Stuff of legends
Serious knee injury doesn't stop superman Lee
I listened to the interview, did a double take, stopped, played it back a few more times and tried to process what I’d heard. In fact, I still am.
What did Spencer Lee just say?
Moments after clinching a third consecutive national championship and further cementing his status as a modern-day NCAA wrestling demigod, Lee confessed. The worst-kept secret of the weekend was out: Iowa’s top-seeded 125-pounder had been dealing with an injury while competing in St. Louis.
It didn’t take a surgeon to see Lee was far from 100 percent. I know that sounds strange, given he reeled off five consecutive victories in his bracket like it was nothing by a combined point differential of 59-8. He’d beaten Drew Hildebrandt — who had just rallied past Fort Dodge’s Brody Teske — in the semifinals, 11-0. He controlled Brandon Courtney of Arizona State in the finals, 7-0.
Still, even to the untrained eye, something wasn’t quite right.
And that’s when Lee let loose in what has become a viral 42-second post-match video filled with frustration, vindication and a whole cluster of other emotions.
“Well, eight days ago I tore my ACL in my other knee. I’m wrestling with no ACLs,” Lee deadpanned. “And, you know…whatever man. I didn’t want to tell anyone, because (forget) excuses. Excuses are for wusses. And you know what, that was a tough tournament for me. I could barely wrestle. I could barely shoot. I can’t sprawl. But you know what? I believed in my coaching staff and everyone that believed in me, and here I am.”
Let’s delve into this ACL admission, because my mind is still racing. I’m sorting this out as a journalist, a fan, and a father getting older — and hopefully a little wiser — by the day.
As a reporter, Lee is giving me a wealth of information. The story writes itself. He’s admitting that after a devastating diagnosis — ACL tears usually require major surgery and at least six months of recovery time — he basically responded by rubbing some dirt on it. This isn’t normal. In fact, it’s borderline inconceivable. Especially given he also admitted in the same breath that his other ACL is also shot.
As a fan, all of this has me scrambling as well. I honestly believe Lee is arguably the best collegiate athlete, pound-for-pound, in the country. Regardless of sport. And he is skyrocketing up the all-time charts in the NCAA history books. Only four wrestlers ever have won four national titles. Lee, theoretically, could be in line to join the list. But to do so with such a debilitating injury? Or both knees?
Knowing that now, what exactly did we just witness? Historic.
I reached out to a handful of coaches, experts and fans who know a lot more about it than I do. I was reminded that Tyrel Todd from Michigan tore his ACL midway through his senior year in 2009 and still captured gold some three months later. North Dakota State defender and teammates Grant Olson and Jeremy Gordon played a football season together on torn ACLs a few years ago. While obviously never advised, Lee actually wasn’t doing something unprecedented — despite it sounding like an unthinkable juxtaposition at first blush.
The dad in me — the boring, overly-rational and cautious side — is really struggling with the long-term implications of something like this. I get it: Lee is living in the moment, not worried about what will happen months or years from now. He wanted to finish what he started and clinch that third title. He was also motivated to help deliver the Hawkeyes their first NCAA team championship in 11 years, which he did. And Lee is obviously so much better than the competition at 125 from a tactical point of view that he felt like he could break down his opponents mentally and strategically despite not necessarily being able to dominate them physically.
What does this mean beyond Saturday night, though? The Olympic Team Trials are later this spring. The Summer Olympics are in Tokyo this summer. And then it’s time to train for the 2021-22 season, which would be classified as Lee’s senior year.
In other words, there’s no time to slow down — or go through the long and grueling recovery time ACL surgery requires. Anything less than fixing the problem, however, would leave Lee vulnerable and a shell of his former self.
“I won three. Awesome. Good for me. We won the team title. Awesome. That’s what we came here to do,” Lee said on Saturday night. “This is what I wanted. This is what I’ve been training my whole life for. Now, worry about what’s next.”
For a guy at the top of the mountain, those decisions are about to come in fast-and-furious fashion. And it’s all the more reason to be frustrated that Lee — like fellow Hawkeye all-timer Luka Garza, national champion David Carr of Iowa State and so many others — can’t parlay this momentum and benefit from his own likeness while in Iowa City. Any financial reward for being an elite wrestler must wait until secures endorsement deals after his time as a Hawkeye, which seems like a tenuous concept at best moving forward.
I have no idea how this is all going to play out. None of us do. Lee has already gone through shoulder and knee surgeries in the past. Quite literally, he’s giving the sport everything he has. We should both appreciate and revel in the moment, because those short-term sacrifices could ultimately make Lee more of a supernova than a superstar down the road. Let’s hope everything works in Lee’s favor and his talents will be on display for years to come.
This should be the beginning of something very special, rather than famous last words.
Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. Contact him via email at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @ByEricPratt