Spencer Lee won by major decision over Alex Mackall of Iowa State (Photo/Mark Lundy, Lutte-Lens.com)
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Spencer Lee doesn't lose wrestling matches often.
But when he does, he comes back with a vengeance.
So what did Lee, a returning Cadet world champion, do after he lost in the 2015 Cadet World Team Trials? He came back a few months later and won a Junior world title for the United States.
That same resilience was on full display after Lee placed third at the Big Ten tournament as a freshman last season. Lee responded two weeks later to win an NCAA championship for the Iowa Hawkeyes at 125 pounds.
"It was an awesome feeling being able to represent the University of Iowa to the best of my ability, and to win with my teammates and family," Lee said. "It was just a lot of excitement and emotions going on. It was a blast competing with my teammates and getting it done. That was the goal, but I have teammates who have the same goals."
Now a sophomore, the top-ranked Lee is ready for an encore. He is one of the leaders on a strong Hawkeye team that is ranked fourth nationally.
Lee went 22-2 as a freshman and scored bonus points in 75 percent of his wins.
He won a loaded 125-pound weight class at the 2018 NCAA Championships that included past champions Nathan Tomasello of Ohio State and Darian Cruz of Lehigh.
Spencer Lee defeated Ohio State's Nathan Tomasello to advance to the NCAA finals (Photo/Mark Lundy, Lutte-Lens.com)
The No. 3 seed, Lee recorded two technical falls and a fall before avenging a loss from Big Tens by pinning the second-seeded Tomasello in the national semifinals. He then scored a 5-1 win over No. 4 seed Nick Suriano of Rutgers to win an NCAA title as a true freshman.
Not bad for a guy who was coming off a serious knee injury and for someone who wasn't pulled out of his redshirt until last January.
Lee instantly became a fan favorite in Iowa City with his wide-open, attacking style of wrestling and with his charismatic, magnetic personality.
Lee excelled last year despite wearing a bulky black brace on his leg for much of the season.
Spencer Lee wore a bulky black brace for most of his true freshman season (Photo/Mark Lundy, Lutte-Lens.com)
He still managed to score more points than any other wrestler at the NCAA tournament last March even though he was a true freshman.
Lee has developed a penchant for scoring the opening takedown early in the match before lighting up the scoreboard with a succession of turns from the top position.
He is lethal at tilting his opponents to their back and piling up near-fall points. He can end a match in the blink of an eye.
"That's the plan, right?" Lee said. "Just go out there and score points. The approach doesn't change. You go out there to dominate your opponent and score bonus points for your team."
Lee did exactly that during his most recent bout, delivering a big early spark to boost the No. 4 Hawkeyes to a 28-14 win over No. 16 Lehigh on Saturday night at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The top-ranked Lee powered past Lehigh's Luke Resnick 15-0 in the dual's first match at 125 pounds.
Lee started aggressively, scoring an early takedown before turning Resnick numerous times to win by a first-period technical fall. The home crowd of 7,434 fans stood and cheered as Lee put the match away.
"I'm the first guy, so I feel like it's my job to get the ball rolling," Lee said. "I need to score as many points as I can and get the team fired up. I feel like that's my job when my match is first."
Lee is now 5-0 this season.
"It's different this year because last year was my first year in college," Lee said. "I know what to expect now and it's not quite as nerve-wracking. I still get nervous for every match, but you have to be ready to go and ready to compete."
Lee's dynamic style of wrestling and his outgoing personality have also resonated with top prospects who are considering wrestling for the University of Iowa.
"What Spencer Lee accomplished last season, stepping into the lineup in the middle of the year, that's a pretty powerful recruiting tool," Iowa coach Tom Brands said. "The way he goes about his business, the way he leads by example, the way he competes and the humble nature that is his personality, he's become a terrific ambassador for our program.''
It also sets an example for current Iowa wrestlers. Brands encourages his athletes to "be like Lee."
"Spencer goes out and takes what he wants," Brands said. "He inspires guys by scoring a lot of points and turning those into bonus points."
Lee has his own individual goals, but he also has lofty aspirations for an Iowa program that is looking for its first NCAA team title since 2010.
"We're a team and we're a family, and we love each other," Lee said. "We all want to be national champs, and that's the goal. I feel like we're improving and getting closer to that."
Lee also is considered a top contender to make the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team in freestyle wrestling at 57 kilograms/125.5 pounds.
Past Hawkeye All-American Thomas Gilman has placed second and fifth at the World Championships the past two years at 57 kilos.
Lee owns three age-group world titles in freestyle wrestling. He won Cadet worlds in 2014 before winning Junior world titles in 2015 and 2016.
Spencer Lee with Terry Brands and Ben Berhow before his NCAA semifinal match (Photo/Mark Lundy, Lutte-Lens.com)
He took time off from competition after the 2018 NCAA tournament and did not compete internationally this past spring and summer.
"Obviously, I wanted to compete," Lee said. "But Tom and Terry Brands always know what is best for me and I trust them. So whatever they say, I am going to listen to them and hopefully it propels me to greater heights."
Lee would have the option of taking a redshirt or an Olympic redshirt during the 2019-20 college season to focus on international wrestling.
"Everyone's goal is to make the Olympic team," he said. "That's obviously one of the main reasons I came to the University of Iowa. We haven't really talked about an Olympic redshirt. When that time comes, I will talk to my coaches and I'm sure we will do what is best for me and what is best for the team."
Even with Iowa's rich wrestling history, the Hawkeyes have never had a four-time national champion.
The 20-year-old Lee has a long way to go, but it's not an unrealistic goal for the young Hawkeye star.
"Spencer's done a lot for our program and he's just getting started," Brands said. "His best wrestling is in front of him."
Craig Sesker has written about wrestling for more than three decades. He's covered three Olympic Games and is a two-time national wrestling writer of the year.