Spencer Lee is a two-time Junior World champion wrestler and a Cadet champion who is considered one of the top pound-for-pound high school wrestlers in the nation. Lee, from Franklin Regional (Murrysville, Pa.) is a multiple American Family Insurance ALL-USA selection. A three-time state champion head to the University of Iowa, Lee lost for the first time in his high school career in the 126-pound PIAA final, losing 6-5 to Austin DeSanto of Exeter (Pa.). He wrestled the last few weeks with a torn ACL. Lee has agreed to share his thoughts on the injury, the aftermath and reaction he received after the loss and his plans for the future.
Q: When did you hurt the knee?
A: I injured my knee on Jan. 23, but didn’t know how serious it was until Feb. 4. That was when I was told I had a torn ACL.
Q: Why did you decide to keep competing?
A: When I was told it was a complete ACL tear, my dad told me to focus on the future and he didn’t want me to wrestle, but I didn’t want to quit. I didn’t want my season to end in a doctor’s office. My dad told me that there is courage and stupidity and that there is a big difference between injuries and stuff you wrestle through. He thought this was an injury and that I was being stupid and stubborn by wanting to wrestle. He told me I had nothing to prove and he asked me to let it go.
My dad called Coach Brands at the University of Iowa and spoke with him. Coach Brands told us that it was, first and foremost, a medical decision. If the doctor cleared me and if my family was on board with my wrestling and if I did wrestle, he wanted me to know that if anything bad happened to me that his support for me would not waver one bit. He told me and my dad to put any worry about the University of Iowa out of our minds. He told me that I was a member of the Hawkeye family and that nothing would change that. I thought that was pretty awesome.
With that in mind, I wanted to try. My dad told me before the finals at regionals, that this was crazy and I needed to walk away. I told him, if you think this is about my fourth state title, you’re wrong. That’s part of it, but not for the reasons you think. I told him, “If he made me quit, if he didn’t let me try, then I would have to live the rest of my life not knowing whether I could have pulled it off and whether I could find a way to win. I can’t live with that, but if you let me continue and I can’t find a way to win, I can better accept that. To not try is not who I am.” He told me at that moment, “OK, let’s do this,” and he didn’t question me again.
Q: What sort of rehab work were you doing in order to keep competing?
A: In order to protect my knee, I stopped wrestling after I hurt it on Jan. 23 and started biking. Once I knew I had a torn ACL, I didn’t step back on the mat to wrestle until sectionals on Feb. 25. From Jan. 23 to Feb. 25, I had not wrestled one time, so it was really scary walking out on the mat not knowing whether my knee was going to hold up. I really didn’t know what was going to happen, so I’ve never been so nervous before a match.
I got through sectionals fine and didn’t tweak it at all. I thought I had a chance of being able to make it through the season. But in my warmup at regionals before the finals, my knee went out again and I dropped right in the middle of the mat. Actually, it happened right in front of my finals opponent’s coaches. We took the brace off, cut the tape off and iced it, but again, I didn’t know what was going to happen in the finals that evening. I never really go for big throws, but I went for a throw at the beginning of my match in the finals and got it, so I was able to get the fall and advance.
Q: How did you handle states and the reaction you received?
A: It was tough. It was my choice to step on the mat and I did the best I could on that day and I wouldn’t change a thing or make a different decision. I’ve been told that I shouldn’t have wrestled and that I shouldn’t have taken the chance I did.
I disagree. Yes, I could have stepped aside and finished my career undefeated, but that’s not who I am nor more importantly who I want to become. I love this sport and I love it because it is hard and there is risk and I’m glad I took the risk I did. I wanted the chance to see if I could pull it off and I just didn’t get it done. Austin DeSanto wrestled a great match and I told him so. I’ve gotten to know Austin since that match and he’s a great kid. I like him a lot.
I made this comment in an interview one time earlier in my career after a loss and that is I will fall forward and not backwards and that’s my goal now. I will fall forward and I will be stronger and better for the loss. I know it’s not possible to be more motivated to get back on the mat than I am.
The crowd reaction was crazy. I’ve never been really booed before, so that was a new experience. I was wearing this huge knee brace and I reached down one time to pull it back up and the crowd went crazy booing and yelling, ‘He’s stalling.’ It was loud and crazy and I normally don’t hear the crowd, but I did during that match.
It was intense during the match, but it was intense after the match as well with people yelling at me and my family about my decision to leave the state and telling us I should have chosen Penn State. Some yelled that they were glad I lost and said, “We Are” as we walked by. That showed me a side of a crowd that was new to me. The crowd reaction in combination with the fact that I had just lost my first folkstyle match — in five years — since I wrestled in the high school division as an eighth grader made it a tough night.
Q: What’s the plan going forward?
A: At this point, I’m rehabbing my knee right now and it’s going great. I’m working with John Bonaroti four times a week at East Suburban Sports Medicine Center and I’m working hard on getting stronger with my upper body and I am so excited to get back on the mat and wrestle again.
Q: What memories do you have when you look back on your high school career now that it’s over?
A: My fondest memories from my high school career will be of my teammates. We had a great group of guys that all got along so well. As I said in a tweet I sent out after states, I love this sport because it will create the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. I had a lot of highs in my high school career that I will never forget, but the lowest of lows was sitting in the doctor’s office when I was told I had a torn ACL and I thought my high school wrestling career was over. That was devastating.
Q: What’s next?
A: I’m excited to take the next step in my life and I’m looking forward to attending the University of Iowa. It’s a great school with a super academic program and support system for a career in athletic administration. I really can’t imagine a better environment anywhere to realize all of my goals both on and off the mat. The coaches are supportive, positive and really pay attention to individual development. The team is a great group of guys and being able to wrestle for a program that has led the nation in attendance for the past 10 years gets me excited to wrestle in a college dual meet. I’m ready to finish high school, I graduate on June 2 and I’m moving to Iowa City a week later.
I want to thank the USA TODAY for asking to me have this blog. It’s been fun.