In typical Iowa wrestling fashion, Spencer Lee is already looking forward to the next phase of his competitive career.
“The only goal in my life has been the Olympics,” Lee, one of many college athletes nationwide who struck an NIL deal with Barstool, said during the 40-minute, wide-ranging interview. “Now I’m finally able to do it.”
Three weeks ago, Lee finished sixth at 125 pounds at the NCAA tournament after a stunning semifinal loss to Purdue’s Matt Ramos. Lee was one of six All-Americans for the Hawkeyes, who finished second overall behind Penn State.
Over the course of his interview with Barstool, Lee touched on many topics: his loss to Ramos, internal and external pressure, his future plans — which could include USA Wrestling’s U.S. Open, set for later this month — his mom’s viral reaction and more.
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Here were the highlights:
Spencer Lee on his semifinal loss to Purdue’s Matt Ramos: 'I got beat'
Lee talked extensively during the interview about his loss to Ramos. After falling into an early 4-0 hole, Lee rallied to lead 7-4 in the third period but gave up a late takedown and was ultimately pinned by Ramos in 6:59.
“I saw people say I lost because I was hurt,” Lee said. “That’s not true. I got beat. I hate when people try to make excuses for me when I got outwrestled and beat. They’re taking credit away from someone who deserves credit.
“Why not just go give love to Matt Ramos for beating me?” Lee continued. “The kid deserves the praise for making the NCAA finals. People are too busy finding ways to shove down people and not give him credit.”
Lee’s semifinal matchup against Ramos was their second meeting of the season. Back in a January dual meet, Ramos built an 8-1 lead after taking Lee down twice in the first period, but Lee quickly rallied and pinned Ramos before the end of the first period.
“He’s really explosive,” Lee said. “He’s funky. He’s pretty awkward, a little tall and strong. He kept binding my arms and stuff.
“I wasn’t very explosive (in the NCAA semifinals). I don’t know what was wrong with me. I just didn’t have any pop. I felt real slow.”
Lee later revealed the immediate moments after that match, after he and Iowa coaches Tom and Terry Brands walked back to their team camp underneath the BOK Center in Tulsa.
“I told Tom after I walked off the mat — my head was down, I was in disbelief — I looked at him and said, ‘At least I made history Tom,’” Lee recalled. “He goes, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘First guy ever going for four to lose, right?’
“He goes, ‘Come on, Spencer. Can’t say that’ … but I’m the only one.”
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On Cathy Lee's viral reaction on ESPN: 'She hurt more than anyone'
During Lee’s semifinal match, ESPN cameras were trained on Lee’s mom, Cathy. In the final moments, when Ramos ultimately prevailed, Cathy went from watching intently to immediate sadness to crushing her glasses to hugging Michelle Brands, Terry’s wife.
The video went viral almost instantly, with many different reactions. Lee saw them all.
“I didn’t really start hurting until that night, about the loss,” Lee said, “but my mom, I could see the emotion in her eyes. She hurt more than anyone. She knew how much I was going to hurt, so she felt that pain.
“What she said to me, she wanted to hit something, but she didn’t know what to do. She had her reader glasses on. They weren’t prescription or anything. They were like $5 readers, and she broke them because she needed to get anger out.”
“I felt for her,” Lee continued. “We’ve been doing this my whole life to reach a goal, and I haven’t reached a goal yet. We’re still working on it.”
His goals, to this point, have been to win four state titles and four NCAA titles, then eventually go on to win nine world titles and three Olympic golds. That’s where the “I haven’t reached a goal yet” comes from.
Lee said he was frustrated by some of the responses to the viral video of his mom, who was an Olympic alternate in judo.
“She knows how much I hurt and how I was going to feel that night,” Lee said. “She was feeling it. That hurt me a lot watching that, and then seeing the backlash she got — people don’t understand the sweat, blood, and tears my parents have put in to get me here.
“My mom is an Olympic-level athlete. She understands the pain of not reaching your goals. And she’s a mother first, who watched her son fail. I was a little disappointed in people making it a meme, or making her out to be a bad person because she was so passionate. That’s something I probably won’t ever forgive them for.”
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On choosing to medically forfeit out of the NCAA Championships: 'Maybe one day, I'll regret it'
The day after Lee’s loss, the Iowa wrestling program announced that Lee would medically forfeit from the remainder of the NCAA Championships. Rather than wrestling back for a chance to finish third, he defaulted to sixth place.
“It has been a long road of a recovery for Spencer Lee,” the program said in a statement.
Lee was inside the BOK Center for Session 5, on Saturday morning, to watch his teammates finish wrestling through the consolation semifinals and medal matches. All six of Iowa’s All-Americans finished sixth or better at their respective weights.
“I got called a quitter a lot, that I’m not a role model,” Lee said. “There was someone who said that they’re glad I did forfeit because now their son can see the difference between winners and quitters. Stuff like that.
“The thing is, maybe one day I’ll regret it. I don’t know. I don’t regret it now. I’m trying to get ready for what’s next. I’m not healthy. I’m trying to get healthy the best I can. I wrestled fine all year.
“But it’s hard to hear all that hate because I didn’t wrestle two more matches.”
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On internal and external pressure: 'I've always had eyes on me'
Lee finished his Iowa career as a three-time NCAA champ, four-time All-American, and two-time Hodge Trophy winner with a 98-6 career record. He is undoubtedly one of the most dynamic college wrestlers of his generation, if not all time.
The 24-year-old from Pennsylvania was the rare blue-chip prospect who lived up to, and perhaps even surpassed, most every expectation. Of his 98 career wins, he recorded 84 bonus-point wins — including 35 pins and 33 technical falls.
Lee said he has felt all kinds of pressure throughout his college career — much of which he finds a little outrageous.
“I’ve always had the scrutiny and eyes on me,” Lee said. “If I only won 8-0, people would be like, ‘What’s wrong with Spencer?’ I’ve always laughed.”
He continued: “People are expecting me to destroy everybody, and if I don’t, there’s something wrong. Like come on, guys. The other guy wants to win, too.”
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Spencer Lee's future plans: 'I plan on trying to compete at the U.S. Open'
Lee said he hopes to wrestle in USA Wrestling’s U.S. Open at the South Point Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. The men’s freestyle competition at the U.S. Open is scheduled for April 27-28.
“We’ll see,” Lee said. “We’re working on it. Need to be healthy, first of all … We haven’t fully decided if I’m going or not. But I’m planning on it.”
The registration deadline for the U.S. Open runs through this month. It is the first key competition that helps decide the 2023 U.S. Senior world teams.
Lee will compete at 57 kilograms (125 pounds), which means he would have to win the U.S. Open. Doing so would qualify him for Final X, the final stage in USA Wrestling’s world team trials process, which is set for June 10 at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
There, he would face Thomas Gilman, a 2022 world silver medalist, in a two-out-of-three wrestle-off for the world team spot.
Gilman, of course, is a former Hawkeye wrestler, a three-time All-American for Iowa, who now trains at the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club at Penn State. He and Lee both trained in Iowa City from 2017 through 2020.
“I think he wanted a change of scenery,” Lee said. “His wife is from Pennsylvania. I think there was just an opportunity that arose … we didn’t really wrestle each other that much. We have no beef. We don’t hate each other. It was always a respect thing.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at@codygoodwin.