa wrestler to win the Hodge Trophy since its inception in 1995. Mark Ironside was honored in 1998, and Brent Metcalf earned the award in 2008.
“I think it’s pretty special to be named the Hodge Trophy winner," Lee said. "It was an honor. I’m happy that represented my university in a good light and represent my team, and my friends and everything. It’s fun.
“What we’ve got right now, we wanted a lot more. But take what you can get.”