USA TODAY High School Sports is publishing a series called “The Class of 17”, highlighting 17 members of the Class of 2017 whom we will be watching in the coming year. Here is No. 15 Franklin Regional (Murrysville, Pa.) wrestler Spencer Lee. The athletes were selected by the USA TODAY HSS staff.
Name: Spencer Lee
School: Franklin Regional (Murrysville, Pa.)
Weight class: 120 pounds
Spencer Lee is heading to the Summer Olympics. He won’t ever get on the wrestling mat to compete, but he could play a key role in pursuit of a gold medal for Team USA.
Lee, one of the nation’s top high school wrestlers, has been selected by United States freestyle wrestler Daniel Dennis as his training partner. Lee will warm up Dennis before matches and help him prepare during the tournament.
It’s a unique combination: Dennis, the 29-year-old who returned to wrestling in 2015 after a three-year retirement and had been living in a pickup trick, and Lee, the 16-year-old, three-time high school state champion and two-time junior world champion.
Of the 14 training partners selected by the U.S. Olympians for Rio, Lee is the lone high schooler.
Dennis and Lee met at training camp for the World Championships Team Trials in June 2015. Dennis finished second, signaling that he was back in the sport and became an instant contender for Rio.
A two-time All-American at Iowa, Dennis had retired after failing to make the 2012 Olympic team. He will wrestle in Rio in the 125.5 pound class (57 kilograms).
“He was big like 145 at the time and I was like 117,” Lee recalled. “He’s eating me up and I had no idea who he was. I called my dad and said, ‘Who’s Daniel Dennis?’ He said, ‘Don’t know, Spence.’
“He took a liking to me. He was really nice to me and he helped me a lot. I was doing everything I could to help him make the world team. We kept in touch.”
After Dennis made the Olympic team, Lee had texted him congratulations. He was sitting at home one night having dinner and his phone rang. It was Dennis, who asked him to come to Rio.
“If someone else makes the team maybe it’s not me,” Lee said.
Before leaving for Rio, Lee and Dennis spent time at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where USA Wrestling ran a simulated Olympic tournament to get the wrestlers acclimated to the schedule.
“He poses great challenges in all the areas I will see at Rio,” Dennis said. “I worked out with him last year at a world training camp and he helped me immensely.”
When Lee returns from Rio, he will return to the Olympic training center for a week to get ready for the UWW Junior World Championships in Macon, France.
If Dennis was looking for someone to push him, he made a great choice in Lee, considering the way that Lee pushes himself.
Lee began wrestling at age 8 and reached a national tournament. Lee says the expectation was that he would go 0-2, get into the challenge bracket and go from there. He ended up winning his first match so he couldn’t be in the challenge bracket, then his second. He became the No. 2 seed in the main draw and reached the finals in his first tournament. He lost, but that was his start.
“My dad said, ‘Let’s do this. You have potential to do this,, “ Lee said. “I told him, ‘I don’t want to lose again.’ That was my goal.”
And if you think that was the unrealistic musing of an 8-year-old, you don’t know Spencer Lee.
He has just two international losses in the last four years. Overall, he has lost just five matches in the last five years, four in eighth grade and one after his sophomore year. In that sophomore loss, he fell in the Cadet World Championship trials at 119 pounds when he agreed to wrestle up in weight, but then came back a week later to win the Junior World Championship trials at 110 pounds.
CLASS of 17: No. 17, Owen Lovell, baseball, Cullman (Ala.)
As a high school wrestler at Franklin Regional (Murrysville, Pa.), he’s 109-0 and a two-time American Family Insurance ALL-USA First Team selection. Barring injury, he will enter the year as the favorite to be named ALL-USA Wrestler of the Year. He doesn’t know what weight class he will wrestle in as a senior but said he is planning to lift weights to get bigger for college.
As he is asked about his performance in an interview, the details on the losses are more vivid than any of the victories.
“I remember the losses a lot more than the wins,” he said. “That’s how it should be. You get some payback and some drive for that.”
Lee wrestled just 12 times as a junior after suffering a torn labrum in his right shoulder last summer. Lee said he had shoulder pain but not to the point where he couldn’t wrestle during the World team trials last summer. Working with a wrestler who was 15 pounds heavier, the shoulder began to hurt more.
“I couldn’t finish practice,” he said. “I ran to bathroom and got some Advil thinking I can tough this out. But then I had to tell the coaches that I couldn’t really finish practice. I didn’t want to be a wuss. The next morning I could barely use my arm.”
Lee went to worlds and won the championship, but the shoulder was still hurting when he came home. An MRI showed the tear.
He essentially could have had surgery before worlds and likely been ready for the whole high school season or push through worlds, have the surgery and return in time for the high school postseason and state meet.
At the PIAA state meet, he posted three first-period pins and a 15-0 technical fall to reach the top of the podium.
“I usually don’t show a lot emotion and I don’t celebrate ever on the mat because it demeans your opponent,” Lee said. “After the state finals, I did it on the mat because of all the adversity I faced coming back from the injury — biking twice a day because I couldn’t run, trying to wrestle with my arm taped by my side.
“I wanted to come back and win a state title. It wouldn’t be the same going for three this year instead of trying to win your fourth.”
Especially in a wrestling-loving state like Pennsylvania.
“There are so many wrestlers that came out of this state before me and the four-time state champs that have gone to do great things,” he said. “There’s so much history. This has always been a great wrestling state and I’ve always been surrounded by such really good guys.”
But when it came time to college, Lee chose over Iowa over Penn State. He made his decision in April, he said, out of respect for both programs. Neither was as aggressively recruiting other wrestlers around Lee’s weight so he wanted to give the program he didn’t select a chance to pursue alternatives. The Iowa coaches will be in Rio with Team USA and also get a chance to spend time with Lee.
“I got some bad reactions,” Lee said of how some in Pennsylvania received his choice. “One guy tweeted me, ‘Congrats, you ruined my 6-year-old son’s day.’ It’s not really your 6-year-old’s decision where I go to college. I would love to make your 6-year-old’s day, but I really like Iowa. A lot of people said I’m a traitor.
“I will always be a Pennsylvania boy. I grew up here since I was 4 on. Whenever you look back at my history, and hopefully I’m there considered as a Pennsylvania great.”