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Unfinished business: Spencer Lee and the Iowa Hawkeyes look to make up for lost opportunities at the 2021 NCAA Championships

by Mike Willis, USA Wrestling

Feature photo of Spencer Lee courtesy of Sam Janicki.

The Iowa Hawkeyes were hands-down favorites going into the 2020 NCAA Championships. It would have been a fitting end to a sterling season for Iowa, who logged a perfect, 13-0, dual meet record and claimed the Big Ten Conference title, qualifying all ten wrestlers for the NCAA tournament and earning three No. 1 seeds.

However, the universe had other ideas. The COVID-19 global pandemic shut down most of the world, including college wrestling, and impacted nearly every facet of daily life. The Hawkeyes would have to wait for their opportunity to bring home their first NCAA team title since 2010.

Thankfully, it looks like Iowa will have their chance this weekend in St. Louis, Mo. The Hawkeyes finished an abbreviated season, 5-0, once again earning a Big Ten title and qualifying all ten wrestlers for the tournament. Iowa’s head coach Tom Brands is appreciative that even with less than ideal circumstances, his athletes have the opportunity to compete.

“First of all, you have to credit a lot of people. You have to credit the NCAA. You have to credit the Big Ten, the individual conferences that made this season happen. They did it under criticism. There’s a lot of people in the world that don’t look at sports as vital, and sports are vital. It teaches a lot, and young people they need that, especially young athletes,” Brands said during the NCAA pre-championships virtual press conference last Wednesday.

“Let’s keep making it happen, and let’s keep everybody safe as well. I’m not downplaying the safety factor. COVID is no picnic; that’s a good quote from a mentor of mine. We definitely know the dangers and risks, the concern, the pandemic, the global concern. But you know what? Young people need to do what young people do, and young athletes need to do what young athletes need to do, and our leadership has risen to the occasion time and time again,” Brands elaborated.

This season, Iowa’s Spencer Lee, Jaydin Eierman, Alex Marinelli and Michael Kemerer all earned top seeds in their respective weight classes. Lee, a senior, is a two-time NCAA champion at 125 pounds. Eierman, who competes at 141 pounds, was a three-time All-American for Missouri, before transferring last season. Marinelli, a senior, is a two-time NCAA All-American at 165 pounds, and Kemerer, a senior, is a two-time NCAA All-American competing at 174 pounds. Lee, Marinelli and Kemerer were all named 2020 NWCA First-Team All-Americans last season. Brands believes that the dedication and leadership of his upperclassmen is what will allow his team to come out on top in Saint Louis.

“The bottom line is that we’ve got a lot of good guys that their lifestyle is intact. They understand what lifestyle means. Lifestyle isn’t a part-of-the-year thing, it’s an all-year thing. They understand, and they go to work that way every day. They’re tight. They hold each other accountable,” he said.

Spencer Lee in particular is a wrestler whose importance to the program cannot be understated.

“He rises to the occasion time after time after time. He’s a tough guy, but more than that, he’s a unique-minded athlete. It’s a joy to have him in our room and in our program. It’s a joy to see his maturity into leadership roles on a lot of different fronts,” Brands said.

“He’s very perspective oriented, where he knows that the things in life, the fruits of the labor are there, but he’s not in a hurry to get them. That’s very very unique. That’s what I mean about being unique-minded. He knows that the work comes before the fruits of the labor are realized.”

Lee, the 2020 Dan Hodge Trophy winner, echoed his coach’s sentiments about the gratitude he felt about being able to wrestle again.

“I’m just glad that the NCAA is doing everything they can to allow us to have an NCAA Championship. Last year was very hard on every sport that didn’t get to compete, so not just us in general. We’re ready to go. We’re excited, and we’re looking forward to finally getting it done. Getting ready to win a national title as a team and as individuals,” Lee said.

No one in the collegiate ranks has posed a threat yet to Lee this year. He heads into the tournament sporting a 7-0 record with five pins and two technical falls. For Lee, it’s all part of the plan

“I just go out to score points, and that’s all I care about. It’s just, ‘What’s next? That’s the next point.’ If I don’t wrestle a full match all year, that would be great, but if I do, it doesn’t matter. I’m ready to go no matter what, seven minutes or more if needed. That’s the mentality instilled upon me. It’s just scoring points every second of every single part of the match and getting ready for what’s next,” he stated.

Lee confirmed that he plans to suit up for Iowa again next season and that his ultimate goal collegiately is to win four NCAA titles. However, he’s not looking past this year, nor is he taking the opportunity for granted.

“Last year was tough on everyone. You missed something that can’t really be taken back. I feel bad for all the seniors. I always say that those guys deserved a ring. You know, we were going to win a national title in my mind, and we can’t really give it back to those guys. So I feel like I’m not just winning for myself, but I’m also winning for them. I’m going to do my best to bring it back for them, for myself and for the University of Iowa as a whole,” he said.

While Iowa looks to be the favorite again this year, anything can happen in March, and Brands has imbued this sentiment into his team.

“Wherever you’re at in the bracket, whether it’s the number one seed or anywhere else that you’re placed, go do your job, and do it at a high level. Be ready ready ready to go. Triple ready.”

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