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Spencer Lee, the untold story from Iowa Football Senior Day on Saturday

The Iowa Hawkeye football program was hit with adversity from the very start. After two weeks of play, the Hawkeyes found themselves at 0-2, having lost both contests – against Purdue and Northwestern respectively – by a combined total of five points. 

Although things looked bleak in Iowa City, the Hawks rallied to capture four rivalry trophies over six consecutive wins, including a dominant 28-7 win over Big Ten foe Wisconsin at Kinnick Stadium on Senior Day. 

“I’m pleased for our guys and proud of what they have done all season, not just the last six weeks” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said to following the victory. “Their hard work paid off and the big news is, we’re not done yet.”

Iowa (6-2) will welcome the Michigan Wolverines (2-4) to Kinnick for a 7 p.m. ET primetime matchup Saturday, December 19 on conference championship weekend baring a coronavirus cancellation. 

While the Black & Gold impressed on the gridiron Saturday, it was not the most noteworthy accomplishment by a Hawkeye student-athlete. That honor goes to Iowa wrestler Spencer Lee. Lee, a senior was presented the AAU James E. Sullivan Award on Saturday prior to the Iowa Football game at Kinnick Stadium.

The AAU Sullivan Award has been presented annually since 1930 to the most outstanding amateur athlete in the United States. Lee was named co-winner of the award in April with Oregon women’s basketball player Sabrina Ionescu. Wes Creason, National Chair for AAU Wrestling, will present Lee the award at approximately 1:30 p.m., roughly an hour before kickoff.

Lee is the fifth wrestler in the history of the award to be recognized. He joins Bruce Baumgartner, Rulon Gardner, John Smith and Kyle Snyder as past amateur wrestling award winners.

At just 5’3 and around 125-pound, Lee was likely the smallest Big Ten athlete at Kinnick, but he is certainly the most dominant athlete currently on campus at the University of Iowa. 

Prior to his arrival in Iowa City, Lee, a Murrysville, Pa. native was as heralded a prep grappler as there ever was succeeding in folkstyle and freestyle wrestling at not only the state level, but also the international level. Among his list of accolades achieved while at Pennsylvania powerhouse Franklin Regional High School: Four-time Pennsylvania state qualifier; Three-time Pennsylvania state champion (113, 120 x 2); No. 1 wrestler in the country for all four years of his prep career (113, 120 and 126); Cadet World Champion (50kg); Two-time Junior World Champion (50kg); Only world champion in school history.

Following arguably the most accomplished high school career in the tradition-rich state of Pennsylvania, Lee made an impact on the mat instantly for the Hawkeyes. 

After removing his redshirt, a month into his freshman season, Lee stormed to 22-2 record (going 8-0 in dual competition and 6-0 in Big Ten duals) en route to being crowned a NCAA champion, winning first career title at 125 pounds to earn All-America honors. Similarly, he performed his best on the biggest stage, scoring team bonus points in four of his five NCAA matches, which earned the freshman phenom USA Wrestling’s Athlete of the Week distinction. By placing third at Big Ten Championships, he was given Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors, which complemented his multiple additional awards given on behalf of various wrestling media outlets. 

As a sophomore, the wrestling world saw more of the same from the lightweight. On the way to achieving NCAA champion and All-America status at 125 pounds for the second consecutive season, Lee put together a 23-3 overall record, including a perfect 7-0 mark in Big Ten duals. He bested his Big Ten conference finish of third a year ago to finish second in 2019. And, yet again looked outstanding in the NCAA Championships, outscoring opponents 55-7 in five matches for the 125-pound title. 

While Lee’s junior season didn’t end with a third NCAA title (the 2020 NCAA Championship were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic) it almost certainly would have. In 2020 Lee put together the most complete season of his collegiate career. His efforts were downright Herculean and Lee was simply unstoppable. And, statistically speaking, Lee’s numbers were jaw dropping.  

The following is based on Lee’s 15 regular season matches and does not include his three bouts at the conference tournament (data collected by Richard Mann, InterMat Senior Writer). 

Points per minute.

Lee currently ranks first in match points scored per minute among Big Ten starters. He has scored 3.64 points per minute. No. 6 Devin Schroder (Purdue) currently ranks second in the category with only 1.72. The average among Big Ten starters is 1.15.

Points against per minute

Giving up 16 points over 15 matches, it’s obvious that Lee is elite defensively. Lee allowed five points in his season-opening match against Fabian Gutierrez (Chattanooga). Over the next 14 bouts, he allowed opponents to score just eight points total against him. Three of those points came in his major decision victory over No. 4 Nick Piccininni (Oklahoma State). In between the Gutirrez and Piccininni matches Lee pitched 10 shutouts — not allowing a single point tallied against him. This means that Lee has allowed his opponents to only score 0.26 points per minute. Comparatively, the average for a Big Ten starter is more than twice as high at 0.68.

Point differential

Since Lee far outpaces the conference in terms of both points per minute (more three times the conference average) and points against per minute (more than two times the conference average), it’s a given that he also has the best point differential on the year (match points scored per minute minus points against per minute). His +3.38 differential is more than seven times the average for a Big Ten starter (+0.47).

Average match length (without forfeits)

Lee has scored eight technical falls and three falls on the year. Only his three matches against Gutierrez, Piccininni and No. 17 Jack Medley (Michigan) have gone the distance — a full seven minutes. His quickest victory of the year came when he scored a 52-second fall over Christian Moody (Oklahoma) at the Midlands Championships. As a result, the average match for Lee has gone only 3:33. The next shortest average match time among starters is 5:45 (Schroder) and the average for a Big Ten starter is 6:10. 

Saved time (without forfeits)

Understandably, by 11 of his regular seasons matches ending early, without wrestling far into the final two periods, Lee has saved himself more than 48 minutes, roughly seven full matches worth of live action wrestling this season.

At the conference tournament, Lee finally became a 125-pound Big Ten champion. At Big Ten’s, he was a perfect 3-0. His victories included a first period fall, a 19-3 technical fall and a 16-2 major decision to claim his first Big Ten title. While COVID-19 took away Lee’s chance for a third consecutive national championship, 2020 was his most prolific year thus far. The Hawkeye finished the season 18-0, outscoring those opponents 234-18 on the year, which helped Lee become an All-American, a Big Ten Champion, and the top seed at the 2020 NCAA Championships. His dominance allowed Lee to take home significant hardware off the mat, including the Hodge Trophy (wrestling’s Heisman Trophy); James E. Sullivan Award; NCAA Most Dominant Wrestler; and Big Ten Wrestler of the Year. On the international circuit, Lee won the U.S. Senior Nationals to earn a spot at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials. At Senior Nationals, Lee was 5-0 and outscored opponents 52-8 during those contests.  

As the data shows, Lee has taken the mantra, “work smarter, not harder” to heart in 2020. While COVID-19 brought his season to an end prematurely, Spencer Lee’s 2020 is sure to go down as one of the most impressive in the history of the sport. 

However, in October 2020, the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to winter athletes due to the last season being cut short. In doing so, Lee has two years of eligibility remaining at Iowa. Thus, the rare feat of becoming just the fifth four-time NCAA champion the sport has ever seen remains possible. In fact, should Lee earn a third title in 2021, Lee will become just the 27th three-time NCAA champion. With a potential four-peat in his sights in 2022, he would be just the fifth collegiate wrestler to win four individual NCAA goal medals – and the first in the history of the Iowa program. 

So, whether you knew of Spencer Lee before this very moment or not, it isn’t too late to watch as Lee, who is currently the pound-for-pound top-ranked wrestler in the United States, looks to make NCAA and Olympic wrestling history in the years to come. 


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