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Q&A with Iowa’s Spencer Lee: Training, balancing academics, life off the mat and more

by Joe Wedra, USA Wrestling

Photo of Spencer Lee by Tony Rotundo

This year, will interview one collegiate wrestling athlete each Thursday as a part of a new Q&A series for the 2021-22 college wrestling season. Stay tuned each Thursday for a new feature, spotlighting these student-athletes both on and off the mat.

This week, we talk with Iowa’s Spencer Lee about training for the upcoming season and more. Below, Lee talks about many topics, including being a complete student-athlete and talking to fans about life outside of wrestling.

Q: What’s it been like training heading into this season, after the unique 2020-21 and now getting back into somewhat of a normal rhythm?

A: This is my second full season I’ve ever gone through, and this is going to be my fifth season, so I think that’s a little different. I always have had kind of a shortened season. In my freshman year, I didn’t start until January. My sophomore year was full, and then the junior year was a COVID year, never finishing the NCAAs. And then last year, we only had 12 or 15 matches. So I think this year is going to be different, and a little bit longer, but we get to go through that college grind.

Q: Have you done anything different in preparing this year, or has it been somewhat business as usual?

A: Last year, I did a lot more running. This year, I’ve done a lot of different types of cardio rather than just running – a lot of biking. I’ve been getting healthy, so nothing too crazy. It was definitely more business as usual. I’ve been doing more mental training, probably. If you’re strong mentally, you’re going to be strong physically.

Q: Can you talk about having expectations, and how you deal with the large expectations that you inevitably have going into competing?

A: Well, I don’t think it’s ever been anything different in my entire life, to be completely honest with you. I feel like there’s always been high expectations, since I was about 10 years old. It doesn’t really change a whole lot with me. I’m used to being the guy who people want to beat. I like that. That’s how I like it.

Q: Is it helpful to have people around you, especially at Iowa, who also have a target on their backs?

A: Personally, that’s why I am here. You want to be surrounded by people who have the same goals and ideals as you do. If you’re the only one doing something hard, you’re doing something alone. And you can’t do something alone, in my opinion. You have to have a good support network – good teammates, family, friends – you have to have people who are behind you.

Sports are more than yourself. Even though I might be the one on the mat competing, the sport itself and winning might just be me, but I didn’t win just because it’s me. I think it’s a lot easier to win when you have people like that.

Q: As you have gotten older in your career, what’s it like to navigate the balance of academics and a full college season?

A: I think when you get older, you get accustomed to a routine. You get to figure out what times of classes you like so you can keep on that routine. Obviously some classes you can’t help, but it’s a lot different than my freshman year. I think it was a lot more stressful when I was younger. As you get older, you get better at studying, you know how to communicate with teachers about your season and all of that.

It also helps that a lot of teachers know me now. When I was a freshman, no one really knew who I was. But, they definitely understand it. Some people say they are going to miss something and they’re probably rolling their eyes. But now, they know that I’m going to get my work done.

Q: What is it like to explain to other people that there is more to Spencer Lee than just “Spencer Lee, the wrestler”?

A: It’s funny, because people meet me and they expect me to be arrogant, or full of myself and to talk a lot about myself. Then, after 30 minutes, they realize that not once was wrestling brought up. It’s just me being a genuine person, asking about them, learning about them… they’re always like “wow, I always expected someone like you, an athlete of your caliber, to be an arrogant person’.

It’s not who I am. I like to talk to people. It’s nice to be that person, when people have no idea who I am. That’s my favorite. Because then, I can talk to them normally. It’s always funny because you talk to somebody for a while, they leave and then they come back because they didn’t realize who they were talking to. It makes me laugh a little bit.

But, I do like when people talk about me and not just wrestling. I’ll always answer anything, so it doesn’t really bother me. People always ask me if it bothers me. No, it doesn’t. One day, it’s going to end. I always say that. Going and meeting with people, them wanting to take pictures, that’s going to end one day. I’m not a superstar or a celebrity. It’s only nice because I’m in Iowa City, a college and a wrestling town. So, it does make me laugh a little bit. But, it is nice when people actually want to get to know me.

Q: At this stage in your career, have you taken on a different role with younger wrestlers coming into the program?

A: I feel like I’m more of a guy who leads by example more than anything else. I’m pretty quiet. I like to keep to myself and do what I do. They have questions, and I’ll always answer them. But, I’ve never been the one who is super vocal. I always put my head down and do my job. And the hope is that they understand if they do their job, winning is going to come. Team titles will come if everyone does their job.